Inside the Mind (and Heart) of the Societal Engineer

in NEWS, Spotlight Student, Students

Mackenzie Hall joined the BU chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in her freshman year, a decision that changed the course of her academic career.

A Big Idea Turns 10

“I don’t think there are any engineering students at BU who aren’t Societal Engineers,” says Nicole Enos (CE, BME ’19).

Her sentiment is shared by many students in the College of Engineering. Because being a Societal Engineer isn’t defined by specific attributes listed on a résumé, they must pave their own path to discover how they exemplify the concept.

“It manifests differently for everyone, but a big part of being a Societal Engineer is reaching outside of engineering and bringing people in, embracing this intersectional, interdisciplinary view of how engineers fit into the world, and realizing that engineering doesn’t exist without all the other fields,” Enos explains. “It’s also searching to do good, and to have that positive impact on the world through what you’re learning and what you do beyond BU.”

In 2008, after two years on the job, Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen reorganized the College of Engineering to allow for more flexibility in interdisciplinary training and research, and used that reorganization as a way to modernize the strategic vision and establish the concept of creating the Societal Engineer.

Two pillars support the concept: advancing quality of life and moving society forward. At its core, the Societal Engineer is someone who uses an engineering education to build a better world through teamwork and innovation. The term “Boston University: Creating the Societal Engineer” was granted a trademark by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2012.

In the decade since Lutchen introduced this idea to the college, students have embraced and demonstrated the ideals of the Societal Engineer through their academic, extracurricular and professional careers.

THE EARLY ENTHUSIAST

Mackenzie Hall (BME’20) is one of those students. She became aware of the college’s societal engineering push before matriculating, and it was one of the reasons she picked BU for her education.

“I connected with the idea of the Societal Engineer,” Hall says. “To me, it means staying in touch with the effects of your engineering work, and how your projects can be integrated into the community they were designed for.”

Hall joined the BU chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in her freshman year, a decision that changed the course of her academic career; EWB faculty advisor Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) inspired Hall by his work developing solutions for public health problems in low-resource areas.

“That was my first exposure in applying engineering to situations that aren’t super high tech,” she notes. “EWB develops engineering solutions based on the available resources—or, as my dad would call it, ‘Mac-Gyvering.’”

Hall has been technical lead at EWB for two years. One of her duties is to make brochures and posters that disseminate the message of the organization and the work the BU chapter is doing; these printed materials are then distributed to the chapter’s international partner communities to help locals understand the purpose of EWB projects and how to use them. Hall wanted to get even more involved and inquired about working in the Zaman lab, where she’s been performing research since May 2018 and plans to continue until she graduates.

“The Zaman lab is a natural extension of EWB,” she says. “His work here and in EWB is about understanding the society we are trying to solve a problem in, and taking those real-world constraints into account when building a device or developing a process.”

Hall works on a Zaman lab project called PharmaChk, a large-briefcase-sized device that can test the quality of drugs in low-resource areas, such as developing countries. The device is user friendly and portable, making it ideal to test drugs in places— including Africa, Latin America and Asia, where the World Health Organization estimates that 30 to 50 percent of drug sales are of poor quality—where issues like breakdowns in the supply chain, substandard storage and counterfeit drugs are common.

In addition to misleading patients into thinking they will get better, these faulty, or sometimes fake, medicines facilitate the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens. And in the absence of proper storage and transportation facilities, drugs that initially pass quality testing may deteriorate before they reach the consumer.

To test a drug’s quality, PharmaChk measures the level of a medicine’s active ingredient. This means that each test is specific to the drug being examined and new assays must be developed for each drug they want to analyze, which is what Hall does. She’s especially proud of developing the framework for one of the assays she’s now working on for a tuberculosis drug.

And Hall is just one of the many undergraduates working in research laboratories in the College of Engineering.

THE ENTREPRENEUR

Pablo Ferreyra (EE’19) began his three-year-plus stint in Professor Anna Swan’s (ECE, Physics, MSE) lab before he matriculated as a freshman.

Pablo Ferreyra (center) and Soon Hong (left) cofounded Verto, a safe, convenient platform for students to resell their posessions. After spending a summer developing it in the BU Innovation Lab, they hired marketing manager Christina Soong (right) when their business began to grow.

