“Starting from space”: MITEI podcast interviews MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber

Kelley Travers MITEI

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, is responsible for research administration and policy at the Institute. She oversees MIT Lincoln Laboratory and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research laboratories and centers, as well as MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade. Zuber has held leadership roles associated with a dozen scientific experiments or instrumentation on ten NASA missions, most notably serving as principal investigator of the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. She is the first woman to lead a science department at MIT. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2021, President-elect Biden named her as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In 2013, President Obama appointed Zuber to the National Science Board; she was reappointed by President Trump in 2018. The following excerpts are from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) podcast episode “Starting from space,” during which Zuber spoke about her lifelong interest in space, her upbringing in coal country, and MIT as a testbed for climate solutions. The excerpts have been edited and arranged for a print format.

On growing up in coal country and looking to the stars…

[Carbon County, Pennsylvania] was a mining area—anthracite coal—and many of the people there worked in the mines. The mines were already starting to lay people off when I was small. One of my grandfathers died of black lung before I was born. My other grandfather lived with it. He would, many nights, sleep in his recliner because he couldn’t breathe if he laid down in bed. This really drove home, I think, the human side of people who work incredibly hard to provide the world with energy.

The skies were very dark at night, and I loved space as long as I can remember. I got interested in building telescopes and spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who quit school when he was in eighth grade to go work in the mines. I didn’t find out until after he died that he was able to keep a little bit of the money that he made in the mines and he bought himself a telescope. The story in my family is that there’s this recessive gene that causes some members of the family periodically to want to explore outer space. I spent lots and lots of nights in my back yard learning all about things that were in the sky. Really, there was never anything else that I ever wanted to do but study space. I never thought about working. I never thought about getting a job. All I thought about was exploring space. So, it all turned out all right.

On pursuing your dreams…

I have counseled a lot of students who have said, “I really would love to go to college and major in physics or astrophysics or something, but my parents think that I should go to medical school or study business.” The fact of the matter is that if you study what you like, there’s a much higher chance that you’re going to do really well in it. If you do well at whatever you decide to study, it really doesn’t close off options, it opens up options. There are just many pathways to doing what you want to do.

It could be you’ll never use anything specific that you studied in college; but the ability to learn how to think analytically, to solve problems, to write coherently, to communicate are all skills that you develop, that if you have them, really provide a pathway for you to develop yourself professionally and lead to really interesting opportunities.

On MIT’s climate action plans…

The first [2015 climate action] plan was motivated by a group of students who had made an appointment to go see [MIT President Reif] and told him that MIT should divest of fossil fuels. His point of view was, “I don’t know how many people think this. We should certainly think about what MIT should do and how MIT could make the biggest impact with respect to mitigating climate change. But we should find out what our entire community thinks, and everything can be on the table there.”

So, I convened a committee. It was a committee of students, faculty, staff, and postdocs, and they spent a year meeting. They wrote a report which we then released to the community. We got comments, but we also held events over the course of the year and took all of that input together and made a plan. The plan had five pillars to it—the science, the technology, our own campuses as a testbed, reaching out to the community, and climate education.

Then, after five years, we decided that it really made a lot of sense to revisit it. We convened another committee, led by Professor Paul Joskow, and they set up a half dozen Institute-wide symposia on different aspects of climate and clean energy. We had people from within the MIT community and external people coming in to discuss topics of interest and what we’ve learned and where things were headed in the future.

Then, over the course of the pandemic year, we did over two dozen convening exercises to get further input from the community. We had student convenings, we did topical convenings, we had convenings about our decisions to, rather than divest, engage with companies and work with them. We had two engagement forums—one was convened by MITEI, the other was convened by [the Environmental Solutions Initiative].

The outcome of that was no one thought that we should abandon any of the things that we were doing in the first climate action plan. Nobody says, “We know enough about climate science. We can just put that one to bed.” Quite the contrary. When we, five years later, looked at it, virtually everyone we talked to said that it is imperative that MIT step up its game. That, yes, we’re doing things, but CO2 continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, and we really need a full-out, all-of-Institute effort on this.

We looked at who was doing climate and clean energy research. For example, we found out that there was a lot more climate and energy research going on outside of MITEI than in MITEI. People who were taking the kind of research that they were doing and thinking, “How could I contribute to climate or sustainability?” We found that the interest had just grown. That really provided an opportunity for us to think bigger, and that’s what we hope that we’ve done in terms of a cohesive plan to get a lot of people involved.

