• Spring 2021
SPRING/SUMMER 2021 précis: Briefings
A collage of photos from stories featured on thisewb  page
September 16, 2021

Human rights journalist Ada Petriczko joins CIS as its Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow
Ice melts on US-Sudan relations, providing new opportunities
MIT-Japan Program establishes the Patricia Gercik Memorial Fund
Apekshya Prasai receives 2021 Jeanne Guillemin Prize
Exploring generations of influence between South Asia and MIT

Human rights journalist Ada Petriczko joins CIS as its Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow


Polish journalist Ada Petriczko will be joining CIS as its 2021 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow. The fellowship is awarded annually by the International Women’s Media Foundation and provides its recipient with educational, training and coverage opportunities related to their reporting on global injustice.

Petriczko’s fellowship will include work as a research associate at CIS, as well as reporting positions with both the Boston Globe and the New York Times

“The Center is thrilled to have Ada Petriczko join our research community this fall. Her work demonstrates a brave and passionate commitment to victims of human rights and social justice abuses, very much in the spirit of Elizabeth Neuffer. My hope is that she will find her time at MIT welcoming and fruitful,” said Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies and Ford International Professor of Political Science. 

Neuffer, whom Samuels knew personally, died in an automobile accident in 2006 while on assignment in Iraq as a reporter for the Boston Globe. In her honor, the Center helped the IWMF establish the Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship to advance women journalists working in the field of human rights and justice.

Focusing on the ways communities and governments silence women’s voices, Petriczko will explore themes within her past reporting, like the journey of women who have survived acid attacks and the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. She will also report on her home country of Poland, where democratic stability and women’s rights are under threat.

“I am overjoyed. It is a great honor and an even greater responsibility,” said Petriczko. “Like Elizabeth, I see myself as a witness, committed to telling stories that are often obliterated. Who is allowed to speak and who is being silenced determines the shape of our society. I look forward to improving my skills under the mentorship of some of journalism’s greatest academics and editors and hope to become a valuable voice in the current events of my country.”

Prior to accepting the Neuffer Fellowship, Petriczko worked as a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent in Poland, covering women’s rights, social justice, and culture for Gazeta Wyborcza, Wysokie Obcasy, Vespucci Group, Are We Europe, Przekrój and others. Petriczko was also an editor at NewsMavens, the first European newsroom run entirely by women, to counter the underrepresentation of female journalists in the media industry. During this time, she led a cross-border reporting series Witch Hunt, supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation.

Petriczko has also reported from North India, where she researched Missing Women, a non-fiction series and book about the 45 million women missing from the Indian population due to sex selection; the project was supported by the IWMF and will be released by Agora and Gazeta Wyborcza. Petriczko holds degrees from Goldsmiths College in London, the University of Warsaw, and the Polish School of Reportage.

Ice melts on US-Sudan relations, providing new opportunities

MISTI | First published here

It was over 27 years in the making. When the White House removed Sudan from the "State Sponsors of Terrorism" list in December 2020, ZAHARA for Education was ready.

ZAHARA was founded by MIT technology and policy master's student Ilham Ali and Harvard University alumna Sahar Omer to expand educational opportunities between Sudan and the United States. Earlier this year, the organization partnered with MIT-Africa, an MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, to launch the first-ever Global Teaching Labs (GTL) workshop for young leaders in Sudan. GTL is a long-running MISTI program that places over 300 students per year as teachers in high schools around the world.

"ZAHARA approached the MIT-Africa Program as a passionate and well-organized group," says MIT-Africa Program Managing Director Ari Jacobovits. "It was clear that now was the time to engage with Sudan in a new and exciting way."

Sudan-US relations have recently entered a new chapter of cooperation. For decades, the two nations were frequently at odds over Middle East policy and Sudan's civil unrest. A significant development occurred in July 2011, when South Sudan voted to break away from Sudan and establish a new country with a capital in Juba. During 2018 and 2019, Sudan's youth-led peaceful revolution set an example for change in the country and has motivated its citizens to work toward a new era of peace and prosperity, long term.

Guided by Sudan's changing geopolitical landscape, ZAHARA focused the lab on "being agents of change in a changing world" and led sessions on topics ranging from change-making strategies to the climate crisis to democracy and governance. 

