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MIT Student is Developing Sustainable Solutions in Vehicle Design

Adi Mehrotra knew that his time at MIT wasn't up yet when he finished his undergraduate degree in 2022. During his first four years at the Institute, he was a critical member of the Solar Electric Vehicle Team (SEVT) and eventually led the group to victory in a five-day, 900-mile race. Later, he translated the skills he learned from SEVT to a summer internship in Ghana with the startup Moving Health, where he worked on low-cost ambulances that could transport patients from remote villages to medical care, without relying on gasoline. But there were still more projects he wanted to tackle.

Now, as a second-year master's degree student in mechanical engineering, Mehrotra has channeled his energy into two arenas: designing clean energy vehicles and enhancing mechanical engineering education at MIT. For the former, he has taken the helm of the MIT Electric Vehicle Team, a student-led research team that is probing the future of transportation by designing a hydrogen-powered motorcycle. And for his master's thesis research, Mehrotra is building a new mechatronics curriculum, an interdisciplinary course at the intersection of mechanical and electrical engineering.

Building in the Basement

Mehrotra cannot remember a time in his life when science did not consume his attention. He credits his parents with fostering this interest, by encouraging scientific thinking with subscriptions to Ask magazine and National Geographic, and lots of LEGO play from a very young age.

As a high school student in East Brunswick, New Jersey, his passion for building blossomed. Mehrotra says, "I built a lot of my own projects, in the basement, mostly relying on wood or metal." He also co-founded his school's FIRST Robotics team chapter. He says, "It's an experience I loved and cherish to this day, as it gave me a lot of hands-on building experience and allowed to explore creative ways to solve exciting problems."

However, launching the team was much more challenging than Mehrotra expected. At the time, his high school didn't want to assume any liability associated with the chapter's activities, so the team operated out of his basement. "Most of our robots were built with a single drill, a Dremel, and a single drill press," he says.

Given those constraints, Mehrotra was pleased with how well the team performed in the annual regional competition. His parents were very supportive, despite the late nights and loud noises coming from their basement that sometimes compromised their sleep. Mehrotra says, "I think they were very glad that I had something so meaningful and fulfilling to work on." Today, the team that he started is still going strong, which fills him with pride.

The Human Side of MIT

"My mom always knew she wanted me to go to MIT," Mehrotra says with a laugh. But he wanted to see MIT for himself. Campus Preview Weekend (CPW), when admitted students visit the Institute, gave him that opportunity. That April weekend, he observed East Campus students building a rollercoaster out of wood — a time-honored tradition. "Even as a pre-first-year, they told me to take a drill and help them build. I knew of MIT as one of the best mechanical engineering departments in the world. CPW sealed MIT as a very human place, as well," he says.

As an undergraduate, Mehrotra majored in electrical engineering and computer science. However, he says, "I realized pretty quickly that I don't like software design, and took as many mechanical engineering classes as I possibly could." He also joined professor of mechanical engineering Sangbae Kim's Biomimetic Robotics lab as a junior, which further cemented his passion for mechanical design.

Mehrotra became especially drawn to vehicle design, an interest that he cultivated in a variety of ways. He joined the Solar Electric Vehicle Team his first year and remained involved for three years. The team designs and builds a solar-powered vehicle and races it in international competitions. Mehrotra started out as a member of the aero team, working on the aerodynamics of the car; over time, he rose through the ranks to become the team captain, leading his peers to victory in the 2021 race from Independence, Missouri, to Las Vegas, New Mexico. In addition to learning about mechanical design, he also learned about life. He says, "The people on the team remain some of my best friends. The older people in solar car were the best personal and engineering mentors. They taught me how to lead a team and treat people well."

Mehrotra's enthusiasm for design also flourished through MIT D-Lab, an initiative that designs solutions for use in the developing world. He says, "There are a lot of classes at MIT that have taught me a lot of things, of course. However, in D-Lab, I walked in with one assumption about good ways to make the world a better place and they kind of flipped that on its head. [D-Lab] approaches problem-solving from this local perspective that if you can help one person very well, that is a bigger success than helping 100 people poorly."

His experience in D-Lab's course 2.729 (Design for Scale) led him to a pivotal mentor, Emily Young '18, the founder of the startup Moving Health, based in Ghana. Mehrotra spent the summer of 2022 there as an intern, building tricycle ambulances to connect rural regions of Ghana to urban medical centers.

A New Outlook

Mehrotra returned from Ghana to begin grad school armed with a fresh perspective on academics. "In the past, sometimes I was afraid of taking certain classes, or doing certain activities, because I didn't feel like I had the right background, but I've thrown that fear away in graduate school," he says.

In that spirit, Mehrotra took a risk in his choice of master's thesis project: He decided to develop a new curriculum for mechatronics at MIT, even though he had little prior experience in curriculum development. He joined Professor Sangbae Kim's lab again, drawn by Kim's dedication to mentoring and teaching, and he served alongside Kim as a TA for the legendary course 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I).

"Working with someone who shares similar teaching philosophies to me is really cool to learn from, and you also feel like you are making an impact through teaching, especially while working with Sangbae," Mehrotra says. His master's thesis will focus on addressing the limitations of the mechatronics curriculum. "We think the current curriculum is not adequate to prepare our students for careers in industry and academia. So, we're looking to incorporate the psychology of learning into building a better curriculum," he explains.

In keeping with his affinity for vehicles, motorcycles seem to be another theme for Mehrotra. Inspired by his time in Ghana, where motorcycles are among the most common modes of transportation, he bought a vintage model for himself, a 1974 Honda CB360 — and he braves Boston traffic on a regular basis on his bike. In addition, he has devoted much of his time to the Electric Vehicle Team, where he is working on a hydrogen-powered motorcycle. Despite the team's moniker, Mehrotra says, "We as a team are not saying that … we should get rid of all battery-powered cars immediately, but we would like to try a proof-of-concept on our own." The team's motorcycle is fondly named Toothless, a nod to the dragon in the Dreamworks movie "How to Train Your Dragon."

In his spare time, Mehrotra also dabbles in cinematography and film. He is currently working on a documentary in collaboration with Moving Health. "I met so many amazing people in Ghana and we want to be able to tell their amazing stories, but we also want to change perceptions of people who live in underserved communities. We often do not talk about them in fair and meaningful ways, but instead just assume that they are helpless," he says.

Once he finishes his master's degree, Mehrotra plans to pursue a PhD under Professor Alex Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Chair in Emerging Technologies, focusing on hydrogen energy systems. Influenced by his time in Ghana, Mehrotra has realized that he wants to pursue research that could impact the developing world. He says, "Climate change disproportionally affects people who live in underserved communities around the world, despite the fact that most of climate change's causes originate from western nations. Solving the energy crisis has implications to many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and social impacts far beyond just mitigating climate change."

Source: https://web.mit.edu/

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