“I started to find a nexus between the electricity sector, the energy sector, and kind of how both of these were very tied to large goals like climate change, but the thing was, it wasn’t an engineer’s problem entirely.”
Lama Sara Aoudi is studying the specific drivers and regional uncertainties influencing grid design, reliability, and cost. She is passionate about finding solutions to problems at the nexus of the electricity and energy sector. Lama has experience working in the environmental department at ExxonMobil and at Sigora International. She also enjoys film photography and how the constraints inherent in the medium set it apart from digital.
Lama is a Master’s candidate in the Technology & Policy Program at MIT. She is currently working with Professor Ignacio Perez-Arriaga on an energy project where she interfaces with the computer-aided off-grid electrification model, REM which the team hopes will be valuable in the planning of electricity networks in developing countries.
The first question is just what brought you to MIT?
I studied environmental engineering undergrad and I kind of did this cross-disciplinary thing where I also did electrical engineering as a minor for the most part and I did a concentration in energy and I started to kind of find this nexus between the electricity sector, the energy sector, and kind of how both of these were very tied to large goals like climate change.
But the thing was, it wasn’t an engineer’s problem entirely. We know the technology. We know the science. That’s not what’s stopping us from getting there. It’s a lot of politics and it’s a lot of economics that’s very prohibitively keeping us where we are today. And so, I wanted to start navigating the social science part of that. So, what is policy and how does that come into play with science? And how do you leverage a market versus have it very much against you the whole time? That’s when I thought of energy policy and I decided to take a gap year and in the middle of all that found TPP which is the Technology & Policy Program and it just seemed to consider that marriage of social science and science and to really value it and I thought that that would be the best place for me to be and so I applied and it was– I got in! so it was a success story, but only step one and yeah that’s how I ended up at MIT.
In my gap year I worked for a startup that actually designed smart meters for deployment in 3rd world countries to build microgrids and to make it more affordable and more reliable for customers and utilities and that gave me a lot of context for the off-grid electrification space and so when I was navigating that space I was leaning on a lot of literature and academia and it just happens to be that one of the most advanced people in off-grid electrification happened to be at MIT too and that was Ignacio’s group so it was great and that was how I ended up in Ignacio’s group, really leveraging the experiences I had at that startup and trying to answer bigger questions that kept coming up in the field that I’d found ‘I need more time, more money, and more expertise to do this’ and it’s been great that this is available here.
You must have a really wide point of view coming into this policy program?
Yeah, a wide point of view, but I can still see where more years of experience in different avenues of the energy sector would have been useful. So if I had worked just in like a basic utility company, or if I had worked in a basic environmental conservation firm, or if I had worked in a think tank, like all those could have informed where I am today but I think that that would have been—well, but now I can also see the opposite side or the converse side where now I can go into those companies with the foresight of my education being more interdisciplinary. So there’s an opportunity cost on both sides, but I’m glad that I had some source of diversity in my previous experiences before coming here and I’m glad that I took that gap year before coming here.
With those disparate interests and background, what is your aspiration for this project at this point?
So, because I worked at a microgrid developer, I had a lot of questions from the perspective of a developer about, ‘How do we make it so that more people want to do this? How do we make it more economically feasible for both the consumer, but also for the people who are going to build this microgrid and operate it? And a lot of it came down to what do you want to electrify? Where? How? And when it came to ‘How?’ it was always about ‘Are we electrifying for what we see today or are we expecting that in next 25 years things will change?’ ‘Should I pick town A or town B and what are the differences and why should I pick either and can picking one first make picking the next one easier by making it more affordable or making it more..’ ‘How do you build without it being a hundred percent random and reducing the risk for potential developers and investors? That was the question that I was very curious about and so when I came to the REM group they had started to ask those questions and were only now kind of conceiving solutions to them because we started with a very broad problem which was how do we solve electrifications and they began to solve it, but the more you solve something the more you see where your limitations are and you can redevelop your model to be better and better each time and so I came at a really interesting time where they were starting to ask the same questions that I had been asking, so it was really good. Now it’s a matter of catching up with everything that they know and kind of being at the same page with them and then trying to develop moving forward with REM where I’m answering those questions and being as useful as possible with my experiences but then also having kind of the education background from being here.
Finally, do you have any key things you’ve learned in your first few months as a fellow?