"We chose to broadly focus on the idea of 'making change as Sudanese youth' to help empower our students and fellow generation to be thoughtful leaders in their communities," Ali says. "Our main goal was to have a diverse class of students in terms of age, backgrounds, and disciplines, and to equip them with the tools to break down problems they see around them, as well as piece together innovative solutions. In picking our class topics, we relied on the strengths of the teaching team, who all have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the various subjects presented."

Joining Ali as lead instructors were Abdalla Osman, a senior studying mechanical engineering, and Shakes Dlamini, an SM candidate in the Technology and Policy program. The program received hundreds of applications from high school and college students eager to take part. Ali, Osman, Dlamini, and other members of the ZAHARA team then made the difficult decision of selecting their first cohort of 50 students.

"We were incredibly surprised by the amount of traction the initiative gathered on social media," Osman says. "The application was live for only a couple of weeks, and in that time, we received over 400 applicants. We realized students all over Sudan were sharing the application with each other and encouraging each other to apply, and we were inspired by the excitement that each applicant showed. It was definitely a challenge to trim down the list of applicants to 50 students."

Hailing from Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Dlamini saw an opportunity to be involved with GTL in Sudan as a chance to hone his educational efforts back home.

"It was an honor to be part of the ZAHARA team. I care deeply about expanding opportunities to young people in Africa; hence joining the team was a no-brainer for me," Dlamini says. "This is the kind of work I have been involved in with the Knowledge Institute since its founding in 2013. Working with the students and learning about their ideas and accomplishments was also inspiring for me, as it demonstrated to me the value of such programs to youth. I am looking forward to taking part in more MIT-Africa programs and working with groups like ZAHARA."

After two intensive weeks of lectures from the lead instructors and guests, the program culminated with a poster session where student teams tackled some of the country's biggest issues. Student groups proposed innovative solutions such as bioswales to lower pollution in the Nile River, solar energy to ease transport woes in the capital, and interactive teaching methods to improve secondary school experiences around the country.

Another group pitched a nationwide flood alert system in the wake of the devastating regional flooding throughout 2020, the team's driving motivation for pursuing the project. "Flooding in Sudan is a huge concern that threatens our welfare. In knowing that every minute counts when lives are on the line, our flood warning system was the perfect choice," shares the team of five. "Working virtually as a team was a challenge, but we felt rewarded by the value our project has in potentially saving many lives and possessions." Though based in different states in Sudan, members of the organization collaborated effectively to produce a robust project vision.

Awab Rhamtalla, a student at the University of Khartoum from Jabal Awlia, was excited to participate in the inaugural program. "The reason I joined the GTL program was because I knew some things can't be found on Google. Rich experience, tailored advice, wonderful colleagues, and awesome instructors are the reasons people go to places like MIT, and the ZAHARA team brought these things to our doorstep," shares Rhamtalla. "To say that I am grateful for every day of the program would be an understatement. I can only hope to pay tribute to these two weeks by passing their message forward."

Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a faculty member in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, had an opportunity to observe the poster session. “The ZAHARA team did an excellent job in planning and execution of their online course. I was impressed by the quality of the presentations by young Sudanese participants,” says Eltahir. "In particular, the presentation of the project reimagining how high school students can be taught differently in Sudan was very good, and offered a concrete example for the success and impact of this GTL-Sudan activity."

MIT-Africa Faculty Director Evan Lieberman also joined for one session of the class. "I was impressed by the level of engagement on the part of the Sudanese students. Despite the challenges of remote teaching and learning, it was clear that this was a productive educational opportunity."

Jacobovits and the ZAHARA team hope to build on the success of the remote GTL to launch an in-person program in the future post-Covid.

"Our main mission is to expand educational opportunities between the United States and Sudan," Ali says. "We hope to host GTL in Sudan annually and have students from MIT visit the country once travel resumes. ZAHARA is also continuing to work on several innovative ways to bring students from the US and Sudan together and to provide educational opportunities for youth, in particular."

MIT-Japan Program establishes the Patricia Gercik Memorial Fund

CIS | First published here

The MIT-Japan Program is thrilled to announce the establishment of the Patricia Gercik Memorial Fund. The endowed fund will provide supplemental stipends to students seeking internships in Japan. 

Gercik served as managing director of the MIT-Japan Program for almost three decades and introduced hundreds of MIT students to Japanese culture, history, and in-country internship experiences. 

MIT-Japan is a part of (and was the prototype for) the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI)—the Institute’s pioneering global internship program. Gercik simultaneously served as associate director of MISTI, which is among the largest and most renowned programs at the Center for International Studies (CIS). 

