At a young age, Orisa Coombs pledged to use her engineering knowledge to reduce inequality. The summer after her first year of high school, she found herself grappling with the harsh realities of systemic racism after the death of Michael Brown. Brown’s death altered Coombs’ world view and reshaped how she approached her own role in society.
“At 15, the intense pain and sense of injustice I felt introduced me to the collective trauma of the Black experience,” says Coombs. “I knew I needed to dedicate my engineering career to issues of oppression and inequality.”
This driving force to make a difference in the world led her to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at MIT.
“I didn’t want to limit myself to working on a single discipline. There is a design aspect to everything, so I will be capable of working on almost any problem from a mechanical engineering perspective,” she adds.
Once at MIT, Coombs explored research opportunities that improved the lives of others. Her work on medical devices in the MIT Media Lab and with a startup helping rural dairy farmers in India both had a tangible impact, but didn’t quite satisfy her goal of reducing inequality and making a difference on a global scale.
Her experience in 11.005 (Introduction to International Development) helped Coombs narrow her research focus to issues affecting the developing world. In particular, she started exploring how climate change disproportionately impacts people of color in developing countries.
“I was seeking research projects that had a connection to climate change and would allow me to develop numerical computation skills,” she says.
This pursuit led her to an undergraduate research opportunity (UROP) in the lab of John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering. Lienhard’s group develops energy-efficient methods of producing clean water.
Water scarcity has become a global crisis, particularly in developing countries that are disproportionately impacted by climate change. For her UROP, Coombs joined Lienhard’s efforts to address water scarcity through desalination, the process of turning seawater or brackish water into potable water.
“It is a fundamental injustice that access to water is not universal,” says Coombs. “Water research sits at the intersection of technology and class-based struggles, while also capitalizing on my fascination with thermofluids engineering.”
Addressing global water scarcity
Coombs’ UROP project focused on a new method of desalination known as osmotically assisted reverse osmosis — or OARO. The OARO process requires less energy and is lower-cost than typical reverse osmosis, making it a promising option for reducing water scarcity in developing nations.
Researchers, however, still don’t understand how membrane diffusion works in OARO, leading to inaccurate performance models. Coombs utilized her background in computation to develop an improved model.
As a Course 2-A (Engineering) major, Coombs’ concentration within mechanical engineering is numerical computation. Her OARO research afforded her the opportunity to apply her numerical computation skills to a real-world project. The resulting computational model of OARO membrane diffusion correlated with experimental data better than existing models.
Coombs and Lienhard hope this model will lead to improved desalination systems in the future, which in turn could reduce water scarcity in developing nations.
“The idea is that eventually we can make desalination a more effective primary water source, especially once fresh water resources are depleted. It’s really promising in terms of how we can change the water landscape and have real impact,” says Coombs.
Coombs presented her model at the 2020 Mechanical Engineering Research Exhibition, where she won the First Place Presenter prize.
“Orisa’s proactiveness and innate interest in research, coupled with her unfailing work ethic, quickly made her an indispensable member of our team,” says Lienhard, “and as I have learned more about Orisa, I have found that she also has a deep commitment to social equity.”
While water scarcity continues to be a driving force in her academic career, Coombs has also been exploring this commitment to equity closer to home at MIT.
Combating food insecurity
During her first year at MIT, Coombs realized how food accessibility impacted individuals in her own friend group. A program called Class Awareness Support and Equality (CASE) at MIT sent grocery care packages to individuals experiencing food insecurity at MIT. When she started noticing some of her friends receiving packages from CASE, she realized just how pervasive the problem was.
Coombs joined CASE as head of food accessibility to help address food insecurity experienced by members of the MIT community. Since her sophomore year, she has been working with administrators across MIT on developing initiatives and programs to help food-insecure students.
Her first project as a member of CASE was to launch small food pantries in dorms that don’t have dining halls. She then shifted her focus to MIT’s on-campus grocery store as a member of the TechMart Advisory Group. She also works with administration on the Food Security Committee to identify further strategies to eradicate hunger.
While her desalination research helps her address inequality on a global scale, her work through CASE has helped her develop solutions in her own community.
“Working with CASE has been part of my journey to realizing that I really am passionate about making those positive changes around me, not just on a global scale,” says Coombs.
Leading the Black Students' Union through crisis
Last spring, Coombs took on another leadership position to make positive changes across the MIT community as co-chair of the Black Students' Union (BSU). Shortly after starting as co-chair, Coombs found herself at the helm of the BSU’s response to two crises in the Black community: a pandemic that disproportionately impacted communities of color and protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Almost overnight, members of the MIT community turned to Coombs for feedback and leadership on behalf of the BSU.
“When I got the role of BSU co-chair, I was not expecting this year to turn out this way,” she says. Coombs seized the opportunity to lead by joining student leaders in writing the Save Black Lives Petition and working closely with senior administration to shape MIT’s response to systemic and institutional racism.
Since last summer, Coombs has helped ensure that MIT’s BSU has an active role in composing the Institute’s 10-year plan to combat racism internally and explore alternatives to current police response practices on campus. She also works on the Institute Steering Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as one of three undergraduate representatives.
“Discussing our values is important, but I want to make sure that we take action. I’m always trying to stay focused on our goals and do right by my community,” says Coombs.
As Coombs looks to the future after graduating this spring, she hopes to continue working on global problems like water scarcity at graduate school. She also sees a chance to have impact on future generations of mechanical engineering students.
“As a Black woman in STEM, I don’t have many role models who look like me. I am excited to provide the mentorship and representation I did not have to the next generation,” she adds.