Danielle Wood ’05, SM ’08, PhD ’12 is the Media Lab’s newest assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences. She will officially start working at the lab on Jan. 16, 2018, to establish a new research group, called Space Enabled. Her mission is to advance justice and development in Earth's complex systems using designs enabled by space.
“Let’s keep striving for the ideal that space really is for the benefit of all humankind,” Wood said at a Media Lab event in March when she took part in a panel discussion about the future of space research. A scholar of societal development with a background that includes satellite design, systems engineering, and technology policy for the U.S. and emerging nations, Wood added that “space research is just a link in a bigger chain, part of a broad system of technology and art and science and design.” Her passion, she said, has been in designing satellite systems that serve societal needs while integrating new technology.
Growing up in Orlando, where she frequently witnessed space shuttle launches, Wood was inspired by how NASA teams came together to achieve such precise and challenging missions. But she also wanted to find opportunities to serve people directly in her career. Ultimately, that combination of interests led her to study aerospace engineering, policy, and international development. As a doctoral student at MIT, Wood traveled to 15 countries over 10 months as part of in-depth research on new satellite programs in Africa and Asia. The study explained how governments can harness international collaboration to foster domestic capability building and national development.
“Danielle ties space, development, and earth sciences together in a unique and impactful, Media Lab-like way,” says Media Lab Director Joi Ito. He adds that she “fits perfectly into our community like the puzzle piece you’ve been looking for forever.”
Research priorities and plans
In setting up the new group, Space Enabled, Wood plans to reduce barriers to applying space technology for societal benefit. Her research pursues a four-fold cycle that includes observation, explanation, co-design, and evaluation of complex systems that deliver public sector services, using methods from engineering and social science. “I am particularly interested in areas such as environment, health care, education, and law enforcement,” Wood explains. “These public service systems foster justice and societal development when they provide equitable access and high-quality service to consumers across the socioeconomic spectrum.” To that end, her group will partner with communities in the U.S. and abroad on long-term projects to implement new designs enabled by capabilities from space, such as satellite-based earth observation.
Wood’s group will include researchers and staff who bring together “multiple, seemingly unrelated interests. Some of the skill sets relevant to the projects I plan to pursue include engineering, design, technology policy, law, social science, geography, earth science, public health, history, art, and data analytics.” The Space Enabled team will not work in isolation: Wood says she expects to collaborate with other research groups at the Media Lab and also contribute to its Space Exploration initiative.
Currently, Wood serves as the applied sciences manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she focuses on using earth science findings for societal applications, such as food security and water resource management. Previously, she served as special assistant and advisor to NASA’s deputy administrator, and prior to NASA, she worked at the Aerospace Corporation, Johns Hopkins University, and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.
MIT roots and inspiration
At MIT, Wood earned a PhD in systems engineering, a master's in aerospace engineering, a master's in technology policy, and a bachelor's in aerospace engineering. At the Media Lab’s “Beyond the Cradle” event in March, Wood said that during her time at the Institute she was inspired by the expansion of space activity around the world and the potential uses of data captured by satellites. “But the question then becomes, how does the average person take advantage of that information? I look forward to co-designing solutions with communities to empower them to use space to make their own lives better. This is important in areas like food security, disaster response, and monitoring the spread of diseases influenced by environmental factors.”
During her time at MIT, Wood was awarded five fellowships, not only from MIT but also from the National Science Foundation, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate program, and NASA’s Harriett G. Jenkins Predoctoral Fellowship Program.
Wood’s work has drawn widespread recognition. She has won grants from the Future Space Leaders Foundation (2016) and the National Science Foundation (2013), and she’s received awards from many organizations, including the Global Competitiveness Conference (2015), the International Astronautical Federation (2012) and NASA (2010). Wood has presented her research through many scholarly publications, conferences, and invited talks across Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America.
Wood says she’s excited to return to MIT with a new perspective shaped by her professional path thus far. “I have worked in government, academia, and the private sector, which gives me an understanding of how each community functions. This experience will help me build strong teams in my future research at the Media Lab.”