An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Earth Day Spotlight: Alums Protecting the Planet

  • Kathryn M. O'Neill
  • Slice of MIT

Whether developing alternatives to “forever chemicals,” helping universities use less fossil fuel, or building eco-friendly companies, MIT’s alumni are doing their part to protect the health of the planet. In honor of Earth Day (celebrated April 22), here is a look at just some of the alumni whose environmental contributions were highlighted on Slice of MIT over the past 12 months.

The Tale of a Carbon Wrangler
“In 2002, I saw that we did not have the science and technology we needed to do carbon management at scale. … Now it’s about deployment.”
—Julio Friedmann ’88, SM ’90, an early expert in carbon capture and storage who serves as chief scientist at Carbon Direct, which invests in companies focused on carbon capture, carbon removal, and clean fuels

WWF Director Puts Food on Front Burner
“Our food cultivation and distribution system is broken. For example, we grow so much of our food in California, which is threatened by climate change. This also creates huge supply chain issues.”
—Julia Kurnik ’06, who develops and implements business strategies around food, agriculture, and sustainability as the senior director of innovation startups at the World Wildlife Fund

“Tech Titan” Aims to Serve
“Some of the projects we have worked on are fundamental to people making important decisions that impact a very significant percentage of the population around the world.”
—Sudhakar Kesavan SM ’84, former CEO of the ICF consulting firm, which worked on the first inventory of US greenhouse-gas emissions, the development of the Energy Star label for energy-efficient products and buildings, and ICF’s effort to model ozone emissions

Trying to Take Forever Chemicals Out of the Equation
“Chemicals can come with inherent hazards—toxicity and flammability are a couple examples. In the design phase, in which we are synthesizing or utilizing chemicals, we evaluate their known hazards and how that would impact those handling the products outside of a controlled laboratory environment.”
—Cassandra Aileen Zentner PhD ’20, vice president of health and environment for actnano, a startup that creates nontoxic protective coatings for electronics as an alternative to traditional coatings that contain harmful “forever chemicals”

Enabling Environmental Laws to Work, and Work Equitably
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Let’s clean this up.’ …We have to think about building wealth and investment in communities—it’s all part of implementing environmental law and policy.”
—Louise Bedsworth ’96, executive director at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at the University of California Berkeley School of Law

Helping Universities Go Green
“Careful analysis and energy modeling let you determine the best approach to air sealing, insulation, and glazing.”
—Rebecca Berry ’95, MArch ’99, president of Boston-based Finegold Alexander Architects, which is finding innovative ways to help universities meet their climate goals

Neuroscientist Turned Documentarian Makes Scientists into On-Screen Heroes
“Facts can stir up emotion, but nothing stirs up emotion like a human story.”
—Alex Rivest PhD ’11, codirector of the documentary Canary, which centers on paleoclimatologist and glaciologist Lonnie Thompson. For decades, Thompson drilled and analyzed ice cores to learn about Earth’s climate and how it is changing.

“It’s a Boat and a Plane,” Says Maritime Startup Founder
“If it’s not against the laws of physics, it’s possible.”
—Sampriti Bhattacharyya PhD ’17, cofounder of Navier, which is marketing “the boat of the future”—a 30-foot electric watercraft that’s 10 times more efficient than a traditional gasoline-fueled boat

Learn more about climate action in the MIT community.

Illustration: Gretchen Neff Lambert