Laura Stupin was an E:Bioengineering major, and is now working as a Senior Engineer at Pivot in Rwanda. She is also working on plans to start a school where they’ll teach computer programming to the women of Rwanda.
What have you been up to since leaving Olin ten years ago?
2006-2011 I helped create the first International Development Design Summits
2009-2011 I attended Masdar Institute - the world's first graduate institution based entirely on renewable and clean technologies as part of the Masdar City (eco-city) initiative in Abu Dhabi.
2011-2013 I moved to Ghana, and spent some time exploring the country and shadowing different types of people living in villages, trying to step into their shoes - nurses, school teachers, farmers, trying to understand life through different perspectives. I started working with Pivot in 2012, when the idea of turning sewage into industrial fuel was just an idea with a few small bench tests of burning fuel from sewage in small charcoal stoves.
I led the engineering team from small bench tests to larger field tests with prototypes (I can't believe we repurposed a huge pineapple juicing machine, and a giant cassava press for some of the earlier prototypes.) After those trials, we moved onto designing a factory to reliably produce fuel day in and out, sourcing and ordering industrial machines from the US and China.
Finally, we installed the first complete factory in Kigali, Rwanda, and I spent a lot of time getting the production process running smoothly and designing experiments to figure out how to reduce production costs.
(James Regulinski and John Rosenwinkel are also Olin alums that worked at Pivot!)
What attracted you to work at Pivot?
At Maker Faire Africa in Accra, Ghana 2009, I met Pivot Founder Ashley Muspratt when she held an impromptu "Accra Sanitation Tour" throughout the city to show us different sanitation initiatives that had been attempted and failed. It was really eye-opening. At that time she hadn't started the company yet, but she was already talking about her plans. I was impressed by Ashley's vision of creating a product from sewage that could be sold to help pay for sustained sewage treatment year after year.
Unfortunately, the pattern is that many sewage treatment plants in low income countries shut down or run at partial capacity just a few years after being built because of lack of sufficient funds for maintenance and operations. This is a large, systemic problem, and I was impressed by Ashley's vision to tackle the challenge and try to change the system that creates so many abandoned plants.
It sounds like you’re not just at Pivot any more. What else are you doing?
Now I work with several different groups. After 5 years at Pivot, I decided to try something new, so I asked if I could work part time as a consultant with them so I could experiment with other projects and work also. So my days change a lot.
Sometimes I go out to the Pivot waste-to-fuel factory to help troubleshoot problems with production. This is a factory that I originally played a critical part in designing, constructing, commissioning, and then training local staff to operate. They do a great job and I'm no longer as actively needed there now that the factory is running at a steady state. My job there used to be a lot of wiring, plumbing, troubleshooting, and experiments to optimize the system. These days I've taken a big step back, but I do still go up to consult with the local engineer on staff to help him figure out challenges he faces.
I also work with Impact Hub Kigali, a community-fueled space that fosters arts, social enterprise, and environmental initiatives. I'm helping them set up data systems to track their finances, produce quarterly reports, and keep track of outstanding invoices. They're a great group that does great work, but often these internal processes that are the backbone of a strong business get neglected, so I'm working on making those stronger so that it's easier for them to grow and sustain themselves.
I'm also working a lot on a new program to train Rwandan women how to computer code. It's still in the early planning phases, but it's a really exciting project: I've been living in different countries in Africa for 6 years, thinking about job opportunities and employment, and I started thinking/talking about starting a coding boot camp 3 years ago when I was living in Kenya. I couldn't stop thinking about it when I moved to Rwanda.
There are so many smart people in Rwanda, but the education system isn't practical yet - I've heard many stories in every place I've lived about how commonly African university education is: memorize, regurgitate, repeat, and that cheating is rampant and almost expected. Also that computer science students often learn to "program" with a pencil and paper and can graduate from university without ever having written a program on a computer, which is completely crazy. I'm really excited about helping to build a coding school that is practical and hands on, and to open that opportunity to more students. I think a lot about the hands-on, project-based education I was lucky enough to receive at Olin and it will be amazing to be able to share some of those principles elsewhere.
What has been your most significant work experience?
As part of the Pivot field trials, I installed an industrial sewage machine in the bush outside of a town in Kenya. (There were hyenas that would come out to the field site at night, pretty creepy.) The US manufacturers of the machine had initially promised they would send a commissioning engineer to guide the installation, but they backed out and said they couldn't risk sending someone to Kenya because of their claim that it was "too dangerous." I stepped up to take the lead.
I had never installed a machine like that before, it was weeks of intense focus and learning. We were a team of two, myself and a Kenyan colleague. Every morning we'd wake up early, drive out to the site over an awful, muddy road, work all day, sleep a bit and then get up and do it again. It was one of the toughest, most fun projects I've ever undertaken, and I still think about the state of flow and learning I experienced during that project of focusing really hard on a single tough problem.
Why did you choose E:Bio-E, and what else did you do while you were at Olin?
I became interested in Neuroengineering as a...sophomore? Bio-E seemed like the natural path for taking neuroscience courses (cross-registered).
I co-founded the Olin Fire Arts club* with Ryan Hubble, Eugene Kozlenko, Connor Frackleton. I have a lot of beautiful and hilarious memories of spinning in Parcel B or in the parking lot, back when we were still trying to figure out what we were doing. It was really cool to learn more and grow in technique and skill as a group.
* The Olin Fire Arts Club (OFAC) is a group of students who train and perform routines to music while twirling, throwing, and catching props that are on fire. These props are specifically designed to be safely handled without being burned, and numerous other precautions are taken to prevent accidents.
Non-linear dynamics and chaos! I still think about that class a lot, about how beautiful, sophisticated, complex patterns can emerge from a few simple rules. For me, it really feels like it applies to so many parts of life, the universe, and everything. :)
Do you have any advice for Olin students?
There are some really incredible people who go to Olin. Take advantage of spending as much time with as many of them as you can. The personal friendships you develop are perhaps more valuable than the education you are receiving...it will not be so easy to meet amazing people after you graduate!