‘Major gift’ endows new food, water lab

J-WAFS to be interdisciplinary effort

MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ’78 has provided a “major gift” to establish the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) according to an MIT press release.

In the release, MIT said the lab would focus on research related to addressing global water scarcity and food shortages. The lab will also reportedly support related research on “population growth, urbanization, and climate variability.”

MIT said the lab will begin operations in September 2014 under the leadership of mechanical engineering professor John Lienhard. According to his website, his current research interests include desalination, water supply, and energy.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement that the food and water issues at the center of J-WAFS’s future research were among “the most pressing challenges facing humanity.”

Lienhard said that the research would take place “all over campus” in participating faculty members’ current laboratories and workspaces.

MIT emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the new lab. Lienhard said in the statement that part of the lab’s focus would be to organize existing water and food supply research. In an email to The Tech, he said the focus of J-WAFS would be “[U]sing our best assessments of regional drivers of water and food scarcity in conjunction with MIT’s strengths in engineering, science, urban planning, and social science, to understand how best to meet the growing demand for food and water in a rapidly changing world.”

In an email to The Tech, MIT Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber said, “This activity is intended to engage current MIT faculty and there is no plan to hire additional faculty. We know of many outstanding MIT faculty who are interested in problems that fall within the scope of the lab so we think interest will be very high.”

Lienhard said that since the announcement had not been made to the faculty, no faculty members have yet been able to join the lab. He added, “But I know from many years of discussion with my colleagues that interest in water and food sustainability is strong, and that they have a lot of insight to these issues and many remarkable ideas for further work.”

In MIT’s statement, Robert C. Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, said J-WAFS would “complement” much of the energy research at MIT.

Zuber differentiated the mission of J-WAFS from the work of MIT’s development-focused D-Lab and Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL): “The work of J-WAFS will be very complementary to that of D-Lab and J-PAL. D-Lab deals with design of technology to help people in poverty. J-PAL uses randomized evaluations and, policy studies and training to fight poverty. J-WAFS will combine science, engineering, urban planning and policy to combat ever-increasing scarcity of clean water and food.”

Lienhard said that the lab would begin recruiting undergraduate researchers “very soon.”

The donation, meant to support research on global water security and food supply at MIT, is not the first for Jameel. He also established the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) with a donation in 2005 and expanded it with another contribution in 2009 according to MIT.

According to Zuber, “Mr. Jameel happened to see a presentation by John Lienhard concerning a report John and I wrote about how MIT could contribute solutions to major problems in the environment, that prominently featured water and food. He later contacted John to learn more and became convinced that MIT could make major contributions towards improving lives by bringing MIT’s capabilities to bear on these issues.”

In MIT’s release, Jameel said that his time as an undergraduate at MIT inspired him to endow J-WAFS to “help find solutions to two of the biggest problems facing mankind.”

According to MIT, Jameel is President and Chairman of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group (ALJ), which serves as a Toyota and Daihatsu distributor in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, among other activities.