Building a better world

From fuel cells to bamboo, and from Tanzania to Brazil, MIT senior Arfa Aijazi crosses borders and disciplines to make an impact.

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Arfa AijaziArfa Aijazi (center) demonstrated how to grind corn into flour with a hand-powered burr mill with Fareeha Safir '13 at a village outside of Arusha, Tanzania, in 2011. Photo: Arfa Aijazi

MIT senior Arfa Aijazi might say that her path to the Institute started with the yeast-powered fuel cell she made for a high-school science fair — a project that led her to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. “The fact that I could model a natural phenomenon using things I found around the house was really exciting” Aijazi says.

Or maybe it started before that, when a routine frog dissection in ninth-grade biology class took an unexpected turn, and Aijazi found out what a pregnant frog looks like on the inside. “You don’t always get what you expect,” Aijazi says. “That uncertainty and sense of discovery with science” fascinated her.

Or perhaps it started years earlier, when Aijazi — now a materials science and engineering major and an applied international studies minor — peered through a microscope in her father’s pathology lab and tried on his much-too-large lab coat.

In any case, when Aijazi was accepted to MIT, in her words: “That was it. I didn’t need to apply anywhere else.”

New people and places

But Aijazi, who hails from northern Virginia, didn’t feel completely at home right away. Now vice president of MIT’s Muslim Students’ Association, she says the group helped her adjust and has been an important part of her time at the Institute. “When you come from a Muslim upbringing, there are a lot of social things that aren’t in sync with the stereotypical college social scene,” she explains. “I think coming to college and finding Muslim friends really helped me adjust to being away from home and being at MIT.”

Not only has she adjusted, Aijazi has taken full advantage of MIT’s opportunities. Since she first walked through the doors of the Institute, Aijazi has done research on polymeric molecules in varying magnetic fields, materials for fuel-cell cathodes, and most recently, bamboo as a structural material. She has studied and conducted research at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, traveled to Tanzania to develop a hand-powered grain mill, and helped improve housing in Brazilian slums. And between her adventures abroad and in the lab, Aijazi has pursued her love of photography at MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, where she has also written for the campus life section.

Aijazi says her first two research experiences taught her a lot, but a course through MIT’s D-Lab convinced her to turn toward low-cost innovations for impoverished and underserved populations. “I wanted to do something that had a more direct impact on improving someone’s standard of living,” she says.

She got the chance to connect face to face with the people she hoped to help on a D-Lab trip to Tanzania during her sophomore year. Her team worked on a hand-powered grain mill to grind corn kernels into flour, a crucial component of the local diet. “I saw firsthand the distance people have to travel in order to have their flour milled, and how hard it is to crush the corn by hand,” Aijazi says.

The group visited a rural village, where they were invited to join a weekly meeting to present their ideas to the villagers and their chief. In the middle of the circle of villagers, Aijazi introduced herself in their native language, Swahili. “We had all learned a little bit of Swahili, but for some reason I felt like I was bold enough to practice,” she laughs.

“They were so excited that we were doing something that was meaningful to their lives,” she says. “It was really touching to see how interested they were in our work.”

The bamboo solution

When she returned to school, Aijazi found a way to combine her materials science interests with her desire to help underserved populations: researching bamboo with Lorna Gibson, the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

“One of the main applications of bamboo is as a structural material, particularly in developing countries where there are huge problems with urbanization and poverty,” Aijazi explains. “Bamboo is seen as a … construction material that could potentially alleviate these problems, because it grows quickly, is inexpensive, and is readily available in many countries where they have housing shortages, like India, Brazil and China.”

A bamboo culm, or stem, is composed of strong fibers embedded in a foam-like matrix. The fibers have more desirable mechanical properties than the matrix, Aijazi says. “If you use bamboo in its natural form, you are getting a mixture of both material properties,” she explains. “But by extracting the bamboo fibers and gluing them together with an epoxy or adhesive, as is done with plywood, the engineered composite can be lighter, more durable, and up to 2.5 times stronger than the raw culm.”

As it turns out, all bamboos are not all alike. Aijazi investigated different types of bamboo fiber composites while participating in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s exchange program in England last spring, where she took classes at Oxford and did bamboo research at Cambridge. She found that although many people were making bamboo composites, most were not reporting variables such as bamboo species and age — so the properties of their composites varied greatly. “I was trying to determine if there was any correlation between the composites’ mechanical properties and the volume percent of fiber, the type of glue or epoxy, or the bamboo species used,” Aijazi says. Though her findings were inconclusive, Aijazi noted that better documentation could help nail down what is causing the “huge spread in mechanical properties” of bamboo composites.

Architect of the future

While she was at Cambridge, Aijazi joined a student group called the Eco-House Initiative, a joint engineering and architecture project that partners with Techo, a Latin American organization, to improve housing in impoverished areas. The students evaluated Techo’s design for a temporary shelter, giving feedback on its structure, heating, ventilation, electrical wiring and durability.

Last summer, MIT’s Public Service Center funded Aijazi’s travel to Brazil to implement some of the Eco-House Initiative’s design ideas. In the slums of Brazil, Aijazi saw how tricky development work can be: One project worker explained that recipients of new permanent houses would sell them for a profit and go back to living in the slum. “You can’t just design in isolation,” Aijazi says. “You have to really be attuned to the social context of where you’re working.”

Inspired in part by her work with housing in Brazil, Aijazi is currently applying for jobs where she might be able to work to reduce the environmental impact of buildings — since, she says, about 40 percent of carbon emissions come from the built environment. “Buildings were designed for aesthetics and function and not necessarily for minimizing their environmental impact,” Aijazi says. “It’s something that I don’t think people really think about; we put a lot of focus on transportation and cleaner energy for cars.”

Energy, development, architecture, materials science: Aijazi’s interests are many and varied. But if she’s learned one thing from MIT, she says, it’s that they’re not as scattered as they seem.

“There are so many different things you can pursue, and then eventually you realize that all these divisions are arbitrary,” she says. “They all come together in the end.”