Campus Life student spotlight

A biomedical chemical engineer

Meet Sarah, a PhD student active within MIT student life

8597 whitney zhang   img 20151101 154132
Sarah Shapiro, a grad student in Course 10, works on diagnostic medical devices for Indian communities.
Jesse Shapiro

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Name & Class: Sarah Shapiro, fourth-year PhD

Areas of Study: Course 10 (Chemical Engineering)

Living group: Off Campus Apartment

Home state: Iowa


How would you describe chemical engineering (ChemE)?

In chemistry, you might focus on how one molecule interacts with another, but in ChemE, you look more broadly at the physical constraints of a particular application: how you deliver different compounds to one another, how a reaction proceeds on different time scales. I would say the core principles of ChemE are kinetics, thermodynamics and transport.

How would you describe your PhD project to a layman?

I’m interested in the biomedical side of Course 10, in creating things that can be used to improve health. Currently, I’m working on developing medical diagnostic devices for use in clinics in India. Specifically, I’m working on diagnosing hypothyroidism, a thyroid dysfunction, which is quite a big issue in India. A fun part of my project is that I’ve been able to travel there four times so far.

In terms of what I am actually doing: typically, there is a specific target we try to detect, for example in blood. By measuring how much there is of this molecule in the blood, you can determine whether the person has a specific disease or not. There is a lot of chemical engineering involved while thinking about how we best capture these molecules — for example, looking at fluid flow properties, diffusion properties or just reaction properties.

How did you end up pursuing a PhD at MIT?

I have a chemical engineering background, but I was always more interested in the biological applications of it. I did my undergraduate and master's degree at the University of Oklahoma. I wanted to do a PhD because I was more interested in research than being assigned a specific task to do — I like thinking more broadly about new things we can learn and discover. I was drawn to MIT because of the emphasis on application. I’m really interested in making things that can be used in the real world, and MIT really focuses on that.

Were there any surprises when you first came to MIT?

I expected the MIT community to be really competitive, but it wasn’t, which was cool. The first year in ChemE is notorious for being very difficult, but everyone banded together and were willing to help each other with psets (homework). Also, for ChemE here, you are required to do a minor: three classes that aren’t cross-listed with Course 10. For mine, I did some Sloan courses focused on entrepreneurship in developing communities, which aligns nicely with my current research.

What are the biggest differences between Iowa and Cambridge?

The pace of life is more laid back there. Here, everyone is rushing around all the time, and there are always too many things to do and not enough time to do them. There, everything is a lot slower. I can tell when I go back to visit — I always slow down a little.

What do you do in your spare time?

Since I live far off campus, I’m not that involved in MIT activities, although I’m on the GSAB:  a group of students that tries to interface with the faculty in ChemE. I’m also on the GSC. And then in my free time away from MIT, I really enjoy sewing! I like to make clothes and create things maybe from a picture I’ve seen. Engineering with fabric!

What have you done with the GSC?

About a year ago, I was co-chair of the Housing and Community Affairs Committee. We worked on a lot of things related to families on campus, as well as housing. Every year, we advocate for graduate student stipends — looking at changes in the cost of living and comparing stipend levels here to other universities. In the end, we were successful in getting an increase!

You mentioned you have a family yourself has that been challenging?

Yes, I’m married. I live with my spouse, Jesse, in Melrose — he works in the area. We met in Oklahoma, and moved here together. It’s definitely challenging because there are always different things that compete for your time and attention. So it’s about thinking about what things are important to you and focusing your time there. I focus on splitting it between graduate school, which is important to me, and marriage, which is also important to me!

What are your plans after MIT?

I’m interested in working in industry R&D long term, potentially in Boston. I really love the area here, so I’d certainly be open to staying, but it depends on where I find a job.

Do you have any advice for underclassmen?

I think what’s really important is to figure out what you are interested in and to follow that, and that’s different for each person. Even though the earlier you can figure it out the better, make sure to take some time, especially in early years, to try different things to figure out what you would like to focus on. For some fields, graduate school is important, but in others, going straight into industry might be better. So think about what kind of career you want to have, and what steps you have to take early on to achieve that.

Would you rather have a dog with a cat’s personality or a cat with dog’s personality?

A cat with a dog’s personality — I like cats because they are really low maintenance, but then dogs are super affectionate and happy to see you all the time, so a low maintenance dog personality would be great!

Would you rather be able to reverse one decision you make each day or be able to stop time for 10 seconds each day?

Reverse one decision, because it would be freeing to not have to think about consequences all the time!

What one thing would you want to have with you on a desert island?

Some kind of a tool, maybe a knife, so I could build a shelter.

What one value do you prize above all others?

Honesty. It’s really important for genuine relationships with people.