PKG Award Winner 2019: Sarah Tress (’19)
Know a public service rockstar? Nominations for the 2020 PKG Award are due by Friday, April 24th!
Sarah Tress is known for many different things at MIT. She is the co-captain of the women’s club soccer team; she is a senior studying Mechanical Engineering, “the flexible option”, she says, course 2A with a self-directed concentration in what she calls “Design for Development”; she is a 2019 Rhodes Scholarship recipient; she is the founder of Loop, a low-cost inflatable seat cushion designed to prevent life threatening complications for wheelchair users in developing countries. It seems the list could go on, but what Tress is perhaps best known for is her striking humility.
Over her four years as an undergraduate student, Tress has marked herself not only as a dedicated scholar, but even more so as an impact-driven designer and engineer. Stemming from an early trip to India with MISTI shortly after her first year at MIT, Tress views her role through the lens of maximizing the impact she can have on any given community. “I don’t want to say that I wasn’t interested in public service before [that trip], but basically, I wasn’t,” she says, laughing a little as she notes how much her outlook has shifted. “I just didn’t have the drive to do it [public service] on my own time,” she says.
“Originally, I thought about pre-med or something,” Tress explains. “I was always thinking about helping people, but I didn’t have in my perspective: Oh, poverty is a thing I should worry about.” And then she went to India. Everything seemed to change with that trip. “I ended up taking a D-Lab class in my sophomore fall,” Tress says, wanting to continue to design with purpose when she returned from MISTI Abroad. The class was Mobility in the Developed World, and from it came the project that would define the next few years for Tress, both at MIT and beyond.
“After taking that class, I was getting more involved with research and doing research under the lecturer who taught the class,” Tress says. “He connected me with a bunch of NGOs to reach out to, and they gave me some ideas of really great projects that nobody was doing,” she explains of the earlier stages of her work. “They [the NGOs] said they really saw a need for a low-cost inflatable wheelchair seat cushion, so I just took that one,” Tress says simply. “It just seemed like it would have the most impact.”
And so, at the suggestion of one of these organizations, Tress took on a project that would soon turn into Loop, a life changing wheelchair seat cushion made out of bike inner tubes. Tress says she spent the rest of her undergraduate career devoted almost exclusively to this project, a project that would go on to win over forty thousand dollars in funding and become one of ten winners for the IDEAS Competition in 2018.
“There are just so many reasons,” Tress says when asked why Loop is so important to her, why it has come to dominate her independent study for the better part of three years. “First and foremost was that I just wanted to do something,” she says. “I didn’t want to spend my summers just going to some internship where I make the tiniest change… I just felt like if I could do something that had a lot of impact, I might as well.” And so, she did. The first time she went to southeast Asia, she went alone, a hard decision and a challenging experience, but a rewarding one. And when Tress returned to the states for her third year at MIT, she was able to start prototyping.
“When I finally started getting a prototype together, and when I was finally able to show that prototype to people,” she explains, “it was clear that it was something that people really wanted and that would make a noticeable change. That,” she says, “is really what keeps me going at this.” And while Tress is loyal to Loop and committed to pursuing engineering that can have that direct human impact, she is also interested in thinking on a more macro level in the work she does moving forward. “I think, overall, it [Loop] has given me insight to the things I don’t know yet,” Tress says.
From teaching her how to lead a team; and teaching her how to lead herself; and teaching her how to design with purpose; and teaching her how to think critically about large-scale issues; Loop has also taught Tress that there is always more to learn. “It’s given me a place to start and really see the questions I want answered.” To answer these big questions—questions like “How do you end poverty?”—Tress will spend the next chapter of her academic career thinking more systematically, working on the back end of these issues. “I do think there’s a lot that can be done with engineering solutions, but I’m not sure it actually solves the route issues,” Tress explains.
Tress will spend the next two years at least pursuing her graduate degree, where she will seek out answers to those big questions, and start to figure out exactly how she wants to start addressing the challenges inherent in poverty. “Not only, as an able-bodied person, do I not think about the challenges that wheelchair users face, but even more so,” Tress says, “I don’t think about the issues that wheelchair users in developing countries face. It’s a completely different set of problems.” It’s a set of problems Tress seeks to understand more deeply so that she can truly face them.