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Olivia Huang and Akshita Sivakumar honored as Graduate Women of Excellence

Olivia Huang (M.Arch '18) and Akshita Sivakumar (SMArchS '17) were nominated and honored at the 2017 Graduate Women of Excellence Reception. Each honoree was nominated by a member of the MIT Community in recognition of her leadership and service, dedication to mentorship and drive to improve the student experience. Below, Olivia and Akshita answer a few questions on their work inside and outside of MIT for the Office of the Dean of Graduate Education (ODGE).

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Olivia Huang (MArch 2018)

What was your path before coming to MIT? Why did you choose to go to graduate school in your field? 
Before MIT, I was studying architecture at Princeton University in my home state of New Jersey. I need my Masters in order to become a professional architect! After graduate school, I need to work for a certain number of hours and then take licensing exams before I can call myself and architect. After that… perhaps I will start my own firm.

What are you working on at MIT? Why are you passionate about it?
I am designing affordable housing for Framingham, MA. The project is part of a competition to design, program, and finance a local housing project with a team of other students and a developer. Our team won second place in the competition. I'm excited to work further on affordable housing with MASS Design Group this summer, thanks to the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Fellowship. In my studio with Lorena Bellow and Takaharu Tezuka, I am designing an “invisible kindergarten” located at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum. Though it won’t really be built, the project is a model for forest kindergarten architecture. I'm also figuring my thesis proposal; I'm thinking about how architecture can help shift the stigma and social perception of convicts and help reintegrate them into society.  

What are you involved with outside of your academic work? Why is it important to you?
At MIT, I help out with the Architecture Student Council. I am the recently retired co-president, but I still help out. We organize events such as faculty talks and happy hours for the students and advocate student interests to the department. I also work part time with Agncy, a Boston-based non-profit using design to reduce structural inequalities. We’re currently working with Boston Public Schools. Earlier this year we put on an exhibition to engage and explain some of BPS’ initiatives to the public.

I am also taking a ballet class at Harvard. MIT is amazing, but it doesn’t have everything. I’ve been dancing since I was four but stoppedwhen I started graduate school because of lack of time and place. I’m so happy to be back at it. And I wish I could snowboard regularly!

What is it about you that is not visible necessarily but is an important part of who you are in other aspects of your life?
I love learning languages! Besides English, I know French, some Cantonese and Mandarin, and I’m working on Spanish and Japanese. I enjoy it because it’s about understanding others – literally, in conversation, but also culturally and socially. 

What advice would you give a younger graduate student in your field?
Actively block out time for yourself (food, sleep, exercise, hobbies) and your friends! Work is like liquid – it will fill up whatever time you give it – so don’t let it consume all your time.

Akshita Sivakumar (SMArchS Architectural Design 2017)

What was your path before coming to MIT? Why did you choose to go to graduate school in your field?
Born and raised in India, I’ve spent the majority of the last 14 years here in the US, where I did my undergraduate and graduate studies 1.0, and now graduate studies 2.0. During this time, I’ve navigated from starting out as an engineering student to studying architecture, to practicing and teaching architectural design, to most recently, merging design and cognition. I'm onto graduate studies 3.0 this fall, beginning a joint PhD at UCSD. I chose graduate school because of its ability to support transdisciplinary creative scholarship.

What are you working on at MIT? Why are you passionate about it?
I work at the intersection of beginning architecture design and cognitive science to reveal productive opportunities when the two meet. I ask fundamental questions of how we form spatial and aesthetic concepts of the world, and how we query, communicate, and disseminate these ideas.

What are you involved with outside of your academic work? Why is it important to you?
I have particularly enjoyed being a teaching assistant to and mentoring undergraduates, and have mentored incoming international students. Helping students navigate various academic disciplines and cultural contexts is close to my heart because it has been my own journey. I've been a design mentor to teams on the MIT $100K entrepreneurship challenge in order to expose the benefits of framing various problems as design ones. 

I've worked with incredible companies like MASS Design Group and Ariadne Labs (through MASS), who are motivated by the desire to design for the dignity of all through research and creative practice. A house that I designed (while an architect at Flying Elephant Studios, Bangalore) was recently completed in Bangalore, India. Four years in the making, it has been a good reminder of the tenacity that architecture requires. 

I look for opportunities to involve non-designers to engage in creative production. I recently received a grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT), and previously the CAMIT Director’s grant, for an installation that will involve the participation of the MIT community at large.

What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Immigration issues tend to throw massive curveballs. I've found that the only way to overcome them is to find opportunities in unfamiliar places.

How might you make an impact in the future?
I am committed to the feedback loop I’ve developed between design and the brain sciences. I'd like to continue expanding the modalities of design education in order to reach wide audiences spanning disciplines, abilities, and capacities. The inventiveness that this transdisciplinary work requires excites me. 

What is it about you that is not visible necessarily but is an important part of who you are in other aspects of your life?
I am currently writing and illustrating my second children’s book. 

What advice would you give a younger graduate student in your field?
Take a few architecture design courses. The liberal and material nature of them will change your perspective on things you can’t imagine. Embrace transdisciplinarity; see things differently and challenge your canons. When you’re developing your transdisciplinary body of work, reach out to people far and deep for input. Don’t wait for that fully baked (or less crazy sounding) thought.

Photos:
[1] Honorees Olivia Huang and Akshita Sivakumar with Graduate Administrator Cynthia Stewart and Professor Sheila Kennedy. Photo: Tom Gearty.
[2] Students from Architecture & the Media Lab with Graduate Administrator Cynthia Stewart and Professor Sheila Kennedy. Photo: Tom Gearty.