Expanding the conversation about sustainability
Stacy Godfreey-Igwe sat in her dorm room at MIT, staring frantically at her phone. An unprecedented snowstorm had hit her hometown of Richardson, Texas, and she was having difficulty contacting her family. She felt worried and frustrated, aware that nearby neighborhoods hadn’t lost power during the storm but that her family home had suffered significant damage. She finally got a hold of her parents, who had taken refuge in a nearby office building, but the experience left her shaken and more determined than ever to devote herself to addressing climate injustice.
Godfreey-Igwe, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, has long been concerned about how marginalized communities can shoulder a disproportionately heavy environmental burden. At MIT, she chose a double major in mechanical engineering with a concentration in global and sustainable development, and in African and African diaspora studies, a major she helped establish and became the first student to declare. Initially seeing the two fields as separate, she now embraces their intersectionality in her work in and out of the classroom.
Through an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) project with Amah Edoh, the Homer A. Burnell Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at MIT, Godfreey-Igwe has learned more about her Igbo cultural heritage and hopes to understand what the future of climate change poses for the culture’s sustainability. Godfreey-Igwe herself is the “Ada” – or eldest child – in her family, a role that carries a responsibility for keeping her family’s culture alive. That sense of responsibility, to her community and to future generations, has stayed with her at MIT.
For Independent Activities Period during her first year at the Institute, Godfreey-Igwe traveled to Kazakhstan through MIT’s Global Teaching Labs. As a student teacher, she taught Kazakh high school chemistry students about polymers and the impact plastic materials can have on the Earth’s climate. She was also an MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) Identity X Ambassador during her time there, blogging about her experiences as a Black woman in the country. She saw the role as an opportunity to shed light on the challenges of navigating her identity abroad, with hopes of fostering community through her posts.
The following summer, Godfreey-Igwe interned for the Saathi Biodegradable Sanitary Napkins Startup in Ahmedabad, India. During her time there, she researched and wrote articles focused on educating the public about the benefits eco-friendly sanitary pads posed to public health and the environment. She also interviewed a director for the city’s Center for Environmental Education, about the importance of uplifting and supporting marginalized communities hit hardest by climate change. The conversation was eye-opening for Godfreey-Igwe; she saw not only how complex the process of mitigating climate change was, but also how diverse the solutions needed to be.
She has also pursued her interest in plastics and sustainability through summer research projects. In of the summer of 2020, Godfreey-Igwe worked under a lab in Stanford University’s civil and environmental engineering department to create and design models maximizing the efficiency of bacterial processes leading to the creation of bioplastics. The project’s goal was to find a sustainable form of plastic breakdown for future applications in the environment. She presented her research at the Harvard National Collegiate Research Conference and received a presentation award during the MIT Mechanical Engineering Research Exhibition. This past summer, she was awarded a grant through the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota to work on a research project seeking to understand microplastic generation.
Ultimately, Godfreey-Igwe recognizes that to propose thoughtful solutions to climate issues, the people hit hardest must be a part of the conversation. For her, a key way to bring more people into conversations about sustainability and inclusion is through mentorship. This role is especially meaningful to Godfreey-Igwe because she knows firsthand how important for members of underrepresented groups to feel supported at a place like MIT. “The experience of coming to an institution like MIT, as someone who is low-income or of color, can be isolating. Especially if you feel like there are people who can’t relate to your background,” she says.
Godfreey-Igwe is a member of Active Community Engagement FPOP (ACE), a social action group on campus that engages with local communities through public service work. Initially joining as a participant, Godfreey-Igwe became a counselor and then coordinator; she facilitates social action workshops and introduces students to service opportunities both at MIT and around Boston. She says her time in ACE has helped build her confidence in her abilities as a leader, mentor, and cultivator of inclusionary spaces. She is also a member of iHouse (International Development House), where she served for three years as the housing and service co-chair.
Godfreey-Igwe also tutors one-on-one for Tutoring Plus in Cambridge, where since her first year she has provided mentorship and STEM tutoring to a low-income, high school student of color. Last spring, she was awarded the Tutoring Plus of Cambridge Unwavering Service Award for her service and commitment to the program.
Looking ahead, Godfreey-Igwe hopes to use the skills learned from her mentorship and leadership roles to establish greater structures for collaboration on climate mitigation technologies, ideas, and practices. Focusing on mentoring young scientists of color, she wants to build up underprivileged groups and institutions for sustainable climate change research, ensuring everyone has a voice in the ongoing conversation.
“In all this work, I’m hoping to make sure that globally marginalized communities are more visible in climate-related spaces, both in terms of who is doing the engineering and who the engineering works for,” she says.