MIE PhD Student Jonisha Aubain Makes Her Mark in Pioneering Research, Environmentalism, and Social Activism
PhD student Jonisha Aubain of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department has never been content to limit her graduate education to her own self-serving interests. Aubain has always augmented her groundbreaking research on tidal energy with a host of broadminded extracurricular activities to make the MIE department, the College of Engineering, the UMass Amherst campus, and the Earth into a healthier, greener, more kindly place for all of us.
After earning her B.S. in Physics from the University of the Virgin Islands in her hometown of St. Thomas, Aubain arrived at UMass Amherst with the energy and impact of a whirling dervish. Or, in her case, perhaps a more apt metaphor would be “a powerful tidal energy force.”
In that context, Aubain’s Ph.D. research, performed under the advisement of Professors Erin Baker and Krish Thiagarajan Sharman of the MIE department, focuses on the design, construction, and application of tidal energy to isolated island communities.
While operating as a Ph.D. student in Sharman’s Ocean Resources & Renewable Energy (ORRE) lab, Aubain is also an ELEVATE Fellow with the UMass Energy Transition Institute, a graduate training and research program focusing on technical, equity, and climate challenges in the energy transition. Much of her work is on the experimental design and construction of a reference tidal turbine to be tested in the ORRE lab.
In pursuit of that goal, Aubain collaborated with MIE Laboratory Manager Dana Parsons to obtain a grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Solutions Through Research, Education, and Art in Massachusetts” (STREAM) program to support their project to design and construct a “Reference Tidal Turbine for Research and Outreach.” The STREAM program aims to cultivate partnerships and encourage innovative initiatives that help bridge art, education, engineering, and science with one-year grants of up to $10,000.
As Parsons and Aubain explained about their STREAM project, “Tidal turbines can generate energy from strong tidal currents along a full gradient from sea floor to sea surface. This tank is supposed to portray real-world applications, so seeing the current and resulting power gradient with respect to depth will be analyzed. The lab will provide tours and demonstrations to the educational community, with the tidal turbine providing a participatory visual experience.”
In a project broadly related to her ELEVATE and STREAM research, Aubain is also doing a techno-economic analysis of tidal energy being applied to her home in the U.S. Virgin Islands to replace the use of diesel power as an energy source. In addition, Aubain has been working with a team of graduate students to plan a conference in her hometown of St. Thomas on the topic of climate resilience and energy transition in Caribbean Islands.
But Aubain’s wide-ranging research activities also act as a platform for her efforts to improve her profession and the society at large.
For example, Aubain is active in the Graduate Women in STEM program as well as the National Society of Black Engineers. She is also in the process of registering two new organizations intended to serve underrepresented students: the Graduate National Society of Black Engineers; and Parents in STEM, which will help student parents build community, network, and receive professional and academic support.
As if Aubain had any spare time, she serves as a graduate assistant with Student Parent Programs, where she plans and coordinates family friendly events and helps connect student parents with resources and opportunities.
Then, in the summer of 2022, Aubain worked with the Summer ENGineering Institute (SENGI), a multi-faceted program that allows students to explore how engineers envision creative, practical solutions that benefit everyday life. She also participated in a month-long program in which high-school students from underrepresented groups learned about the engineering field.
Finally, Aubain participated in the 2023 UMass Flex Summit, which explored ways to open up all parts of the university experience—from classes to career services—through technology and innovation. In the process, Aubain was chosen to help create a digital story, “Womanhood in Engineering,” to highlight how digital technology can improve equity and access for women in engineering.
All in all, Aubain can serve as the perfect role model for how to turn any graduate education into an advanced schooling in the fundamentals of making the world a better place to live. (August 2023)