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Moving forward

PhD student Niaja Farve combines research, entrepreneurship, outreach, and indefatigable drive.
Niaja Farve
Niaja Farve
Photo: Allegra Boverman
Niaja Farve teaches a course on basic circuit principles at Boston Renaissance Charter School.
Niaja Farve teaches a course on basic circuit principles at Boston Renaissance Charter School.
Courtesy of Niaja Farve

For young Niaja Farve, one thing was certain: She was going to college, whether she liked it or not.

She grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., with her mother, who made it clear that Farve would be the first in her family to pursue education past high school. “From the get-go, she was very serious about the whole college thing,” Farve says, “and very serious about going to the best place possible that we could afford.”

Her mother made sure Farve kept her grades up and stayed attuned to scholarship opportunities. Birthday money went straight into a college fund. Farve showed an aptitude for science and math early on; when, in high school, a teacher mentioned offhand that, “If you’re good at math and science, you should do engineering,” the discipline piqued her interest.

“Engineering was interesting because it was application,” Farve says. “I felt like scientists were the people who discovered new things, and engineers applied them to things people could actually use. I’ve always been interested in things that could actually impact everyday people.”

Farve loved music and initially hoped to be an audio engineer. But her mother dissuaded her: If she majored in electrical engineering, she could still go on to specialize in audio if she wanted.

During Farve’s college search, one school loomed large: She wanted to go to MIT — “because it’s MIT” — but didn’t get in. She was accepted at Carnegie Mellon University and Cornell University, but ended up picking Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore that offered a large scholarship.

Farve wasn’t discouraged by MIT’s initial rejection. On the contrary, her resolve to prove herself was strengthened: “I’ll bust my butt and learn as much as possible,” she told herself. “And then hopefully I can get into MIT for grad school.”

“That was the ultimate goal,” she says.

Coming full circle

Four years later, during her senior year at Morgan State, Farve was marooned in her dorm room during a snowstorm when an email message appeared in her inbox: She had been accepted into the master’s program in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.

But once Farve matriculated, MIT brought challenges. Adjusting to the academic intensity was difficult. Graduate school, with its focus on research rather than classes, was unfamiliar. And sometimes, in her classes, unconscious biases seemed to emerge: In forming groups during class, for example, she would ask herself, “Why am I the only one without a partner?” Even once she finished her master’s degree and decided to continue on for a PhD, the insecurity persisted.

“The first three years was the ‘impostor syndrome,’” Farve says, referring to the attribution of success to luck, chance, or even a mistake by an admissions committee. “Telling myself, ‘OK, nobody made a mistake — if they did, they would have figured it out by now.”

But those days are now in the past. “Recently, it’s been trying to do more than just OK,” she says. “It’s been trying to excel here.”

Part of what has helped Farve gain confidence at MIT is her involvement in community activities that provide support. She serves as vice president of the Black Graduate Student Association, which offers study breaks and cultural learning activities, and has served as president of the Academy of Minority Engineers, whose weekly meetings provide an opportunity to talk about goals and impediments, and to brag and complain in a nonjudgmental environment.

Creating real value through research

Farve has always taken a practical, entrepreneurial approach to her work. At Morgan State, she started her own record label, Forte, stoked by her passion for good music. Engineering courses dominated her time, and she didn’t end up pursuing the label. But creating a legal entity taught her a lot about the nitty-gritty logistics in starting a business.

Farve’s doctoral research has also lent itself to entrepreneurship. When she began, she thought that she would work to create a software platform for eye-tracking apps on mobile devices. But during the work, she found herself drawn into the creation of the apps themselves, and developed a niche in apps with a sports, health, and wellness focus.

With the support of her advisor, Pattie Maes, the Alexander W. Dreyfoos Professor of Media Technology in the MIT Media Lab, Farve shifted the focus of her research to apps. So far, she’s worked on a motley assortment: There’s “Move Your Glass,” which recognizes physical activity and encourages healthier choices; “Stat,” which assists basketball coaches by providing real-time recommendations based on player-specific data; and “Smile Catcher,” which turns making others smile into a game.

She’s also pursuing entrepreneurial activities outside of her research. Last year, Farve took MIT’s well-known course 6.933 (The Founder’s Journey), where she and a team created a nonprofit called i-Trek (“I Turn Research Into Empowerment and Knowledge”). The organization provides research funding and mentorship for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, particularly those at smaller colleges who might not otherwise have such opportunities. I-Trek received a $10,000 educational challenge grant through the course.

“I think it definitely would have been a big help if something like this existed for me,” she says modestly. “I kept lucking out and finding the right people and being in the right place at the right time. So it kind of dawned on me that other people probably aren’t as lucky.”

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