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Q&A: Luisa Kenausis ’17 — A passion for policy

Alumna builds on her foundation in nuclear policy through a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship.
Luisa Kenausis spoke at the Minds Not Missiles conference held at MIT on April 7, about the importance of educating students on nuclear weapons. The event was organized by Massachusetts Peace Action.
Luisa Kenausis spoke at the Minds Not Missiles conference held at MIT on April 7, about the importance of educating students on nuclear weapons. The event was organized by Massachusetts Peace Action.
Photo courtesy of Luisa Kenausis

While still an undergraduate at MIT, Luisa Kenausis ’17 co-founded MIT Students for Nuclear Arms Control. The organization’s goal: to raise awareness of nuclear arms control issues. As a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation this spring, Kenausis continued her work to raise public awareness of these issues.

Kenausis grew up in Bethel, Connecticut, a small town a couple of hours from New York City, and attended the town’s public high school, Bethel High School, where she played the saxophone in the school’s award-winning marching band and developed a love for mathematics. “I ran out of math classes to take when I was a sophomore,” Kenausis recalls, “so during my junior year I started taking math classes at a community college.” At MIT, she double-majored in political science and nuclear science and engineering, working with professors Scott Kemp and Vipin Narang. Her senior thesis, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Understanding the Nuclear Tests and the Current Trajectory of the Weapons Program,” explored both technical and political aspects of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Kenausis has just accepted a job at the Stanley Foundation in Iowa where she will continue work in nuclear policy.

Kenausis spoke with the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering about her fellowship experience and next steps in her career.

Q: What did you hope to achieve this spring though the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship?

A: I had a couple of goals. I wanted to meet and connect with people in the field — the fellowship has really helped a lot with that. We had small meetings of the Scoville Fellows with leaders who were expert in a particular field. We met senior level staff from non-governmental organizations and former government officials though these sessions. Those were super helpful, not only because we got to speak with that person but for practicing how to speak with someone in that position and thinking about how to formulate questions around issues. My other goal was to expand my issue areas, expose myself to new questions, and new areas of research that I might not have been aware of when I was a student. As a result I have become interested in defense spending policy — the way that money is authorized and allocated to the military, for instance. It’s an area that is really fascinating but not really well understood.

Q: What was the most rewarding part of this fellowship experience?

A: A couple of individual experiences stand out. We prepared questions to send to the congressional offices before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was just super exciting to be working on questions that might be asked in a congressional hearing in a directly meaningful way. Another was a little unexpected and rewarding — I was able to contribute and participate as part of a team straight out of college. Being a Scoville Fellow gave me credibility with people I met for the first time and opened doors to experiences I would never have had otherwise.

Q: What’s your favorite memory from MIT?

A: It’s from my senior year. My group in the senior nuclear design class, taught by Professor Mike Short, won the final competition for the best project. As the winners we got a trip to Singapore to participate in a hackathon. We not only competed in the hackathon but also got to explore the city. It was just such an amazing and fun experience. We had an awesome time.

Q: How did you become interested in nuclear policy?

A: I started out in nuclear science, but I was not really in love with just the technical side. I thought it was interesting and challenging, and I’ve always loved to be challenged and it was one of the things I really liked about NSE, but it didn’t really ignite my passion. Then when I took my first class on nuclear weapons proliferation, with nuclear weapons historian Professor Frank Gavin, during my junior fall semester. That’s when I felt “wait, this is why I think nuclear science is so important”, this is so insane and such a huge issue, and it just seems like people aren’t thinking about it. So after I took that one class I added political science as my second major and built up my own little nuclear weapons-focused curriculum. I got into nuclear policy because I just didn’t understand why people weren’t really concerned about this.

Q: What do you do for fun outside of research and work?

A: I like to work out, and I really like dancing, and I really love cooking. In the last couple of years, I’ve really gotten into cooking. Now I spend a lot of my weekends just cooking for the week. It’s really fun.

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