Every year, MIT senior Marisa Simmons bakes a 10-layer cake from scratch for her dorm. Her first attempt, as a freshman, toppled sideways, but Simmons has since engineered a structurally sound pastry. Her secret? “Pepperidge Farm pirouette cookies are actually very good reinforcement,” Simmons divulges.
A civil engineering major from South Pasadena, Calif., Simmons calls the International Development House (iHouse) home while she’s at MIT. Simmons and the 20 other undergraduates in iHouse come from all over the world, but they’re united in their passion for international development.
“Some people do human rights projects, some people do education, others do health projects,” Simmons says. Her own interests lie in infrastructure like roadways and water supply — the large-scale systems that connect people and their basic needs.
The plunge into development
When she first entered the Institute nearly four years ago, Simmons knew she wanted to be a civil engineer. She had enjoyed math ever since her grandmother taught her arithmetic through casino games (“You have to learn multiplication really quickly if you’re the craps dealer,” she notes), and she discovered a love of structural design through a summer research program at state universities in her native California. Simmons also valued community service, but she was getting tired of packing and shipping boxes of supplies with her high school service group: She wanted to do more.
As a freshman, Simmons jumped right into MIT’s chapter of the national organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which was working to improve water quality and access for a community in Uganda. Older students in EWB taught her the basics of hydrology and structural design; the summer after her freshman year, Simmons traveled with the group to the Ugandan village — her first time outside the United States — where she lived for five weeks with a host family. In Uganda, she experienced firsthand the lack of something that many in the developed world take for granted: clean water flowing from an indoor tap.
“To get water, we would have to walk a mile with 40 liters,” Simmons recounts. “It was really humbling, because you would see these 5-year-old kids carrying water, and I couldn’t even do it.”
Working with the community, EWB designed a new model of rainwater storage. “Our system is unique in that a large rainwater tank is shared by the five or six surrounding houses,” Simmons explains. “I was really worried the sharing was not going to work, but it did. In the West we think, ‘my sink, my house’ — but there, their alternative is one pond, and it’s not someone’s pond, it’s everyone’s pond.”
Access to water was one challenge; access to clean water was another. The biggest challenge there, though, was not purifying the water; it was convincing people to do so.
Solar water disinfection — also known as SODIS — is cheap, easy and recommended by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Red Cross. How does it work? “You take your clear plastic bottle of water and you put it in the sun for six hours, and that purifies your water,” Simmons says.
“Yeah, it really works,” Simmons says, smiling. “That’s what everyone said — they thought I was crazy in the village at first. People say, ‘That’s so simple, it couldn’t work.’”
Studies have shown that the sun’s ultraviolet rays kill all the bacteria in the water, but the villagers were skeptical. They accepted cupfuls of chlorine to disinfect their water, but it wasn’t until Simmons used SODIS for weeks without getting sick that a few started to adopt the system.
Living as part of the village that summer raised the stakes for Simmons. “It’s not nameless people anymore,” she says. Simmons doesn’t think much about what EWB has accomplished so far in Uganda; rather, she focuses on how much remains to be done. “There are so many other people even within that one community who need the project,” she says.
Simmons led the team in Uganda for the two years following that first visit, and continues to advise EWB as a mentor. She also worked on water quality in Rwanda with D-Lab for a month during her sophomore year; last summer she worked for the World Food Programme’s office in Italy, helping coordinate construction and infrastructure projects.
In the rest of her time, Simmons pursues another of her passions: sustainable design.
Grass for roofs, fiber for steel
Simmons remembers the jungles of the Yucatán peninsula, in southern Mexico, as “hot, humid and beautiful.” The heat and humidity were something to consider as she helped design a new biology lab for the Universidad Anahuac Mayab the summer after her sophomore year — a design that included sustainable design elements, such as a “green roof” planted with grass.
Back at MIT, Simmons tests concrete designs that include natural fibers like sisal, hemp and jute in the Building Technology Lab with John Fernandez, an associate professor of architecture, building technology and engineering systems. The fibers can actually act as a substitute for steel, often used as reinforcement in concrete.
“Natural fibers aren’t as energy-intensive to make,” Simmons explains. The design is also a form of carbon sequestration, she says: “The carbon in the plant that might otherwise be burned, for example, is being tucked away.”
Simmons, Fernandez and their colleagues have shown that concrete is stronger with fibers than without, but they still need to test different mixes. “One form is where the fibers are cut up and mixed throughout the concrete,” Simmons says. “We’ve also tried to imitate rebar, but with fiber ropes. So your steel bar is replaced with a sisal rope, for example.”
Simmons hopes the research could be used in developing countries, where steel reinforcement is prohibitively expensive.
After her graduation from MIT in June, Simmons plans to pursue a master’s degree in project or construction management, and she hopes to eventually use her engineering and management skills to continue doing the work she loves: improving infrastructure to improve lives.