“Pat was one of a kind—truly a force of nature.  In her tireless efforts to facilitate collaboration with Japan at MIT, Pat blazed new paths in international education and truly epitomized the MIT spirit of innovation. She touched so many students so deeply, and we are proud to have worked closely with many of them to establish this endowed fund in her memory," said Richard Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science, director of CIS, and the founding director of the MIT-Japan Program.

Gercik’s early and sustained enthusiastic leadership of the MIT-Japan Program clearly demonstrated this commitment. Her knowledge of all things Japanese was vast and her passion for the country was infectious. 

Born to a British mother and a Russian father who relocated to Kobe, Japan, in the 1930s, Gercik lived a Japanese childhood. She recalled “confronting” US soldiers during the Occupation and wandering through the black markets of a reconstructing Tokyo in her autobiographical novel, The Outsider. She also authored On Track with the Japanese, an interactive guide based on the experiences of Program interns that provides insights to non-natives into Japan’s complex society.

Informed by her own experiences in Japan, she thoughtfully matched students studying a wide range of disciplines with challenging internships that would encourage them to grow in unexpected ways. She had an uncanny knack for clearly conveying the nuance and subtlety of Japanese communication to those who weren’t familiar with Japan. For many of her students, she instilled a life-long love of and connection to a country that, without her guidance, could have seemed mysterious and unknowable.

In 2010, the Institute recognized her extraordinary work by bestowing her with an MIT Excellence Award. She was described by her nominators as having “a passionate belief in our mission to help MIT students become informed global citizens” and as “a visionary leader whose spontaneous enthusiasm and zeal for life can barely be contained.” 

Sadly, after battling a long illness, Gercik died on September 17, 2019.

“When we learned the heartbreaking news about Pat, we really wanted to do something in her honor.  We—and especially her former students—could think of no better tribute to Pat’s life and contributions to MIT than to establish a memorial fund in her honor,” said Christine Pilcavage, managing director of the MIT Japan Program. 

Alumni of the MIT-Japan Program were instrumental in raising the initial seed money and making the memorial fund a reality. Their dream, now realized, was to endow the fund in perpetuity so that her legacy continues at MIT. 

The inaugural recipients of the Patricia Gercik Memorial Fund will be announced in the spring of 2022 with the hope of resuming in-country internships by that summer.  Travel restrictions for MIT students due to the Covid-19 pandemic have paused travel to Japan since the spring of 2020.

The MIT-Japan Program looks forward to hosting a ceremony next spring to honor Gercik and celebrating the first students to receive this award.

To learn more about Gercik, including quotes from her former students and information on how to donate to the Patricia Gercik Memorial Fund, please visit the MIT-Japan Program’s  Patricia Gercik Memorial web page.

Apekshya Prasai receives 2021 Jeanne Guillemin Prize

Michelle English, CIS | First published here

Growing up in the periphery of the civil war in Nepal, Apekshya Prasai was exposed to a 10-year conflict that by some accounts left 19,000 people dead and 150,000 people internally displaced.

The insurgency was led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M) with the aim of overthrowing the ruling monarchy and establishing a people’s republic. The war ended in 2016 under the auspices of the United Nations, and a peace treaty between the Nepalese government and the Maoist rebels.

“We lived in Kathmandu, the capital city, and were fortunate to be sheltered from most of the conflict and direct violence. But we were close enough to be aware of and concerned about what was happening in the countryside,” says Prasai.

Of the many related activities that were difficult for Prasai to make sense of at the time, she was particularly perplexed by the large numbers of women who joined the People’s War.

“Thousands of women were fighters, leaders, and in other kinds of support roles in this violent conflict. And given the deeply patriarchal nature of our society, I have always found this to be astounding.”

As a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, Prasai seeks to better understand this puzzling phenomenon and investigate the dynamics of women’s participation in conflict. Drawing on original data collected through fieldwork in Nepal and secondary data from across South Asia, Prasai’s dissertation analyzes the processes that trigger women’s inclusion in rebel organizations and examines how women themselves influence these processes.

Prasai is the recipient of this year’s Jeanne Guillemin Prize at the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS). Guillemin, a longtime colleague at CIS and senior advisor in the Security Studies Program, endowed the fund shortly before her death in 2019. An authority on biological warfare, Guillemin established the prize to help support female PhD candidates working in the field of security studies, which has long been dominated by men.

