Student Spotlight: Emma Nelson, Mechanical Engineer

First year Tata Fellow reflects on “quite a journey” as she tackles design of low-income housing, learning new cultures and new concepts.

emma nelson

Emma Nelson SB ’15 was born in China, but moved to the United States when she was six years old. When she returned to China in 2008, she noticed some disparities between the two countries—like smoggy air and lack of sanitation—that resonated with her and wanted to do something about it. Having discovered a love for math and science, she realized that the two subjects helped explain the world in their own ways. A first year Tata Fellow, Emma is a Master’s candidate in the Building Technology group, working to design thermally autonomous housing for low-income communities in India and the developing world. The project is a collaboration with the Hunnarshala Foundation in Bhuj, Gujarat, India.

As a mechanical engineer, what is interesting to you about housing?

During my undergraduate years at MIT, I took a Thermal Modeling Systems class with Dr. Leon Glicksman that I thoroughly enjoyed. In that class we learned how to use models to make thermal systems more efficient. I thought that was interesting and with my interest in math and science I could play a role. Dr. Glicksman is my advisor now and he specializes in HVAC Systems and thermal comfort. In our project, we’re trying to create thermal comfort through passive means to reduce energy consumption and increase affordability. I like that the research we’re doing now is applicable and the result is tangible. This was my pathway to housing.

This project began more than two years ago with Madeline Gradillas, a former Tata Fellow. What has your experience been like joining an existing project?

The experience has been very new and exciting. I am constantly inundated with many new concepts; there has been a waterfall of information. It’s been a quite a journey, from learning about a new culture to understanding the intricacies of doing research in the field. My goal is to have the residents of the communities give us feedback, validate our designs, and eventually adopt them.

What direction are you taking the project?

Currently, there are many different aspects that I’m exploring with this project. We began with roof designs, and we looked at walls for a while, but that did not fit within the context of the Housing for All homes in Bhuj, Gujarat where the climate is hot and arid. It might be more useful to incorporate the wall design concept in the northern region of India where it gets cooler. A roof concept for arid regions is also in the works. We know we have to tweak our designs according to the different climatic conditions around the country.

What are the major learnings you’ve gained in your first several months as a Tata Fellow?

One of the biggest things I’ve acquired is the skill of asking questions and considering new ideas when designing for development. I’ve been exposed to cultural nuances I would have never thought of before. For example, in class we looked at a case study in health to reduce diabetes, and one of the ideas was to convince people to eat brown rice, which is cheaper and healthier than white rice. But people refused to do it, because it goes against social norms and traditions. Those were issues I’d never considered. Another thing I have learned working in the Department of Architecture is how presentation and appearance matter in design. That was validated when I went to India and introduced some of the roof concepts, but the residents did not accept them because they were not aesthetically pleasing or didn’t fit with the social customs of the region. To be viable, the design has to be appropriate in form and function.


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