A good example, I think, is the SESAME [Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment] program within MITEI, which is really looking at how do we decarbonize the energy sector. Really going in and looking at serious decarbonization scenarios. Let’s put the technology in there; let’s look at the efficiencies; let’s look at how much sunlight a place gets; let’s look at the level of maturity of battery technology. Then add in the economics to it: When do things become economically feasible? It turns out to be a very useful tool for planning how we’re going to really make that transition.

On new climate initiatives…

With regard to the Climate Action Plan, I think the two big new things that we started were a Grand Challenges program [and the Climate and Sustainability Consortium]. President Reif articulated the vision: “We need to take what we know, and we need to go as fast and as far as we can with what we know. But we don’t know enough. We need to, in parallel, be learning new science and feeding that new knowledge into technological discoveries, and then having that feed into policies that are necessary to decarbonize.”

For the Grand Challenges competition, we asked our community to give us their ideas. We had nearly 100 initial letters that were submitted. It was just extraordinary. Four hundred faculty were involved in some way, shape, or form. We’ve now down-selected to 28 finalists. Each of those finalists has been given $100K in order to develop their ideas. Each one of those finalists is being asked to, wherever appropriate, consider policy implications.

The Climate and Sustainability Consortium is looking at [non-energy] companies who are out at the cutting edge—they may have made commitments that they are going to decarbonize, or they’ve made these commitments and they don’t know how to do it, or they know how to start but they want to be first-movers. They are choosing companies in a range of sectors so that they are motivated to be collaborative as opposed to competitive. But really [it is about] hearing from industry about what they need and what it’s going to take to get there. Then the discoveries that are happening within MIT, getting them out to those companies so that they can deploy. Then these companies acting essentially as role models for other companies in their sector. That is our goal.

We’ve also made it quite clear that these companies within the Climate and Sustainability Consortium have access to researchers in MITEI, and we are hoping for additional collaboration. This is all about collaboration and getting the best ideas together so we can push things forward as fast as we can.

On MIT’s achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2026…

We dearly would love to [achieve this] without offsets. We don’t have the technology to do it; we don’t know how to do it; and no one else does either. But we’re going to get there as quickly as we can using offsets and not stop there. We’re on track from the first plan. We did things with our own campus. We went from steam to hot water, which reduced emissions. We also started a solar farm down in North Carolina, 650 acres, which actually caused a coal-fired power plant to be retired.

Then, of course, in parallel, we want to decarbonize the campus. We’re doing this at the same time that our researchers have ambitions for more energy-intensive machines. We opened the Nano building, which has big fans blowing, and still we reduced our emissions at least slightly. How do we keep the ambitions of Institute researchers moving forward as we’re trying to decarbonize? Part of what we’re doing is renovating our buildings. We’re now trying to electrify our vehicle fleet. We’re putting more charging stations on campus. We’ll be installing more solar cells. Also, the College of Computing has expressed an interest in working with us to—using AI—optimize energy usage in buildings.

On climate and the humanities…

The reception that we’ve gotten from the new Climate Action Plan has been just exceedingly positive from our community. I think the reason that we are where we are is because people look at the plan and everybody sees that there’s something in it for them.

In the humanities and social sciences, human behavior plays such an important role. We’re on this path to zero. All of us are going to have to live our lives a little bit differently than we did. We have certain routines, and we have certain comfort levels, and we’re not going to be able to do everything exactly the way we used to do it. The humanities and the social sciences can play a remarkably important role there.

The other thing that we heard a great deal from many parts of our community, [in terms of] where the humanities and social sciences can really play a role [in climate action], is lots of desire to help the developing world. We cannot solve this problem just for wealthy nations that can afford to use the newest gadgets. We have to find energy solutions that work, and they have to be the least expensive.

We also have to be concerned about equity, and we have to be concerned about justice. Individuals who are being displaced by rising seas and changes in agricultural conditions really dictate that poverty is a real risk there. It’s so important for us to look at the challenges that everybody is going to face and to make sure that we are developing solutions that are going to work for everybody. In the case of adaptation, since we’re already seeing the effects of climate change, we [need to] take into account the people who aren’t in a position to be at the table making the decisions. There needs to be representation at the table making sure that we understand the needs of everybody.

Listen to the full episode.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

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