Student Spotlight: Hilary Johnson, Mechanical Engineer

A journey to solve global problems comes full circle.

hilary johnson tata center

Hilary Johnson is a Tata Fellow and first year Master’s student in Mechanical Engineering at MIT. She grew up in Portland, Oregon and has a love for rock climbing and hiking, which is appropriate given that she was named after the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hilary.

Hilary came to MIT with a long-held desire to solve problems and understand technology’s place in India. As a high school student she was accepted into the United World Colleges, which is a group of international schools and programs that aim to inspire students to value and build a more peaceful and sustainable future. She initially requested to be placed in India, but instead found herself spending two years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where her interest in working on solutions for human needs began.

Now, six years later, she is working on assistive devices for the blind with Professor Alex Slocum, and has finally made it to India. She is adapting a Braille labeling technology created by MIT researcher Ted Moallem in collaboration with Govindraj, a blind Indian inventor, to make it mass-manufacturable. It is fitting that she ended up at the Tata Center, but her path was an unusual one.

What brought you to study at MIT?

I wanted to learn how to solve problems in a real, tangible way. Going to high school at the United World Colleges, the whole idea was promoting peace through education. So when I was living in Bosnia I tried all these things, from education reform to sustainability work, but problems just weren’t being fixed. That was the foundation. I thought, “Engineers know how to solve problems. I’m going to become an engineer.”

After graduating from Dartmouth I was hired as the Design Fellow in the engineering school there. Professor Slocum, who is now my PI, came as a guest speaker and I gave him a tour of the campus. It was the coolest four hours. He asked me about the things I wanted to invent, and the crazy ideas I had. I thought, “This is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I want to learn how to think like him.”

Professor Slocum suggested offhand that I should think about applying to graduate school at MIT. I wasn’t thinking about grad school at all; I was thinking about going to work in industry. But I applied and four months later I got an acceptance letter.

When I joined Alex’s Precision Engineering Research Group (PERG) at MIT, I didn’t anticipate that the Tata Center would be a part of my experience. But as soon as things started to work out it just felt like all my interests were coming together. I had wanted to go to India for more than a decade.

I love being here at MIT. People are really passionate about what they do—you don’t find that many places.

How did you become interested in working with the blind and building medical devices?

In August 2016, Hilary worked with the inventors of the Braille Labeler in Tamil Nadu, India.
In August 2016, Hilary worked with the inventor of the Braille Labeler in Tamil Nadu, India.

I spent two years in Bosnia learning so much from my peers, who were from more than 40 different countries. One of my best friends there, Dani, was blind. We spent a lot of time together climbing mountains and going running. We worked out a whole hand signal process so that we could run holding hands and I could tell him if there was a bump coming or if he needed to swerve around something. Then we could have a normal conversation while we ran. That experience stayed with me.

I became really interested in the field of medicine because there’s so much opportunity both in terms of innovation and impact. I saw engineering as this way of leveraging solutions to provide access to a lot of people. I spent a lot of my undergrad time working on medically related projects, so when Alex and Ted Moallem, a postdoc in the Tata Center, suggested the assistive devices for the blind project I thought it sounded like a really interesting significant need.

You recently came back from your first trip to India. What are you excited about and what are you looking to achieve during your time as a Tata fellow?

In India we saw what I call bright spots—amazing work that was already being done by Indian organizations—and it’s really exciting to get to take our expertise and skillset here from MIT and help augment and cultivate the work that people are doing on the ground. That collaboration should be at the very center of what we’re doing. That’s very much my framing and I think the framing of the Tata Center.

As an engineer it’s often easy to assume that your solutions or ideas are amazing. I’m hoping to gain a much deeper understanding of India as a place and how technology fits in there and how can I successfully implement technological change to impact people in a positive way. I hope to learn all of those things because for me doing technology development in India is a lifelong passion, not just for the next two years.