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MIT Better World

Fellowship support gives MIT the capacity to retain its competitive edge in attracting the most talented, inventive, and diverse graduate students from around the world, offering remarkable young minds the confidence and freedom to chase big ideas in pursuit of a better world.

Elba Alonso-Monsalve
PhD Student in Theoretical Physics
Elba Alonso-Monsalve is fascinated by black holes. “We don’t know the laws of physics inside black holes,” she explains. “We can’t know what it’s like to jump into one until we find new, improved laws.”

In particular, Alonso-Monsalve is intrigued by a famous conundrum known as the “black hole information paradox,” which pits what is known about quantum mechanics against the theory of general relativity. The problem, she explains, is that while quantum information must last forever, it seems to vanish without a trace when black holes shrink and disappear by emitting radiation.

MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics is the ideal place to investigate such mystifying behavior, says Alonso-Monsalve, recipient of the Frances and Arthur Peskoff Physics Fellowship. “Having a fellowship is very helpful because I’m not restricted to the funding of a specific professor,” she says. “I’m really interested in interdisciplinary research, in how people can learn from each other.”

Alonso-Monsalve is enthusiastic about the possibilities for future discoveries at MIT, long regarded as a worldwide leader in physics research. “Because of MIT, I’m able to understand parts of the universe that are supposed to be out of reach for humans,” she says.

Christine Thielman

Alvin Harvey SM ’20
PhD Student, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
On the Navajo Nation reservation between Tse Bonito, New Mexico, and Fort Defiance, Arizona, where Alvin Harvey SM ’20 grew up, his grandmother didn’t have running water. “In a way it was almost like living on Mars,” Harvey recalls.

Today, Harvey’s understanding of the challenges of living with limited resources informs his main research interest: safeguarding the health of astronauts on space flights. Harvey, a licensed pilot who would like to become an astronaut himself someday, says he hopes the work he’s doing, which includes designing reduced gravity harnesses, will also have useful applications on Earth—in patient rehabilitation, for example.

He credits the MIT Summer Research Program and support from the Garriott Space Fund and other fellowship funding for making his graduate studies possible.

At MIT, he says, he has been given the opportunity to pursue space research while at the same time reflecting on his Indigenous cultural roots. Advocating for First Nation values and respect for the Earth to be extended to the moon and stars, he asks, “How can we make space sustainable?”

Mark Sullivan

R’mani Haulcy SM ’19
PhD Student, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Since childhood, R’mani Haulcy SM ’19 has been interested in Alzheimer’s, the neurodegenerative disease that begins with memory loss and progresses to dementia. “I don’t know that it is living life if you can’t remember anything,” she says, recalling the struggles of afflicted family members.

In the Spoken Language Systems Group within MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Haulcy uses machine learning to identify speech differences in people with cognitive impairments. Originally planning to work on self-driving cars, she shifted focus after taking a class on speech recognition from senior research scientist Jim Glass SM ’85, PhD ’88, now her advisor.

“There are themes in speech that we’re not able to hear, but models can pick up on them,” she explains, noting that machine learning can be used to distinguish one cognitive impairment from another, useful information for both clinicians and drug developers. Spotting Alzheimer’s at earlier stages may help researchers find methods to slow the disease’s progression—or someday prevent it.

A MathWorks Fellow, Haulcy is grateful that her fellowship allows her to concentrate exclusively on research. “Because of MIT, I’ve become aware of potential solutions that I never knew existed, and I believe in my ability to solve problems,” she says.

—Christine Thielman

Angeles Martinez Cuba
Master’s Student, Department of Urban Studies and Planning 
A native of Lima, Peru, who studied traditional architecture, Angeles Martinez Cuba shifted her focus to urban planning to work on providing people with equal access to basic services.

Having worked on education infrastructure for the government of Peru, Martinez Cuba is now investigating the relationship between public schools and their surrounding communities for her MIT thesis. “My hope is that in the future, schools become anchor spaces in which neighbors can assemble, develop a sense of community, hold social interactions, and carry out civic life through the shared use of school-community spaces,” she says.

The José Miguel Bejos Fellowship Fund helped bring her to MIT to pursue this work. “I feel beyond grateful for this funding,” she says. “The fellowship helped me have a clear mind from other economic concerns and take full advantage of MIT’s resources.”

One key MIT resource for Martinez Cuba is its diverse community. “I am thrilled by  the Department of Urban Studies and Planning’s vastly actionable vision and multi-angle approach to address social and urban challenges,” she says. “Because of my time at MIT, I have become even more passionate about social and sustainable development.”

Joelle Carson

Shivang Tayal MBA ’22
MBA Student, MIT Sloan School of Management
Shivang Tayal MBA ’22 started a grassroots campaign called Rakshak ki Raksha—Protecting Our Warriors—to assist frontline health care workers in rural India during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The MBA student, whose studies at MIT Sloan are supported by the Ivy Head Family Fellowship, credits MIT for encouraging him to focus his campaign where it would have the most impact. “Helping marginalized women in rural India figure out basic needs such as protective gear was something no one was focusing on,” says Tayal, who is from Hisar, India, 100 miles west of New Delhi.

After the first lockdown was declared in India in 2020, Tayal says Rakshak ki Raksha distributed kits containing sanitizers, gloves, masks, and face shields to as many as 13,000 health care workers across 900 towns and villages. During a second wave of Covid-19 earlier this year, he adds, the project delivered oximeters to 2,400 villages across India.

Most of the frontline workers protected were rural women, the auxiliary nurses and midwives who typically oversee public health and child welfare in Indian villages, and who led containment efforts there when the pandemic hit.

“We wanted to protect them,” Tayal says. “These health care workers put their lives at stake in a system that was not prepared for a deadly pandemic like this.”

—Mark Sullivan

Kartik Vira
PhD Student, Department of Economics
Kartik Vira became interested in economics during high school, when the financial crisis of 2008 illustrated to him just how much the discipline affects society.

“I think economics is an extremely powerful framework for understanding lots of different aspects of the way we organize society, whether that’s decisions on an individual level, political institutions, or businesses and markets,” he says. “I’m interested in behavioral economics in particular—introducing models with a more psychologically realistic approach to economics. I think that’s exciting because these models can help governments to design policies based on a better understanding of how we really make decisions.”

As Vira begins his doctoral studies, he is grateful that the Carl Shapiro Fellowship Fund brought him to MIT, where he has the chance to work with renowned faculty members such as Institute Professor and John Bates Clark medalist Daron Acemoğlu. “The faculty have really impactful research designed to improve outcomes for people around the world,” he says.

While starting at MIT during the pandemic was challenging, Vira says he found a welcoming community within the Department of Economics. “In my cohort, we have a really good sense of community and camaraderie,” he says. “I can see that MIT values that sense of community.”

Joelle Carson