Like Guillemin, Prasai is committed to advancing women and other historically excluded groups in academia and has worked in various capacities to further this goal. In the past, she has chaired the Women in International Politics and Security working group at CIS—a network that supports women graduate students, fellows, and faculty in the greater Boston area. Prasai also served as gender and diversity co-chair in the political science department’s Graduate Student Council and was a member of its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee.

“The Guillemin prize is especially meaningful to me because Jeanne was not only an esteemed research scientist, but she was also passionate about supporting women. I share her commitment and feel humbled and honored that I could benefit from her generosity,” says Prasai.

From Nepal to MIT

Prasai left Nepal in 2012 for undergraduate studies in the United States at Bowdoin College. It was at Bowdoin that she was first exposed to political science and began noticing how coursework on politics and conflict rarely, if ever, mentioned women.

“I was taking political science courses and noticed how discussions of wars, both interstate and civil wars, rarely mentioned women. This was odd given what I knew from the conflict in Nepal. So I became curious if women’s participation in violence was something unique to Nepal.”

Curiosity compelled her to explore the issue further. As early as her sophomore year, she delved into learning about women in conflict beyond the Nepal context. And, during a junior year abroad at Oxford University, she began exploring the role of women in resistance movements more broadly. The following summer, she got a grant from Bowdoin to conduct an independent study on women’s participation in violent movements across South Asia. This formed the basis of her undergraduate honors thesis on female suicide bombers.

The thesis left Prasai with more questions than answers and inspired her to pursue a doctoral degree at MIT.

“Broadly, my dissertation tries to shed light on the gender dimensions of civil wars. Specifically, I am trying to understand the processes that trigger women’s inclusion in male-dominated rebel organizations operating in patriarchal communities. I am especially keen on exploring how women themselves influence these processes and aspire to bring otherwise-neglected women’s voices into the discourse on gender and civil wars.”

Prasai feels incredibly fortunate to be a part of the political science department and SSP community.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from exceptionally talented faculty, fellows, and students, who are all doing creative and important research. And I am thankful for having the latitude to pursue research I care about while receiving excellent advising that helps me explore answers to questions that are meaningful to me in a manner that is both rigorous and relevant to the real world.”

For women’s sake

Prasai’s research has involved extensive fieldwork interviewing CPN-M members who participated in the People’s War and collecting primary documents back in Nepal.

She will apply the funds from the Guillemin prize toward additional fieldwork in Nepal. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed her travel plans, she hopes to return by the end of this year. 

“Many of the women I have spoken to have never had an opportunity to put their experiences into words. They are often eager to tell their stories, which, along with their contributions to the movement, they hope will not be forgotten,” she explains. One of her dissertation goals is to try to shed light on these women’s experiences in the People’s War and help conserve some aspects of their history.

“As a Nepali woman, doing work that can help us understand women’s roles in a movement that changed the socio-political trajectory of Nepal and making even a small contribution towards conserving their history, holds great meaning to me and many in my community,” she says. “And I am thankful for support from the Guillemin Prize, which will allow me to continue this work."  

Exploring generations of influence between South Asia and MIT

MISTI | First published here

When thinking about how to celebrate the approaching 60th anniversary of Sangam, the Association of Indian Students at MIT, Ranu Boppana ’87, president of the MIT South Asian Alumni Association (MITSAAA) began to reflect upon ways in which to explore the rich history of South Asians at MIT.

“As president of MITSAAA, I met several South Asian alumni who had been at MIT in the ’60s and ’70s. As an alum who was on campus in the ’80s, I could see that they were trailblazers whose presence led to the conditions and opportunities that current students take for granted, like better gender equity on campus, internships through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) MIT-India program, and cultural programs that help students feel at home away from home,” Boppana explains.

She remembered the 2017 exhibition “China Comes to Tech” at MIT's Maihaugen Gallery, which commemorated the 140th anniversary of Chinese students at the Institute. She wondered how long South Asian students and their organizations had been at MIT and soon found the work of Ross Bassett, author of The Technological Indian. Bassett had been researching how people from a region left behind by the industrial revolution came to be among the world’s leaders in engineering and technology.

MIT, in fact, played an outsized role in South Asia’s economic development and even in its struggle for independence from colonial rule. Boppana was stunned to learn that the first student from South Asia came to MIT in 1882, soon after the Institute’s founding. She felt that these stories of South Asian alumni needed to be told and was delighted that MIT-India could fund 11 students to do this research under the guidance of associate professor of history Sana Aiyar.

