Campus Life a misti summer

On whale tails and Brexit

A summer in England

This summer, I studied the behavior of flapping foil systems at the University of Southampton in England. Flapping foils are devices modeled on the swimming mechanisms of cetaceans and many fish. They are essentially robotic whale tails that can be strapped to the stern of a boat as a means of propulsion, or strapped to a post in the surf to harvest energy as waves force the device to flap. This is a gross oversimplification of how the flapping foils are implemented, but it gives a good mental image of how they work.

I worked with the Fluid Structure Interactions Group (FSI) which focuses on the dynamic behavior of engineering systems in marine environments. This means that in addition to doing computer simulations and hydrodynamics calculations, I got to play with marine robots in a large towing tank!

The University of Southampton reminded me of MIT in many ways. Over the course of my internship, I got to know the other students — mostly PhDs and postdocs — who were conducting research at the university over the summer. A large number of these students were international, so even though I remained in England for the entire summer, I learned a great deal about contemporary Europe.

I met students from France, Italy, Germany, Greece, and Poland. I learned how to make honey cake and tasted a Greek treat known as a vanilla “submarine.” We discussed food, travelling, and of course, current politics over a pint after work. This environment reminded me quite a bit of MIT. We were a group of young, forward-thinking individuals who celebrated diversity and learning, discussed enlightening topics over lunch, and had weekly lab meetings to hear presentations on the group’s research.

Southampton, much like Cambridge, is a working-class area that has a university plopped down in the middle of it. On my daily 20 minute walk to work, I noticed how the buildings, yards, and general street cleanliness became better kept as I approached the university, much like on my walk from Central Square back to MIT. In both places I felt somewhat embarrassed: I walked past dilapidated buildings on my way to an internationally-recognized institution, complete with pristine laboratories and expensive equipment. The inequity is so apparent, yet I frequently forget to notice it because it has become part of my daily routine.

At first these observations were simply a curious comparison between the two places, but after June 23rd, they began to take on a different meaning. Leading up to this date, there was constant debate in the country as to whether or not Britain was going to vote in the upcoming referendum to leave the European Union, an event aptly nicknamed “Brexit.” The rhetoric surrounding the “Leave” camp was fearful, xenophobic, and vitriolic. While the polls predicted that Britain would surely stay in the EU, on that Thursday, Britain voted to leave by nearly 1.3 million votes.

I remember going into work that Friday and seeing everyone — international and British citizens alike — walking around in a daze. The initial reaction was shock, followed by concern and sadness. A university by its nature is a collaborative enterprise that aims to better human relations. While there were more concrete concerns about leaving, including the renewal of research funding from the EU and scholarships for international students, there was also an overall sense of hopelessness as the country rejected the essence of what any university represents. 

A few weeks after, I learned that the town of Southampton had voted to leave by over 7 percentage points. When I heard this, I thought about my walk to work and how all the upkeep and landscaped pleasantries seemed to be concentrated around the university, even over this short one mile stretch of road. I wondered if, like MIT, the only contact university students had with the locals was passing them on the street or sharing public transportation. I wondered if the bubble surrounding MIT and the University of Southampton contributed to our shock at Britain’s overall decision to leave the EU. My instinct tells me that it did.

While I did not believe that doing research on mechanical whale tails would directly improve the world, I did believe that somehow, by traveling, conducting cutting-edge research, and furthering my own intellectual development, I would tangentially impact the lives of others in a positive manner. While I still believe this to some extent, I am no longer sure that is enough. I loved my work at the University of Southampton and the work I do at MIT, but I realize that it is also my responsibility to recognize the larger community that exists just outside of the university bubble. If what I see there makes me uncomfortable, then I must stop rushing by it, and instead think, “How can I use my skills to help make this better?”

The MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program is MIT’s flagship international education program. If you can see yourself joining a team of BMW engineers in Munich, teaching technology entrepreneurship in South Africa, testing solar panels in Israel, or tackling a research problem at the Curie Institute in Paris, then you’re ready to join MISTI. Learn more at

Fiona’s internship is a result of an ongoing collaboration between MISTI and IROP.