PKG Award Winner 2019: Lisa Volpatti (G)

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“I’m a fifth-year graduate student in the Chemical Engineering Department,” Lisa Volpatti says by way of introduction. It makes sense to start here, with the Chemical Engineering Department, as Volpatti has played a major role in shaping the community culture within the department over her impressive course of study at MIT. As Volpatti rounds the finish line of her graduate degree—which focuses on researching biomaterials for drug delivery—it seems she is a dedicated follower of the old adage: Always leave a place looking better than you found it.

Volpatti thrives not only on her work, but on the ability to build and strengthen bonds between herself and others, as well as bonds within her community. “Promoting women in STEM [specifically] has been really important to me since undergrad,” Volpatti explains. “What I’m most excited about right now is starting the Graduate Women in Chemical Engineering group. There are plenty of other ‘Women In’ groups throughout the institute, but our department has never had one.” The group, one that Volpatti founded alongside a second-year graduate student in Chemical Engineering, not only gives women a sense of community in the department, but also works hard to provide workshops, guest speakers and panels, as wells as inclusivity trainings that are now mandatory throughout the department.

“In terms of promoting women in STEM, I’ve personally had some not-so-great experiences,” Volpatti says. “And I have not been encouraged to pursue engineering as a career. So, to try and give back and show that you can be successful and that you can overcome all of these barriers, that’s something that’s really important to me.” Giving back and supporting others in such a demanding field is something that Volpatti does in a variety of ways. Outside of Women in Chemical Engineering, Volpatti gives back as a personal mentor; she is a part of Resources for Easing Friction and Stress (REFS), where she can collaborate with other REFS groups across the Institute; she is a Teaching Development Fellow, where she works with new and existing Teaching Assistants to improve teaching practices and pedagogy; and she is a Communications Lab Fellow, a peer counseling role focused on effective science communication.

“The other main thing I’ve been doing in service [apart from the Women In Chemical Engineering group] is with the Communications Lab,” Volpatti says of her time as a Communications Lab Fellow. “The idea for this is peer-to-peer science communication coaching, so we have one-on-one appointments to help with applications, or resumes, or papers, or any kind of communications task.” Volpatti, who has been in this role since 2017, believes that communication and relationship-building are nearly as important as the research itself. For her, engineering is also about making connections with people and about orienting the work to face the community it’s meant to serve. “People underestimate the importance of communication and put all the emphasis on the research, which is obviously important… but if no one can read your research or understand what you say, then it’s useless,” she explains.

Communication and collaboration often come to the forefront of Volpatti’s work ethic. Coming together and sharing experiences and tactics is central, and something she believes in across her disciplines at MIT. “What I’ve found most rewarding throughout all these experiences,” Volpatti says, “is that we can meet up with other groups and figure out what they’re doing and then bring it back to our home department and see how we can improve. We can have interactions across the Institute.” For Volpatti, this openness—in terms of communication, and inclusivity, and intradepartmental sharing—is the key to successful growth. “All of the service things I do kind of have the theme of being department-specific, but also being cross-departmental.”

“My whole goal is to help people—through my research… to try to improve the efficacy of drugs—but also to help people in other aspects.” Moving forward from her current program, Volpatti plans to pursue a postdoc, “probably something immunology-related,” and then move on to find faculty opportunities where she can continue to work with students and encourage them to pursue impact-driven careers in STEM.

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