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Alumni Portrait: Rose Mutiso '08 Th'08

Feb 18, 2019   |   by Kristen Senz

Co-Founder, Mawazo Institute

Rose Mutiso
Rose Mutiso '08 Th'08, co-founder Mawazo Institute

Growing up in Kenya, Rose Mutiso '08 Th'08 always knew she wanted to be a professor. Now, she's going one step further—by helping other African women achieve that dream as well.

As a girl, Mutiso was in awe of her father, the late Professor Samuel Mutiso, who served as head of the geography department at the University of Nairobi. His research trips, his ability to engage his students, his television appearances—to his youngest daughter, this was the stuff of an ideal life. But she also noticed early on that her mother's work as a public servant, although not as glamorous, had a direct impact on government policy. Janet Mutiso worked as a technical officer in the Ministry of Environment, compiling reports and writing position papers on a variety of issues, including the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that has succeeded in shrinking the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

"That was when I was very young, and I got to see that firsthand," says Mutiso. "It was the precursor to climate change discussions and all of those diplomatic challenges."

Those early influences remained strong throughout Mutiso's time at Dartmouth and her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a doctoral degree in nanotechnology and imagined a life as an engineer and academic. But something wasn't quite right. She noticed that the deeper she delved into the work of a research scientist, the farther removed she felt from public discourse, and from Kenya.

"I also started to see that the academic environment can be quite tough," she says. "A lot of early-career academics don't like teaching, and there's so much pressure, you know, 'publish or perish.'"

Mutiso's search for the sweet spot where academic rigor and thought leadership meets societal relevance and influence over public policy led her to where she is now: Serving as CEO and senior research fellow at Mawazo Institute, a Nairobi-based nonprofit she co-founded with Dartmouth classmate Rachel Strohm '08.

Mawazo, which means "ideas" in Kiswahili, provides research funds and other assistance to women PhD candidates in East Africa, through its flagship fellowship program, PhD Scholars. The Mawazo Institute aims to be a hub for innovative ideas across a broad swathe of academic disciplines, starting with Mutiso's own research areas—energy and applied physics. By hosting community events where intellectual conversation mixes with music and comedy, the Mawazo Institute also strives to create a public platform for the sponsored researchers.

"In a sense we are part think tank, part grant-giving organization, and part public engagement shop," Mutiso explains. "We're doing a lot of events around research and public interest."

Starting Out

Mutiso, the youngest of six, discovered at an early age that she loved teaching and tutoring. She often volunteered to help her peers and says she views educating others as her vocation. Accustomed to the lecture-heavy British education system in Kenya, she later took part in a high school exchange program at a prep school in Massachusetts. It was her first exposure to discussion-based classes and hands-on projects.

"I had never seen that before," she says. "In Kenya, there's this structured set of options depending on your grades. The thing I was supposed to do based on my grades was medicine, but I hate blood, and I knew that was not for me at all."

Mutiso's older siblings attended colleges in the US, and she decided to follow their lead. Arriving at Dartmouth, having never written an academic essay, Mutiso was behind the curve, but she was bright and eager. Courses in gender studies and the history of science were "life-changing," she says. During her second year, a friend convinced her to enroll in Thayer's signature introductory course, ENGS 21.

"Your first course at Thayer, you're already asking a question that exists outside the classroom," she says. "You're designing for a problem in the world around you."

She was hooked. Mutiso chose an engineering sciences major with a focus on materials science and completed both her AB and BE degrees in four years. As an example of how Dartmouth and Thayer opened her eyes to new teaching styles, Mutiso talks about the term she spent studying metal craft with Thayer Professor Harold Frost. The two visited foundries in the Upper Valley so she could learn the techniques and the rich history of what was once known as Precision Valley.

"I still look back at that quarter that I spent driving around to foundries with Professor Frost in his beat-up Toyota Prius," Mutiso says. When it comes to hands-on, experiential learning, she adds, "Thayer does this kind of thing really well."

Mutiso also joined the Dartmouth Students for Africa Association, where she quickly became friends with Rachel Strohm, her future Mawazo co-founder.

Rose Mutiso
Rose presenting at Mawazo Institute

Finding Direction

During her graduate studies, Mutiso's research focused on nanotechnology and renewable energy. She honed her technical skills and took comfort in the concrete answers the lab provided. But in seeking a closer connection with societal issues, she decided to pursue post-doctoral policy work within the federal government.

She served as a fellow first in the US Senate and later at the US Department of Energy, where she worked on technology and policy dimensions of energy access in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

As her time in Washington was winding down, Mutiso found herself still dreaming of an academic life and returning home to Kenya. She reconnected with Strohm, who is currently a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley. The two struck up a conversation about the role of researchers in society, and about the barriers young academics in Africa face.

Their talks took place against a backdrop of skyrocketing supply and demand for higher education across the African continent, and in East Africa in particular. In 2000, Kenya had seven universities; today there are more than 70. According to the World Bank, average enrollment in post-secondary education increases by 15 percent annually in Kenya, with enrollment totals expected to double every five years across Africa. Still, the vast majority of academic voices discussing Africa's complicated issues are based elsewhere.

Mutiso and Strohm, the chief operations officer of Mawazo Institute, decided to focus their efforts, at least initially, on supporting women thought-leaders in East Africa, mainly by providing research funds and skill-building to complement the local educational offerings. For Mutiso, the decision to restrict fellowships to women stemmed from the strong female role models of her childhood, and the glaring gender gap in Africa's academic circles.

"Something that I truly care about is elevating women to positions of leadership and working toward equality," says Mustiso. "We find that women face harsher penalties, higher barriers, and more challenges, so this is the space we want to focus on and where we’re better able to contribute."

After spending much of last year getting the fledgling think tank off the ground, Mutiso and Strohm have started hosting events and supporting fellows this year. The first Nairobi Ideas Night was their attempt to foster a more "public appreciation of nerds," says Mutiso.

"We get nerdy people who do surprising and interesting research, and give them a platform to communicate with the public in a way that's fun and interesting," she says.

Looking Forward

In addition to leading the Mawazo Institute, Mutiso plans to pursue her own research agenda. She'll be looking primarily at the structure of the power sector and the role of the utility in East Africa, as well as examining cost-effective methods of energy data management in developing countries. She's also planning to teach physics courses at the University of Nairobi.

For Mutiso, finding time for all of this work is not a matter of choice. "I have a responsibility to teach this course that wouldn't be taught otherwise," she says. "I'm exceptionally qualified, and this is a big gap in the teaching, so it's hard to take things off your plate when you're aware of how much you have that could really make a difference."

She's also increasingly aware of the scope of the problems the continent faces. To combat cynicism, she reaches back to her time at Thayer and the "foundation of boundless energy and optimism," that she built. "You get a chance to be young and hopeful at Dartmouth, and I can still draw from that reservoir."

She then adds a note of caution: "It's quite a balance, because you don't want to be unrealistic about what can and cannot happen, but you always want to have the sense that anything is possible."

As a nonprofit, Mawazo Institute aims to assist local researchers in driving their own research, without influence from third parties, and to expose academics to the kind of "liberal arts worldview" and interdisciplinary thinking that Mutiso developed at Thayer.

"When I'm in a non-US context, I have this standing joke that always gets people laughing and that's the fact that I have a bachelor of arts in engineering," she says.

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