Q&A: Latifah Hamza ’12 on creating sustainable solutions in Malaysia and beyond

Latifah Hamzahi ,12 graduated from MIT with a BS in mechanical engineering and minors in energy studies and music. During her time at MIT, Latifah participated in various student organizations including the MIT Symphony Orchestra, Alpha Phi Omega, and the MIT Design/Build/Fly Team. He attended the lab of Alexander Mitsos, a former professor of mechanical engineering in the MIT Energy Initiative’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), investigating solar-powered thermal and electrical co-generation systems.

After graduating from MIT, Latifah worked as a sub-engineer at Shell Global Solutions and co-founded Engineers Without Borders. , Malaysia, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding sustainable and empowering solutions affecting disadvantaged populations in Malaysia. Most recently, Latifah received a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, where she is currently pursuing her PhD in Environmental Engineering focusing on water and sanitation in developing contexts.

Why: What inspired you to study energy as a graduate student at MIT?

a: I grew up in Malaysia, where I was immediately aware of the extent to which the oil and gas industry is a cornerstone of the economy and the need to transition to a low-carbon future. The Energy Studies minor was fascinating because it gave me a broader view of the energy space, including technical, policy, economic and other perspectives. It was my first experience with how things work in the real world – in that there were many different areas and perspectives to be considered at once for a successful, positive and lasting impact. Although the minor was based primarily on classroom learning, what I learned made me discover for myself how the forces of technology, society, and policy interacted in the field in my later endeavors.

In addition to the detail that the minor has added to my education, it has also provided me with a structure and focus to build on my technical fundamentals. This included taking graduate level classes and attending UROP which had a specific energy focus. These were my first forays into questions that, while still primarily technical, were more open ended and would be shaped largely by the determination of the question with as yet unknown answers. This change in mindset required from specific graduate classes and problem sets took a bit of adjustment, but eventually gave me the confidence and belief that I could be successful in more challenging environments.

Why: How have these experiences with energy helped you advance your path, especially in relation to your work in Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia and now at Stanford?

a: When I returned home after graduation, I was eager to use my engineering education and practically explore what the Energy Studies short course taught by theory and case studies: successful , to consider the context, nuances and interdisciplinary and myriad of perspectives to design sustainable solutions. Recognizing that there were many underserved communities in Malaysia, I co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia with a few friends with the aim of working with these communities to bring simple and sustainable engineering solutions. Many of these projects had an energy focus. For example, we designed, shaped and installed micro-hydro or solar-power systems for various indigenous communities, allowing them to continue living on their ancestral land while reducing energy poverty. Several other projects included other aspects of engineering, such as hydrotherapy pools for people with special needs, and water and sanitation systems for stateless marine communities.

Through my work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, I found a passion for the broader aspects of sustainability, growth and equity. By spending time with communities in the area and sharing their experiences, I recognized shortcomings in my skill set that I could work on to be more effective in advocating for social and environmental justice. In particular, I wanted to better understand communities and their perspectives while being mindful of my situation. In addition, I wanted to address the more systematic aspects of the problems they faced, which I felt would only be possible through a combination of research, evidence, and policy in many cases. To this end, I began my PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in anthropology and pursued a community-based research fellowship with Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service. I have also participated in the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP), which helps graduate students “improve their leadership and communication skills to maximize the impact of their research.” RELP provided me an opportunity to interact with representatives of Government, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]think tanks and industry from whom I gained a better understanding of policy and the surrounding ecosystem at both the federal and state levels.

Why: What are you currently studying, and how does it relate to your past work and educational experiences?

a: My dissertation examines waste management and monitoring for better planetary health in three separate projects. Sub-optimal waste management can lead to poor outcomes, including environmental pollution, overuse of resources, and economic and environmental opportunities lost in resource recovery. My first project showed that the stored drinking water supply of households in rural Kenya was contaminated as a result of three combinations of factors, and the results were published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Consequently, water and sanitation interventions must also consider animal waste for safe drinking water for communities.

My second project seeks to establish a circular economy in the chocolate industry with indigenous Malaysian farmers and a tree-to-bar social enterprise, the Chocolate Concierge. Designed and optimized equipment and processes to produce biochar from cocoa husk waste, we are now investigating its impact on the development of cocoa plants and their root systems. The biochar is expected to increase the resilience of the plants when transplanted from nursery to field. Since biochar can improve soil health and yield while reducing fertilizer input and carbon, farmers can earn substantial economic and environmental benefits, especially if they produce, use and sell it themselves.

My third project examines the gap in sanitation coverage around the world and possible ways to reduce it. Globally, 46 percent of the population does not have access to safely managed sanitation, while 54 percent have access to on-site sanitation facilities such as septic tanks and toilets. Given that on-site, decentralized systems typically have a low space and resource footprint, are cheap to manufacture and maintain, and can be designed to suit a variety of contexts, they offer the best opportunities for reaching the Sanitation Sustainable Development Goals. can represent. To this end, I am part of a team of researchers from the Cridle Group at Stanford working to develop a household leveling system as part of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which aims to create new solutions for developing contexts. To develop sanitation and toilet technologies.

The thread connecting these projects is a commitment to examine both the technical and socio-anthropological dimensions of an issue in order to develop sustainable, reliable and environmentally sensitive solutions, particularly in low and middle income countries (LMICs). I believe that an interdisciplinary approach can provide a better understanding of the problem space, which hopefully leads to effective potential solutions that can have a greater community impact.

Why: What are you planning to do after getting your PhD?

a: I hope to continue working in the area of ​​water and sanitation and/or sustainability after my PhD. It is a fascinating moment for LMIC to be in this position as a person of color, especially as ideas such as community-based research and de-colonization of areas and institutions are becoming more widespread and accepted. Even during my time at Stanford, I have seen some changes in the discourse, although we still have a long way to go before we can achieve real and lasting change. People like me are under-represented in forums where priorities, policies and aid and development funding are discussed at an international or global level. I hope to be able to use my qualifications, experience and background to advocate for more just outcomes.

This article appears in the autumn 2021 issue energy futuresMagazine of the MIT Energy Initiative

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