How MIT J-WAFS Will Fund Research, Connect with Industry, and Support Student Groups

Executive Director Renee Robbins of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) tells MIT FAC about how they will fund academic research, collaborate with industry partners, and support student groups. 

FAC: J-WAFS is pretty new, tell me a little about your mission.

As President Rafael Reif stated in announcing the major gift that created J-WAFS, food and water issues – including global water scarcity and food shortages arising from population growth, urbanization, and climate variability – are among “the most pressing challenges facing humanity.”  MIT’s interdisciplinary strengths and expertise in science, engineering and technology, energy and urban issues, system design, and political science and economics constitute a powerful base to address these vital issues.  J-WAFS will serve to organize and promote food and water research around campus, emphasizing innovation and deployment of effective technologies, programs, and policies in order to have real impact in the world.

FAC: How does it work?

J-WAFS is a not a “laboratory” in the traditional sense – we have no maker-space or bubbling beakers.  At least to start, we are functioning more like an internal foundation.  Our goal is to raise and distribute money to support MIT research on critical topics in water and food security – for instance, how to increase food production while minimizing environmental impacts, effective water resource management, and the impacts of climate change on food and water systems.

Those are some potential areas of focus, but really we are wide open to any relevant research domain. And we don’t want to just hand out money and sit back until a final report is due. We want to engage with the researchers, help create a community around water and food research on campus and in the Boston area, and provide added value to our projects, for instance in helping to scale or commercialize research outputs, or working with corporate partners, helping them to address the business challenges that relate to our food and water systems. This spring we’re co-hosting a conference with MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program to highlight advances in technologies at the nexus of food, water, energy, and the environment.

FAC: What are the plans to get there? 

First, we are taking stock of the existing research efforts going on at MIT. When J-WAFS was just being launched, we heard a lot of “well, I’m doing this project related to [food or water], but no one else at MIT is really doing anything similar.” But it’s not the case – there are lots of people across the Institute doing food and water research. Part of our mission is to connect them. We recently hosted our second “research speed dating” event to identify and connect the different players. It went really well – there is a lot of great work and great interest out there.  The second time around we attracted an entirely new set of faculty and researchers who are interested in this space.  This type of activity helps spark interdisciplinary research and can generate better, more impactful proposals.

Our initial request for proposals went out in early 2015, and we put out another one this year. We provided seed funding to a number of new research projects starting in fall 2015, and will do so again this year. We’re also working on an industry sponsorship program, and developing other ways to help commercialize and scale technologies

FAC: We are thrilled to work with J-WAFS. Why is it valuable for you to work with student organizations?

One exciting development is the MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize new innovation competition we have brought to campus with the sponsorship of Rabobank, the largest food and agribusiness bank in the world. I am serving as a judge at the final event on April 28th where we will award $25,000 in prize money to three winning teams.  The student leadership team has been doing a great job stimulating interest and organizing the competition, and it’s been great to work with them.

FAC: Tell me a bit about your background and why you’re excited to be the J-WAFS Executive Director. 

I have been around MIT a long time, and I really love working with faculty and students. I did my undergrad here and after getting a masters degree at CMU and working for some time in a non-profit organization, I came back and spent over a decade working on various big, interdisciplinary, and international research and education programs. I joined each of these programs during their start-up phase, and my focus was on designing, developing, growing, and implementing the programs. While I didn’t work on water and food research specifically, my background includes environment and energy, transportation, urban studies, technology and policy, etc. All of these areas relate to water and food security, so J‑WAFS is an exciting place to be. 

FAC: Ok, focusing on food, what’s your favorite?

Do I have to choose?  I love to cook, bake, and eat. Food is like a “love the one your with” relationship for me. It’s hard to pick a favorite.

Posted: March 28, 2016
Author: Sarah Nolet