“This project tells the remarkable story of South Asia at MIT and MIT in South Asia, celebrating their far-reaching accomplishments, technical expertise, and ingenuity that have made significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge at MIT and life beyond the Institute, in South Asia, the United States, and across the world,” says Boppana. 

A “history lab” is formed

Over Independent Activities Period, students were involved in conducting research, looking at historical archives on campus and beyond, and conducting oral history interviews with alumni in India and the United States. The project laid the groundwork for an online archive that traces the personal, professional, and intellectual journeys of alumni, documenting the incredible relationship between South Asia and the Institute.

MIT's first student from South Asia, Keshav Bhat, arrived at the Institute in 1882, and by the dawn of the 21st century more than 1,300 students from India alone had graduated from MIT. Today, the Institute’s South Asian alumni include hundreds of undergraduates and graduates from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, as well as a very large number of first- and second-generation South Asians from the United States, the UK, Canada, East Africa, Mauritius, and elsewhere. Across the schools of Engineering; Science; Architecture and Planning; Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and the Sloan School of Management; MIT faculty, students, and staff have been engaged at the forefront of research, technology, and innovation related to South Asia.

“I wanted to bring a historian’s gaze to this project to showcase the scope and scale of MIT’s very long and diverse engagement with South Asia,” explains Aiyar. “For six weeks, students were busy in what I like to call a ‘History Lab,’ digging up the history of the first few decades of South Asia’s MIT connections, and putting together an online archive that included oral histories of more than 30 alumni whom they interviewed.”

The students not only learned about the rich history between South Asia and MIT, but they were also able to reflect on their own personal journeys as students and connect them to the experiences of students from previous generations.

“As a present student, I think the most interesting part of this whole experience was interviewing alumni and realizing you had a lot more in common than you thought you did,” says urban studies and planning and media studies junior Husain Rizvi. “When they were talking about grappling with these issues of anti-war protests, anti-fascism—it’s just so interesting that we as students are still dealing with that today, in our own way.”

Mathematical economics senior Catherine Huang interviewed Priyamvada Natarajan, an accomplished theoretical astrophysicist who graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in physics and math in 1990 and a master’s degree from MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. What was intended to be an hour-long interview extended into a longer conversation around the theme of “never stop learning” as a way of keeping up with the world’s challenges.

“The reason I wanted to interview her was [because] I was interested in her perspective as a woman of color in the sciences, at a time when there were very few women in science at all.”

Through their interviews, other students found opportunities for further research. Junior linguistics and electrical engineering and computer science major Rujul Gandhi saw connections between MIT and Boston’s larger international community, noting, “MIT seemed to have a large concentration of international students, so it became the hub of where people from different campuses would come to meet.”

“MIT is an institution that is continually looking to the future, but in uncovering its history, we learn much about ourselves,” adds Boppana. “Students found that MIT probably had more South Asian ties than other universities in the US at the time. The South Asian students at MIT led to MIT’s increasing connections to South Asia, which have shaped MIT into what it currently is—a global institution. I believe that knowing this history has implications for current South Asian students and how they see themselves, as they grapple with issues of belonging and identity much like generations of South Asian students before them.”

Jeffrey Ravel, professor of history at MIT, echoes the value of connecting current MIT students with prior generations. “Seeing the enthusiasm of our current students regarding the contacts made and the lessons learned from our alums was great,” he says. “In general, I think we need to find ways to make our classrooms and learning experiences more multi-generational.”

Connecting oral histories to a larger story

Moving forward, Aiyar, MITSAAA, and MIT-India will continue to build upon the work completed by this first cohort of students by creating an online archive that traces this incredible story and the personal, professional, and intellectual journeys of MIT’s South Asian affiliates. The project will culminate in the launch of an exhibition in conjunction with MIT Libraries to commemorate the upcoming 60th anniversary of Sangam in 2022.

Organizers hope the project will tell a larger story of how students and alumni go on to shape their communities and the role of the Institution in providing students with the experiences to accomplish this, both inside and outside the classroom.

“These histories are so rich in detail—they are deeply intimate and personal, but also allow us to tell a larger story of the South Asian presence at MIT and MIT in South Asia,” says Aiyar. “This archive, I hope, will preserve these stories for future historians and MIT students. Ultimately this is their genealogy and their history."