Coming from a family of electrical engineers, he understood early on the wide impact engineering can have through tools that are built to solve problems. Growing up in Brookline, he was also familiar with BU from a young age—his mother completed her master’s degree at Metropolitan College and he spent time in the BU children’s care center while she was in class. “BU was always part of my community and always on the top of my list when I started looking at colleges,” he says.

Ferreyra is a Trustee Scholar—one of about 20 students in each class who receive the full scholarship—and has certainly lived up to the potential the University recognized when admitting him into that program. In addition to his work in the Swan lab, he has been part of the winning team of multiple local hackathons, is cofounder and chief executive officer of a company that won a spot in Boston University’s Innovation Lab (BUild) summer accelerator program, and now serves on BUild’s student leadership council.

He pursued a research position in Swan’s laboratory after meeting with her (she was then his freshman-year advisor) during orientation, and completed a summer of work before his first day of classes. But at the beginning of last summer, Ferreyra had to leave his lab work to dedicate all of his free time to a company he cofounded, called Verto, established after the founders conducted hundreds of interviews with students about why, instead of selling their used furniture or other possessions when they moved, they would leave them on the street (a particularly noticeable occurrence when a majority of the apartments in the area turn over in September).

“We interviewed over 300 students and quickly noticed a repetitive narrative: students didn’t feel safe using platforms like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. We heard of a lot of creepy, awkward, stressful and sometimes unsafe situations during the in-person pick up,” he says. “What makes us different from these other platforms is our core emphasis on student safety.”

From their interviews, Ferreyra and cofounder Soon Hong (CE) discovered that students’ three main concerns were safety, payment methods and convenience; the company addressed safety concerns by requiring all Verto users to have a verified “.edu” email address. Verto is also integrated with courier delivery service Postmates and payment processing platform Stripe.

Postmates allows a user to get a product delivered the same day they buy it, and they can track delivery status in real time through Verto. Stripe gets rid of the need for cash—another inconvenience that drove students away from other secondhand selling platforms.

“Even if you do decide to meet up with your vendor, all you have to do is just pick up the product,” Ferreyra explains. “We really wanted to create a platform that prioritizes the students’ safety and comfort, and also their time. Students are really busy, so we need to make an application that surrounded their lives.”

“We went through the summer accelerator at the BUild Lab, which is an amazing program,” he continues. “They put us in touch with a lot of great mentors—we were pretty confident that we were able to build the application, but there’s a lot more to a business than just the engineering.”

He says that the program helped them define their customer segment and how they were going to enter the market, and introduced them to the free law clinics on campus that helped them with incorporation, shareholder agreements, privacy policy and more.

“It was thanks to all that preparation that we were able to have such a successful pilot here at BU,” says Ferreyra.

He also notes that the concept of being a Societal Engineer became much clearer to him as he began to work on Verto.

“The whole idea with Verto is to make a change for the better, both for the environment, but also for the user,” he says. “Being a Societal Engineer is about figuring out problems in our community and problems that we see in our day-to-day lives and then building cool technology and solutions to solve those problems.”

THE ENVIRONMENTALIST

That is how Maura Appleberry (ME’19) arrived at where she is now.

After learning about the lack of solutions for wind energy storage as a high school student, Maura Appleberry decided to focus her education and research on developing better batteries for all types of renewable storage.

“I was just driving through Northern Indiana with my dad on a family vacation and saw all the wind turbines,” Appleberry, then a high school junior, recalls. “I thought, this is so great, I want to be involved in this. But my dad pointed out that there’s no way to store that wind energy.”

Now a senior majoring in mechanical engineering with a concentration in energy technologies, Appleberry says she took it upon herself after that trip to delve into the renewable energy storage field.

The Louisville, Kentucky, native started doing research at the University of Louisville in chemical engineering—which was also the major she first declared before transferring to BU for her second semester of freshman year.

“I wanted a place that had a broader perspective on engineering, as well as influence locally and internationally,” she says. “That was really important to me and the main reason I chose BU.”

Appleberry lived in the South Campus Earth House, where undergraduates learn how their everyday actions have an environmental impact and how those practices can be made more sustainable. Faculty from sustainability@BU, the College of Arts & Sciences and the Pardee School of Global Studies teach seminars and guide projects like implementing solar energy into the Earth House.

“We talked about sustainability from a local perspective,” she says. “One of the professors, Dennis Carlberg, hired me to do data analysis on the energy usage in buildings for a project they were working on that turned into the BU Climate Action Plan. It was really cool to see my data analysis turn into this whole initiative to completely redo BU’s energy usage and fuel a lot of their projects.”

