An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Grad Life: Water, Past and Present

  • Elena Sobrino, Anthropology
  • slice.mit.edu

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If you’ve ever wandered in and out of the various corners of Killian Court, you quickly notice that there are several names etched into the upper edges of the stone buildings: Darwin, Pasteur, Aristotle, Newton, Faraday, Da Vinci … and many more. One writer in a 1922 Tech article reflected on what this feature of the architecture could mean for the students of MIT in the following words:

It is probable that the sight of those names of the great inspires the average student, every time his eyes wander in that direction. They are the men whose disciple he is. He is following in their footsteps. He is going to take up their work where they left off, and carry it on farther.

To me, this passage is fascinating, revealing the way the built environment can evoke a personal sense of identity and history that is both powerful and problematic.

To weigh this statement against my own experience, almost 100 years later, as a PhD student in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society here at MIT, prompts a mixture of reflections. I can recognize myself, for instance, in the idea of finding your own place, your own sense of purpose, gratitude, and encouragement, by recognizing how your work might fit into a larger genealogy of knowledge. Of course, where it becomes harder to recognize myself in this particular account is in the overwhelmingly gendered picture of science it presents.

This leads me to a fascinating part of MIT history that I only began to learn about when I arrived here as a graduate student, intent on learning everything I could about the politics of water purification and infrastructure, particularly as they play out in my area of geographical focus: Flint, Michigan, which is the site of an ongoing water crisis. If you enter Building 4 from Killian Court, you will encounter a small tribute to Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT to study for a degree, who went on to become an instructor at MIT as well.

Richards’ career as a scientist is remarkable by any standard, but is especially interesting to me personally, given that her expertise was in water sanitation, chemistry, and public health. In fact, the United States owes to her work its entire system of water quality standards and sewage treatment practices, which she was responsible for developing in Massachusetts in the late 1800s.

I often wonder how my own work as an anthropology student connects to this history. The questions about water purity and pollution that animated Ellen Swallow Richards’ career are more alive and urgent than ever in a place like Flint. What I find most challenging but also most promising about doing anthropology is the way I’m trained to find avenues of seeing otherwise: of approaching a problem differently from the point of view considered the most enforceable, desirable, reasonable, or necessary.

As someone from the Flint area, but also now studying here at MIT, I occupy a position somewhere in between insider and outsider when it comes to the water crisis. To leverage the capacity to learn from this flexible positioning, I use the method of ethnography in my research, which involves collecting qualitative data in the form of interviews, as well as in field notes that I write everyday, documenting everything I observe unfolding in the struggles and dialogues taking place in Flint around water and toxicity. Flint has taught me that infrastructure, even when largely underground and unseen, carries its own histories and possibilities, as much as stone buildings engraved with names.

Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT.

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