Danielle Grey-Stewart, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering, is a fierce believer that public service and engineering go hand in hand. She aspires to be a leader in equitable science policy and plans on using her time at Oxford University, where she will be studying next year as a Rhodes Scholar, to study nature, society, and environmental governance.
Despite her interest in public service, Grey-Stewart didn’t always see policy as a future career route. A passion for chemistry and understanding the physical world had led her to believe her goal was to become a cosmetic chemist. But a sophomore-year trip to visit the Navajo Nation marked a major turning point.
Organized through the PKG Center, the trip was focused on developing a lasting relationship between the Navajo Nation and MIT. Grey-Stewart and nine other students spent a week learning about Navajo culture and history from community leaders.
The leaders spoke to the group about local challenges too, such as the lack of water access in 30 percent of Navajo homes. The group met with DIGDEEP, an organization seeks to mitigate this issue. Grey-Stewart watched as workers engaged with Navajo families, installing water tanks and explaining how to maintain the new water fixtures.
On one particularly memorable night, the students shared a home-cooked meal with the Lane family of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm working to maintain and teach traditional farming practices. “We spoke a lot about our understanding of community — what it means to us and what it means to the Navajo people. It changed my limited perception of what it means to live in this country and be an American,” says Grey-Stewart.
The experience also encouraged Grey-Stewart to reflect on her values. Over the previous two years, she had put all her energy into transitioning from high school to college. Most of her waking moments were spent studying, at the expense of other interests and even her own happiness, she recalls. “But my trip made me realize what is important — not a perfect GPA, but rather that I go to bed at night feeling like I did something good for someone.”
With a transformed mindset, Grey-Stewart returned to MIT determined to get more involved with her community. She began helping her peers through roles at the PKG Center and Career Advising and Professional Development. The tasks could be small — editing a resume, giving advice about courses — but to her, they were meaningful.
“Through career advising, I got a lot of training on how to listen and talk to people from all backgrounds. I really liked meeting so many new people in my community,” says Grey-Stewart fondly.
Over time, Grey-Stewart would learn that her affinity for conversation was also an asset in engineering. For example, course 3.087 (Materials, Societal Impact, and Social Innovation), led by Ellan Spero, a historian and instructor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, taught her about materials science from an equity lens. During one notable class, a guest speaker from Ohio State University, Professor Maria Brunette, spoke about the challenges of bringing new technologies to resource-constrained regions. She cited an example where the cost of the equipment, together with a weak public health infrastructure, presented a barrier to implementing an artificial-intelligence technology that could diagnose tuberculosis in Peru.
“Her philosophy was that finding engineering solutions must begin with meaningful connections with the community you’re hoping to help,” says Grey-Stewart. “Trying to solve a problem in conjunction with the community is the type of engineering I want to do.”
Grey-Stewart put this perspective into action as she wrote briefs for the MIT Environmental Response Initiative this past summer. For one article, the team interviewed Canadian and U.S. workers at meat packing plants. They helped to shed light on how workers’ rights were being exploited as they faced unsafe working conditions due to Covid-19.
As the former director of policy reports and current chair of the MIT Undergraduate Association (UA) Committee on Covid-19, Grey-Stewart has also turned her attention to how the virus was impacting her own community. Engaging with administrators and other student leaders, her team has worked hard to represent students as the Institute responded to the pandemic.
“We were able to shape the pods program so students could still have some sense of community. And we pushed hard for academic policies that relieve stress on students,” says Grey-Stewart.
Grey-Stewart also meets monthly with the dean of engineering to represent undergraduate students in the School of Engineering. Her commitment to the Student Advisory Group for Engineering recently earned her the Horace A. Lubin Award for Outstanding Service to the DMSE (Department of Materials Science and Engineering) Community.
While much of her time is devoted to community advocacy, Grey-Stewart still manages to never stray from her love for science. Broadly interested in the electronic characterization of carbon, she has spent each summer before this year working in the lab, researching everything from carbon nanotubes to microfluidic devices. Her most recent work in the laboratory of Assistant Professor Julia Ortony in DMSE focuses on functionalized nanothread synthesis for applications in the study of molecular dynamics. She loves to share her research with the public, and presented results from a class on nanofabrication at the Microsystems Annual Research Conference last January.
Grey-Stewart sees her experience as a scientist as crucial to being an informed policymaker. “I would love to one day have a research center that partners with community initiatives around environmental justice. They often need scientific research to bring these policy initiatives to greater attention,” she says. “Many of these issues get forgotten and there’s still so much good to be done.” She hopes her path will inspire other young scientists, particularly fellow women of color, to consider roles in policy.
“Past Rhodes scholars have already started reaching out to me about our compatible interests in making science policy that uplifts marginalized voices,” she says. “I can’t wait to get started.”