In a world of constantly evolving food systems, it’s difficult to create something original and impactful. But for a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University, Sasha Cohen Ioannides, that was never a challenge. An economics and statistics major, Ioannides helped design The Aquaponics Project, a portable shipping container that, by utilizing solar power to fuel an anaerobic digestion system, grows tilapia, basil and microgreens.
After winning the Ford Motor Company’s College Community Challenge (C3), her team was invited to participate in a specific, mobile-themed competition, “Making Lives Better by Changing the Way We Move.” The competition challenged the teams to pitch a concept designed to reduce food waste and make healthy food more accessible, and Ioannides’ team of four other students took home first place with their idea. I had the privilege of talking to the Carnegie Mellon student about how the project and how it could change the way we look at food systems.
MH: Since you’re a specialist in food research, how did you become interested in statistics and economics?
SCI: I actually began as an engineering major because I loved math; I didn’t enjoy the application of it as much, though. My father really inspired me because he’s done a lot of research in human geography, which has lots of connections to economics. I’ve always loved creating mathematical formulas to explain human behaviors, as it’s helped me understand the world better.
MH: I think people underestimate the power of a woman with a passion for any kind of STEM major. Do you feel you have an equal opportunity to spread your knowledge as a female in the STEM field?
SCI: Growing up in Missouri, it was the only place I felt I was being held back as a woman in the STEM field. My peers believed I could only gain opportunities to succeed simply because many careers wanted women to diversify their companies or projects. However, the Carnegie Mellon environment exemplified the opposite. They’ve always provided me with equal opportunities, I’ve never had problems with gender barriers here.
MH: It’s no wonder, then, that you’re doing so well at Carnegie Mellon. So, what exactly is The Aquaponics Project?
SCI: The Aquaponics Project started as exactly what the name entails: a mobile unit designed to educate the local community on alternative sustainable agricultural practices in an urban area. Now we are expanding to examine food systems more holistically and aim to create closed loop, sustainable food-system models that can take food waste and place it back in the food system by providing both fertilizer and energy.
MH: How exciting! I think you’re definitely setting an example with this project for many other women working to make their mark in STEM.
SCI: I haven’t really thought of that before. My team is 50 percent women! Most of the urban and sustainable agriculture teams I’ve worked with before have either been led by women or had a pretty equal amount of men and women in leadership positions. I want to be setting examples for communities above all else; my priority is creating better societies in terms of sustainability.
MH: Of course. How has winning both the C3 and mobile-themed competition helped you achieve that goal?
SCI: Well, the competition focuses on “making lives better by changing the way people move,” so it deals with mobility in the literal sense, as well as social mobility. The initial prize was $25,000, and then Ford granted a bonus competition, in which we won an additional $10,000 and a Ford Transit Connect vehicle. The vehicle is being used to aid in food redistribution with our partner, 412 Food Rescue, and to transport the fertilizer we make using the food waste.
MH: How do you hope the system will affect communities?
SCI: The project aims to be a model that can be used in other urban communities to make food systems more local and sustainable. Our team hopes to produce optimal food systems that will close the food loop and be used to improve the Pittsburgh community by producing less food waste, creating more opportunities for education in nutrition and sustainable agriculture and providing college students the opportunity to learn more. I’ve been able to think about food systems in a much broader sense, thanks to this competition
MH: I’m excited to see what else you’re able to accomplish wit The Aquaponics Project! Do you have any last words of advice for women, or anyone in general, looking to make a difference in STEM?
SCI: Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re getting places “just because they’re looking for more girls.” It doesn’t matter what other people think. It just matters that you’re doing something because you enjoy doing it.