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Embracing ancient materials and 21st-century challenges

An early interest in archaeology led senior Sophia Mittman to explore many facets of materials science, from restoring artwork to making mining more sustainable.
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Sophia Mittman
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Caption: An early interest in archaeology led MIT senior Sophia Mittman to explore many facets of materials science, from restoring artwork to developing fruit snacks. Her new passion is finding ways to extract widely used minerals from mining waste.
Credits: Image: Adam Glanzman
Sophia Mittman
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Caption: "The [Tech Catholic Community] is where I've been able to find so much comfort, support, and encouragement; the closest friends I have are in the Tech Catholic Community,” Mittman says.
Credits: Image: Adam Glanzman

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Sophia Mittman
Caption:
An early interest in archaeology led MIT senior Sophia Mittman to explore many facets of materials science, from restoring artwork to developing fruit snacks. Her new passion is finding ways to extract widely used minerals from mining waste.
Credits:
Image: Adam Glanzman
Sophia Mittman
Caption:
"The [Tech Catholic Community] is where I've been able to find so much comfort, support, and encouragement; the closest friends I have are in the Tech Catholic Community,” Mittman says.
Credits:
Image: Adam Glanzman

When Sophia Mittman was 10 years old, she wanted to be an artist. But instead of using paint, she preferred the mud in her backyard. She sculpted it into pots and bowls like the ones she had seen at the archaeological museums, transforming the earthly material into something beautiful.

Now an MIT senior studying materials science and engineering, Mittman seeks modern applications for sustainable materials in ways that benefit the community around her.

Growing up in San Diego, California, Mittman was homeschooled, and enjoyed the process of teaching herself new things. After taking a pottery class in seventh grade, she became interested in sculpture, teaching herself how to make fused glass. From there, Mittman began making pottery and jewelry. This passion to create new things out of sustainable materials led her to pursue materials science, a subject she didn’t even know was originally offered at the Institute.

“I didn’t know the science behind why those materials had the properties they did. And materials science explained it,” she says.

During her first year at MIT, Mittman took 2.00b (Toy Product Design), which she considers one of her most memorable classes at the Institute. She remembers learning about the mechanical side of building, using drill presses and sanding machines to create things. However, her favorite part was the seminars on the weekends, where she learned how to make things such as stuffed animals or rolling wooden toys. She appreciated the opportunity to learn how to use everyday materials like wood to construct new and exciting gadgets.

From there, Mittman got involved in the Glass Club, using blowtorches to melt rods of glass to make things like marbles and little fish decorations. She also took a few pottery and ceramics classes on campus, learning how to hone her skills to craft new things. Understanding MIT’s hands-on approach to learning, Mittman was excited to use her newly curated skills in the various workshops on campus to apply them to the real world.

In the summer after her first year, Mittman became an undergraduate field and conservation science researcher for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She traveled to various cities across Italy to collaborate with international art restorers, conservation scientists, and museum curators to study archaeological materials and their applications to modern sustainability. One of her favorite parts was restoring the Roman baths, and studying the mosaics on the ground. She did a research project on Egyptian Blue, one of the first synthetic pigments, which has modern applications because of its infrared luminescence, which can be used for detecting fingerprints in crime scenes. The experience was eye-opening for Mittman; she got to directly experience what she had been learning in the classroom about sustainable materials and how she could preserve and use them for modern applications.

The next year, upon returning to campus, Mittman joined Incredible Foods as a polymeric food science and technology intern. She learned how to create and apply a polymer coating to natural fruit snacks to replicate real berries. “It was fun to see the breadth of material science because I had learned about polymers in my material science classes, but then never thought that it could be applied to making something as fun as fruit snacks,” she says.

Venturing into yet another new area of materials science, Mittman last year pursued an internship with Phoenix Tailings, which aims to be the world’s first “clean” mining company. In the lab, she helped develop and analyze chemical reactions to physically and chemically extract rare earth metals and oxides from mining waste. She also worked to engineer bright-colored, high-performance pigments using nontoxic chemicals. Mittman enjoyed the opportunity to explore a mineralogically sustainable method for mining, something she hadn’t previously explored as a branch of materials science research.

“I'm still able to contribute to environmental sustainability and to try to make a greener world, but it doesn't solely have to be through energy because I'm dealing with dirt and mud,” she says.

Outside of her academic work, Mittman is involved with the Tech Catholic Community (TCC) on campus. She has held roles as the music director, prayer chair, and social committee chair, organizing and managing social events for over 150 club members. She says the TCC is the most supportive community in her campus life, as she can meet people who have similar interests as her, though are in different majors. “There are a lot of emotional aspects of being at MIT, and there’s a spiritual part that so many students wrestle with. The TCC is where I’ve been able to find so much comfort, support, and encouragement; the closest friends I have are in the Tech Catholic Community,” she says.

Mittman is also passionate about teaching, which allows her to connect to students and teach them material in new and exciting ways. In the fall of her junior and senior years, she was a teaching assistant for 3.091 (Introduction to Solid State Chemistry), where she taught two recitations of 20 students and offered weekly private tutoring. She enjoyed helping students tackle difficult course material in ways that are enthusiastic and encouraging, as she appreciated receiving the same help in her introductory courses.

Looking ahead, Mittman plans to work fulltime at Phoenix Tailings as a materials scientist following her graduation. In this way, she feels like she has come full circle: from playing in the mud as a kid to working with it as a materials scientist to extract materials to help build a sustainable future for nearby and international communities.

“I want to be able to apply what I’m enthusiastic about, which is materials science, by way of mineralogical sustainability, so that it can help mines here in America but also mines in Brazil, Austria, Jamaica — all over the world, because ultimately, I think that will help more people live better lives,” she says.

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