While living in the Earth House, she and another student worked on putting up solar panels and making a business case for them on South Campus. But because the older buildings couldn’t be fitted with the panels, an alternative plan was developed.

“What BU decided to do instead was buy their renewables from places offsite, buy enough to subsidize our energy needs, and then count that as our renewable energy in an effort to go 100 percent solar by 2020,” she explains.

Appleberry says there’s a new kind of solar cell in development that is translucent, similar to how a piece of laminate feels. Those organic solar cells are light and could be put on the sides of buildings, solving one of the stopgaps in solar panel adoption many cities like Boston experience.

These are the types of problems that Appleberry wants to solve. She says that during her study abroad program junior year in Sydney, Australia, she got closer to her idea of the Societal Engineer.

“As I’ve grown into BU, I realized this was really a focus of mine,” she says. “How can I integrate problem solving in my own life, and through all of my engineering endeavors? But also, how can I use what I’ve learned when looking at a problem and expand that in many different ways?”

While studying in Australia, she also took on a research assistant position at the University of Sydney, which solidified her interest in energy storage and battery technology.

Appleberry’s three internships, all with companies seeking to improve solar energy storage methods, have exposed her to the commercial side of renewable energy. She has worked on modeling and product engineering teams for new types of batteries and also on the business end of engineering, integrating workflow management tools into engineering groups and building market research tools for solar energy teams.

She’s currently taking an international relations course, global resource geopolitics, which has helped her see energy from an entirely different perspective. By examining energy as a resource, the class opens the conversation up to discuss the political economy of resources through the lens of conflict, security, populations and development.

“If my life goal is to be involved in energy storage and batteries, I need to understand where it’s coming from,” she says. “That’s the idea of the broader picture and understanding the entire chain of the engineering problem.”

THE TEAM PLAYER

Mohammed Uddin (CE’19) loves to solve problems. Excelling in math and science since childhood, he always enjoyed the tangibility of coming up with an answer to a question, which turned into a love of engineering.

A computer engineer by training, Mohammed Uddin expanded the scope of his education by joining a synthetic biology team competition last summer.

Uddin says that realizing his ultimate ambition of becoming a professor is far off. First, he’d like to find a position working in consulting or software development before going back to graduate school and finding his place in academia.

“I think communication is integral to the success of any project or venture, and I want to continue learning how to be an effective communicator, collaborate and broaden my reach to fields outside engineering,” he says. “I want to be able to collaborate and talk to people with varied experiences because that’s how problems are solved.”

He’s also exploring opportunities at BU that are outside of his current expertise. As a student in Associate Professor Douglas Densmore’s (ECE, BME) class, he learned about the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition—iGEM holds an annual challenge for engineering students to build synthetic biology projects, and Densmore advises BU’s iGEM chapter.

Uddin says his team was only able to successfully complete the project because of their diverse skill set.

“It was interesting to see all the different disciplines come together,” he notes. “Mechanical engineering to build the platform, electrical engineering for the circuitry and then, of course, biomedical is demonstrated throughout the entire system. Then, we had to do a lot of backend coding in order to sync everything.”

He sees a Societal Engineer as someone who understands their own value as well as recognizes what others bring to the table.

“Sometimes I think people can devalue software engineers—they believe that sitting behind a desk all day writing code isn’t contributing to society in any way,” he says.

But he thinks about it from a different perspective.

“I don’t have to make the big impact myself,” he says. “If I can make small improvements on a program that could help people now, those small strides contribute down the line—that is solving the big problems by working with others.”

Many of the classes ENG students take are project-based, and Uddin believes the main goal is to develop a solution to a problem that no one has tackled before.

“You have a certain set of skills, or a toolbox,” he says. “You have to identify what tools you have and what’s possible, and then attack this problem from all angles and come up with a solution. I might not have all the solutions, but someone else might.”

He views conversations with engineers of other disciplines as essential—computer engineering doesn’t exist without the actual machine to run the program he built. By combining toolboxes, they would be able to tackle a problem more effectively.

“What drives me to be an engineer is that there are all these real-world problems—like the wildfires in California,” he says. “How do we solve that huge problem? It’s not only engineering, but a combination of engineering, environmental policy and more.”

“I think that’s what being a Societal Engineer is,” he concludes. “Working with others by collaborating, and bringing different aspects of different disciplines and fields together, and culminating to the solution that helps everyone.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of ENGineer magazine.