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The Wisdom of Dr. Danielle Wood

MIT scientist spotlights outer space solutions to global poverty, inequity, and sustainability

Dr. Danielle Wood stands on stage with four students from St. John's Prep

Everything Dr. Danielle Wood talks about is really out there. And that’s true in two dimensions. First, the Aeronautics & Astronautics professor’s work is dizzingly high-concept and rooted in a worldview driven by a quest to leverage the actionable junctures within interrelated systems. It’s also true because the solutions she’s searching for are really out there. Both on earth and orbiting it.

“We want to design systems that promote sustainability and address global concerns about poverty, drought, famine, or a lack of access to clean water, which are a factor of global trade and labor practices and differentiated classes that have different opportunities,” said Wood as part of her remarks at the St. John’s Prep Brother Robert J. Sullivan, C.F.X. Lecture Series spring address earlier this month. “I would argue that today, we need engineering and science (to do that), but also many other tools.” More photos from Dr. Wood's visit can be found on SmugMug.

More tools than science and engineering? 

“My particular interest is to combine tools from engineering and science with those from design and art, social science, data science, and what I call complex systems—meaning thinking about the world as interrelated systems that have environmental and economic and social components,” she explained. “Often, my team will bring these things together, which means we have to learn to speak different languages—Meaning languages from different communities of research and practice.”

Wood’s team works under her direction at MIT’s cutting-edge Space Enabled Research Lab. It’s a research unit that includes graduate students and staff who try to design or redesign technologies from space that they believe can contribute to economic, social, and environmental sustainability for people living on earth as well as mitigate human impacts in space. The lab’s core mission: To explore how technologies that already exist could be designed in an even more useful way to help people interact, collaborate, and problem-solve around the globe.

The team’s work around the world, among other initiatives, seeks to apply space technologies to the United Nations Sustainable Development goals. Wood has engaged policy makers from Ghana to Brazil to Indonesia on this topic, both providing and supporting the implementation of space technology to better provide the data to help underserved communities and their environments around the world.

MIT's Dr. Danielle Wood speaks to an assembled group of faculty and staff at St. John's Prep in Danvers, MA.

Oft-quoted for her observation that “Space belongs to all countries. Every country deserves equal opportunities to pursue scientific achievement for societal benefit,” Wood was inducted into the International Academy of Astronauts for her state-of-the-science innovations on the relationship between space, science, earth observations, and justice. 

In response to the COVID-19, Wood and her team have launched the Vida Support System, a tool that informs public sector officials’ decision-making on public health, socioeconomic impacts, public policies, the environment, and also disease-surveillance technology. This is now being implemented in collaboration with leaders from South America to Africa to Southeast Asia. Another area of the Space Lab’s focus is identifying and implementing ways to eliminate debris in space for the benefit of both space exploration and the environment.

“Sustainability involves questions about how we, as humans, engage our natural environment,” she says. “But also, it means asking: How do we ensure that people from all different backgrounds have access to economic opportunity and equital social relationships? This is not a simple question.

“What’s interesting is that it gets even more complex as humans expand activities in space,” she adds. “We’re going to create new opportunities, but also new questions for sustainability. On Mars, we have not yet created these kinds of problems. Right now, there is not a hunger problem on Mars, but I’m concerned we might create one because humans have a habit of doing this. Our way of creating societies has tended to create classes that have different opportunities. So, here’s my calling right now: “Can we avoid this? Can we create a society and future places that don’t recreate some of those challenges?”

The essence of Wood’s mission is to factor equity into the design of the technical systems of a place to live. If scientists can find solutions for protection from radiation, safe air to breathe, and a way to grow food on Mars, then surely humanity can also innovate and engineer, with all our interrelated creativity, a way to relate to each other in a manner that would be fair and equitable as the people who ultimately live there.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Wood began her remarks with a land acknowledgement by the MIT community that Indigenous Peoples are the traditional stewards of the land where MIT sits and that the campus is the traditional, unceded territory of the Wampanoag Nation. She acknowledged the painful history of genocide and forced occupation of that territory, and added that “we honor and respect the many diverse Indigenous People who from time immemorial are linked to the land on which MIT is based.”

For many attendees, Wood’s keynoting the Sullivan lecture as a world-class, Black female scientist was an acknowledgement all its own. 

Photo by: Lisa Labbe
(L to R: Micah and Eric Mitchell)

“SJP did not disappoint with the presentations and questions from the students,” said Eric Mitchell, President and CEO of Gloucester-based Pathways for Children, which delivers educational programming for children and robust social support services for families throughout Essex County. “My six-year-old son asked several questions about the slides as they were presented. We also took some notes on the Zero Gravity movie Dr. Wood showed and made note of various satellites and radio telescopes to look up later, like the Square Kilometre Array. My son was exposed to both a Black woman scientist and talented boys discussing science. As a part of my ongoing campaign to normalize science, excellence, and high aspirations, the event was perfect.”

Prior to serving on the MIT faculty, Professor Wood held positions at NASA Headquarters, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, The Aerospace Corporation, Johns Hopkins University, and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. Though she grew up in the shadow of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Wood never expected to work for NASA. “My mother appreciated the efforts of our national space program and when I was in primary school, my mother was my teacher, so we often took breaks from class to watch NASA (mission launches) outside our school,” Wood told NASA’s Applied Sciences news platform. 

Nonetheless, Wood was planning on pursuing architecture as a career path until the age of 17, when a teacher encouraged her to apply for a research internship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. That summer of 1999, Wood worked on a team for International Space Station logistics. She saw how components of spacecraft built around the world came together prior to launch for Space Shuttle missions to the Space Station. During this time, she met her eventual mentor, Dorothea Kuzma, a NASA logistics engineer. Kuzma encouraged Wood to dream big.

Those big dreams became both an earthbound and celestial reality.

“We’re committed to helping our students learn to see the world as bigger and more connected than what they’ve known before,” says St. John’s Headmaster Ed Hardiman, Ph.D. “This lecture series is about bringing the world to St. John’s and St. John’s to the world. In welcoming great minds and broad influencers to campus, our Center for Mission and Research is part of what makes the Prep experience so unique, providing our students with real-world experience and contact with people tackling some of the biggest challenges our world faces today.”

The Brother Robert J. Sullivan, C.F.X. Lecture Series brings innovators and leaders to St. John’s to explore how an ethics-based education can shape decision-making in the real world.