Khadija Benis is conducting her doctoral research in Sustainable Energy Systems at Instituto Superior Técnico (IST), under the MIT Portugal Program. She is currently involved in the Suscity project, one of MPP three test-beds and last year she spent 7 months at the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT). Her research consists of developing a framework for environmental and economic sustainability assessment of Building-Integrated Agriculture (BIA) in urban contexts. BIA consists of the application of high-performance soilless cultivation methods (e.g., hydroponics) adapted for use on top of or in buildings, using efficient energy, water and waste management cycles.This approach of producing food closer to where it is consumed has aroused an increasing interest over the last years since it can considerably decrease fossil fuel consumption, improve food security, provide jobs locally, cut transportation costs and enhance energy efficiency in buildings.

Khadija’ research is being supervised by Paulo Ferrão (IST) and Christoph Reinhart (MIT).

You are from Morocco, did you come to Portugal to study?

Yes. I arrived in Lisbon in September 2010, for the second year of my Erasmus-Mundus master course in “Urban Studies in Mediterranean Regions” at FAUL (Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade de Lisboa). During that first year in Lisbon, I fell in love with the city and decided to stay a little longer.

Why did you choose the MIT Portugal Program? 

At Architecture school, I had the opportunity to collaborate in several research projects related to affordable and sustainable housing in developing countries. Back then, I got passionate about innovation and disruptive research in sustainable design. After the Master, where I specialized in “Sustainable Architectural and Urban Renewal”, I was looking for new challenges. The “Sustainable Energy Systems” Program within MIT Portugal seemed to be the perfect fit for me because of its focus area on Sustainable Built Environment and its international scope, which would allow me to develop impactful research in the field of urban sustainability. Also, while being based in Portugal, the program would allow me to conduct part of my research at MIT. There was no need to think twice about it!

You began your PhD in 2013, what is your opinion about the SES Doctoral Program?

 The “Sustainable Energy Systems” Program offers a stimulating international and multidisciplinary environment. During the year of coursework, I had both engineering and economics classes and I worked with colleagues from various backgrounds. I had the chance to explore different topics in the energy field and further define the scope of my PhD thesis. During my second year of dissertation research, I had the opportunity to spend some time at MIT as a visiting researcher and work closely with two prestigious interdisciplinary research groups.

You are involved in one of MPP´s test bed projects “Suscity”, what are your main responsibilities? 

In Lisbon through the summer of 2015, I was involved in a task with a group of visiting students from MIT. We developed a characterization of residential resource stock and flows within the SusCity site,and an interactive three-dimensional digital tool for analyzing, visualizing, and communicating the residential resource stock and flows. Last year at MIT, I worked with the “Sustainable Design Lab” team on the development of new urban sustainability performance metrics, that we applied to Lisbon. I focused on the productive use of rooftops at the neighborhood scale, by assessing rooftop greenhouses for hydroponic food production vs. rooftop solar PV energy generation.

Last year you spent seven months at MIT USA, how was the experience?

It was an extremely intense and rewarding experience. I was living on campus and I can say campus life went far beyond lab hours! All kinds of activities were happening every day, all the time: lunch talks, art exhibitions, happy hours, Sunday brunches, concerts, dancing classes, sports, etc. It was very intense in terms of networking too. Through work, I had the opportunity to consolidate links with the “Sustainable Design Lab” research group at the “MIT School of Architecture + Planning” and with the “Open Agriculture Initiative” research group at the “MIT Media Lab”. I was warmly welcomed and I instantaneously fit in with both teams! Out of the lab, I was also constantly meeting inspiring people from all over the world, that were working on all kinds of fascinating topics. I have volunteered for the “MIT Sustainability Summit 2016” (a student-led conference that takes place every year during Earth Week on the MIT campus), and I have represented our program’s students at the MIT Portugal booth during the MIT Open House annual event.

You were under the supervision of Professor Christoph Reinhart, a renowned building scientist and architectural educator especially in the field of sustainable building design and environmental modelling. How was this opportunity? 

Working with Christoph was literally inspiring. He has a very dynamic way of teaching and debating about urban sustainable design. Through the spring semester, i.e., from February to May, I had the opportunity to attend his classes, where I have worked with colleagues on the group assignments. My team has developed an urban design project closely related to my thesis topic, which has allowed me to test some concepts and further explore some ideas. I had the chance to learn how to use the performance simulation tools developed by Christoph’s team. Building upon what I have learned in the classes, I was able to build my own simulation workflow, which was a very challenging and exciting process.

What did you do at MIT on a daily basis and how did this experience contribute to your research and to your professional path?

Alongside my research, I attended Christoph’s classes three times a week and I worked on group assignments. I mainly worked at the “Building Technology Lab”, where I was assigned a desk, but I also enjoyed going to any of the amazing libraries of the campus. When weather conditions were milder, I would cross the bridge and go work at a café in Boston. Through the summer, I spent more time at the Media Lab, where the “Open Agriculture Initiative” team offered me a spot in their open space too. Having the opportunity to be at the Media Lab, immersed in such an exciting and diverse environment, working with people from different backgrounds and from all over the world, was highly stimulating and had a valuable impact on my work. Fruitful discussions have helped me to constantly develop and improve my model, and my research visit ended up being extremely productive.

In terms of personal experience, how was it?

It was my first time in the US. I had the opportunity to explore Boston and New York, but I spent most of the time in Cambridge. It is quite a cosmopolitan city, where you constantly meet new people with exciting projects. For the last two months, I left the campus apartment to experience living in a big American family house in Somerville, that I was sharing with European and American scientists and artists. It was a completely different daily routine. It was summer, the weather was nice, and I went to more events out of the campus. I had a wonderful time!

For other MPP students that are thinking about going to MIT USA what would you tell them?

I would totally recommend it! It was definitely an intense and prolific time of my PhD journey, and the whole experience had a highly positive impact on my work. However, I would advise them to choose very carefully the right moment of their PhD to go there, so that they can make the most out of it. The clearer the objectives of their visit, the more beneficial and productive the experience is. MIT is well known worldwide as a leading institution in technological innovation. The campus provides you with unparalleled resources and a stimulating environment, and that can be quite overwhelming. For that reason, I would recommend students to go “with a plan”, but also to leave some space for improvisation. I would tell them to be curious, get involved in extracurricular activities and talk to everyone there!

What are your main goals for your professional future?

I am planning to deliver the thesis in September 2017, and hopefully defend it by December 2017. Afterwards, and considering that the innovation and entrepreneurship focus of the MIT Portugal Program was a major motivation for my application, I believe my research is innovative and has the potential to make a positive impact on society. But for that it still needs some iterations and validation. I hope I can further develop it after finishing my PhD.