I had worked previously in a lot of development projects, but it’s cool to see how robust Tata is, like there are projects almost in every vertical be it air quality too, you know, VR and it’s cool to kind of see the different approaches that professors and students have taken towards providing development solutions to people with very different contexts then themselves and how they’ve gone around doing the same thing that most development organizations will do which to kind of solve a problem and walk away but there’s a lot more engagement in the way that Tata approaches it and I think that’s something that’s really promising and exciting because a lot of the times when you try to solve these problems, if they’re not cognizant of who they’re solving it for, then these problems just become sort of junk in the back of the house and they don’t actually benefit society so it’s a lot of sunken cost on your front and a lot of missed opportunity from the perspective of communities. So I think that that’s something that I’m kind of learning through the Tata seminar and so forth.
I just have some more fun questions. What is one book that impacts the way you think about the world or your work?
One book? I don’t think I have a book I can trace back to. I would— even just thinking back about all my favorite books. I don’t think I can pinpoint one as like the one that changed my mind. I think I’ve had a lot of books change- I think one book that’s had a big influence, because I always cite it, is The Stranger by Albert Camus, or L’Estranger in French. It’s a French book and Albert Camus, he’s an absurdist so, absurdism is the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning to life. That life is meaningless and therefore everything we do has no intrinsic value and we live and die – it’s not a disbelief in god, and it’s also not a belief in god. It’s kind of living in that tight rope of ‘this is just what you get’.
I was incredibly religious when I read that book and I have this thing when I read books that I try to bring zero prejudice into what I read. So I was like ‘this is very fundamentally against everything that I believed at the time, not to say that I no longer hold those beliefs, but they were very strong at that time and for me to kind of encounter that book at that time, it was just kind of questioning how I perceived reality and seeing if there was validity in a completely contrary version or perspective and what I found was that there was. I was very intrigued by absurdism and it kind of drove a lot of the ways that I interacted with my day to day. It just was one of those things like, ok, ‘don’t let who you are interfere with what you could learn’.
That’s sounds like a practice and I’m curious about how you cultivated that.
I think it started, well I have this really big thing, since I was a kid, against people who cheat and I was reading Ana Karenina by Tolstoy which is fundamentally a story about adultery, at its core not necessarily at its value, and so I wanted so much not to hate the main character because I felt that that would destroy the 1000 pages that I had left of this book. So I forced myself; I was like ‘you can’t hate her, so you can’t bring your conceptions of right or wrong into this book.’ And so that was the first time that I had started to train myself. And then I started to read a lot of controversial books, but L’Etranger was a book that we had to read in class, so it wasn’t something that I sought out with this book, but it was something that once I encountered it, it was like, ‘alright this is a cool idea and it– I actually don’t think that it’s in any way offensive to me so that’s kind of how it worked. Yeah it started with adultery.
I like that origin story! I saw that you are into film photography and I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about your film photography hobby or maybe something you’ve learned recently about that?
Yeah, so I used to be very into art. I did it up until I was in 10th grade and then I decided to be an engineer and I had to pick between art class and chemistry and I picked chemistry. And then like seven years later I never touched art and it was such a big part of who I was at the time and I struggle now to pick it up every now and then because.. I can see that I’m nowhere near as good as I was. I love it so much but it takes a lot of time and so I was very interested in candids and in photography and I would always take a bunch of polaroids of my friends and I thought that they always were really cool and captured a moment and no one was noticing and I realized that I actually really enjoyed taking photos of other people. It became something that I had collected like over a hundred polaroids of my friends and I was like constantly spending so much money on this stupid thing and I was like ‘you know what I also love about it is the aesthetic’. So I thought of getting a film camera, mostly because a DSLR is about a thousand dollars and a film camera can be a hundred and twenty on eBay. So I did a bit of research and my friend bought me my first camera, actually.
I would just always have my camera on me in my senior year of college and I would take photos of my friends and I did like a small project on women of color and I kind of studied how our natural aesthetics can be an embodiment of our cultural heritage and how those kind of ascertain one another and I did a whole photoshoot. I booked out a studio and I painted them and I was so invested in it and I was like wow this is something I’m doing very inherently for myself and so I really fell in love with the medium and I actually wanted to work as a photographer for my gap year. But now I’m just working on getting better on the side whenever I have time and eventually I want to learn how to develop my film.