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Mechanical engineering graduate students create a hub for economic development research at Stanford

The newly formed interdisciplinary, King Center-supported student group meetings on topics relevant for economic development in Africa.

During the 2019 winter and spring quarters, graduate students representing the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Graduate School of Education, the School of Engineering, and the School of Humanities and Sciences gathered for several meetings around a shared research interest.

abisola kusimo
Abisola Kusimo

The newly formed interdisciplinary Academic Affinity Group | Economic Development in Africa Scholars partnered with the Stanford King Center on Global Development to organize meetings on topics relevant for economic development in Africa. The group’s founders, Abisola Kusimo and Eric Reynolds Brubaker, are PhD students in mechanical engineering. Kusimo and Brubaker identified a need to create a community of Stanford graduate students who approach research on African development from various perspectives.

For both Kusimo and Brubaker, mechanical engineering and economic development go hand in hand.

Kusimo’s journey toward a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Stanford began when she visited Nigeria at thirteen years old, an experience that left a deep impression. Kusimo, the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants, ultimately picked mechanical engineering as the best medium for pursuing her passion, because it would allow her to think on a system-level and provide the tools to tackle grand challenges such as “infrastructure, energy, and manufacturing,” areas that she saw needed improvement. After completing a Stanford Seed internship at a factory in Nigeria in the summer of 2017, she was certain that mechanical engineering could play a vital role in spurring global development, but this one field could not solve it alone.

Brubaker, an Ohio native, is a teaching assistant in the Stanford Product Realization Lab. The lab mentors students on designing and creating innovative products that aim to transform lives, from medical and agricultural innovations to consumer products.

eric reynold brubaker
Eric Reynolds Brubaker

Outside of Stanford, Brubaker has worked with social entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa and India; developing products like water filtration systems, and is currently collaborating with engineering design firms in the United States and East Africa.

Here, Kusimo and Brubaker detail their motivations and goals for starting this graduate student affinity group.

This student initiative is called an academic affinity group. What exactly is that?

Simply put, an affinity group is a community of students who are united in approaching one main subject, in this case, economic development in Africa, from various disciplines. We attended a recent talk where a visiting faculty candidate talked about academic affinity groups she initiated at her home university, and we thought it would be beneficial to have one for PhD students here at Stanford doing work on development in Africa. We wanted to be able to point one another to resources here at Stanford and at other universities, and find potential collaborators on future work.

This academic affinity group aims to discuss the research being conducted by many different types of scholars for the sake of enabling the African continent to grow and develop. We hope to do this by creating a home where graduate students can share resources, best practices, and discuss the obstacles they encounter in the field so that we may learn from each other.

A sampling of the topics we have already discussed includes manufacturing-led development in Nigeria, the product development process in Kenya, water and sanitation in Ghana, attitudes and perception change on the LGBTQ community, and designing a high-level system for motor taxis that use electric charge (instead of gasoline) in Rwanda.

What is the group aiming to achieve that was missing from the Stanford graduate student experience?

As mechanical engineering students, one goal we have is to expand the way people think of how engineering factors into global development.

We also realized there just are not many venues for an interdisciplinary set of graduate students to come together and talk about research, especially in ways that allow us to “workshop” our work and see if we are trying to solve similar problems or problems in similar spaces.

Another piece that is currently missing is a community to explore professional opportunities and pathways for future careers that span beyond academia.

What are some of the challenges in starting a group like this?

Coming up with the idea and seeing the void was easy; figuring out how to fill it is requiring intentionality and partnership. Working with Corinne Thomas, the King Center’s Student Programs Manager, has been incredibly helpful and generative. Since there were graduate students from all over campus that are already connected to the King Center, we solicited interest here as well as through the Center for African Studies.  Our first group meeting helped set our collective intentions and align ourselves on what we would like to do together. We aim to organize a conference in the coming year where graduate students can more formally present their research.

How has partnering with the King Center helped the Affinity Group?

The King Center has been a critical partner in supporting the organization and building a network of organizations, world leaders, and interested students on campus. We hope to further build a community of graduate scholars doing research on the continent and imagine and implement events like a speaker series or conference that will allow graduate students to showcase and receive feedback on their work.

Is there a particular subject that has so far emerged as a key goal?

Yes, during our first meeting in February 2019, we discussed conducting ethical research on the African continent. We hope the affinity group can function as a sounding board for ensuring academic integrity and ethical standards are upheld while in the field. It would be great if we could hold one another accountable and share our best practices for keeping this consideration in mind.

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