PKG Social Impact Internships: Anna Arpaci-Dusseau (’23)
Who Am I?
My name is Anna Arpaci-Dusseau and I’m a rising Junior (Class of 2023) studying computer science and Engineering at MIT. This summer I interned with Conservation X Labs, a company-non-profit working to end mass extinction through a variety of innovative technologies. Specifically, I worked with the Sentinel Team, building a web platform that makes machine learning accessible for conservation researchers to deploy to trail cameras and get live analysis of captured wildlife photography.
Motivation is an important question when one embarks on any project, personal or professional. When I work on my own projects, my motivation starts at a peak, where all I can think about is this one new idea. Then, as time passes, inevitably that passion fades, leaving many unfinished projects. With the prospect of picking a career becoming more and more real as I grow older, I’ve started to wonder how I could ever be happy with one job, especially after that temporary phase of infatuation with my work inevitably ends.
What drives a person to get up everyday and put in the hours of work necessary to complete something? As I have been at MIT I’ve met many people who are intensely driven and motivated to do high quality work, but for me, the question of why they are motivated is highly important.
I’ve known for many years now that I want to work with computers in some way, they are a powerful algorithmic tool enabling engineers to build out full products in short periods of time. I loved the framework of algorithmic problem solving that computation offered, but what I exactly wanted to employ this tool for was a question that was always on my mind.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to participate in a wilderness leadership camp. I spent 45 days backpacking in the Alaskan Tundra, seeing very few people and being exposed to a rare and unique ecosystem. I got to learn about how the animals and insects adapted to the long dark winters and I saw bears and wolves first hand.
However, I also learned about how this ecosystem was rapidly changing– and really disappearing –due to climate change and oil drilling. I saw the massive spanning oil pipeline that cut through alpine forests across the state. It’s a complicated issue no doubt. The road– the only reason we could drive our bus into the wilderness –was only built because of these pipelines. The people who live in that state often work for these companies, and rely on the industry to support their families. Who were we, young outsiders, tourists really, to judge what these people were doing with the land they lived on?
This trip gave me the hint of something more– a problem that was truly difficult and unending. Millions of people could dedicate hours of effort and ingenuity to the complexities of climate, the environment, and human impact. How can we realistically create systems and technologies that can be embedded into society to make positive change? That was one question that my internship at Conservation X Labs made clear that they were aiming to investigate.
Oftentimes, conservation is a sad, mourning process, documenting loss after loss as species disappear or are driven closer to extinction. But, Conservation X Labs made it clear that they were trying to do more than this– they were trying to innovate and make change, while still acknowledging and working with the profit-driven systems that conflict with their goals.
This was something truly motivating. As I built out technical features, using skills from my software engineering classes, I could remind myself why I was spending my time doing this. Yes, in the first days of a new feature I often had the innate drive to complete it, but what sustained that motivation was the knowledge of our goal. The tools we were building could help the wilderness and species that I had seen in my trips to Alaska. I was working with people who also believed in the intrinsic importance of our mission.
After my time at Conservation X Labs, I see a new found importance in knowing what I am working for. I can find motivation in the belief that the hours I put in everyday will impact something I care about, in the people around me who have the same drive and care, and in the responsibility of making positive change bigger than myself.
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