MIT School of Architecture and Planning welcomes Newsha Ghaeli as its 2022 commencement speaker

The self-described “interloper” found her passion and met life-long friends while working as a research fellow at DUSP’s Senseable City Lab

By Maria Iacobo

Never underestimate the value of a summer internship. Newsha Ghaeli’s summer research position at the MIT Senseable City Lab in 2012 started her on a journey she never would have imagined. 

Before completing a masters’ degree in architecture at McGill University, Ghaeli took the internship intent on expanding her understanding of urban issues, particularly the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations. 

“Over that summer I felt my world expand learning more about technology and smart cities,” says Ghaeli. “Just being on the MIT campus was a huge eye-opening experience. There was just this energy in the air. You felt that everybody was working on creating something exciting.”

When Senseable City Lab director Carlo Ratti offered Ghaeli an opportunity to work on a coastal resilience project in American Samoa, Ghaeli reshaped her thesis to accommodate this work. 

“She impressed me with her determination and ability to navigate complex projects,” says Ratti who hired Ghaeli as a research fellow at the Senseable City Lab after she completed her masters degree. 

On her first day of work she was introduced to a new project that focused on wastewater epidemiology.

“It rose out of the question, ‘can our sewer systems be analyzed the same way that the human microbiome is analyzed,’” says Ghaeli. “It completely blew my mind. I wasn’t even a scientist yet I realized how important this work would be. Sewage is such a valuable resource and it’s a concept that everyone can understand. We know stool offers so much information on our individual health. So sewage can be a real fingerprint of our collective health.”

Over the next three years, Ghaeli worked on the project with Mariana Matus PhD ’18, a computational biologist. As Matus was completing her dissertation and the two women wanted to turn the research into a private sector company, they participated in several of MIT’s entrepreneurial programs, including MITdesignX, the SA+P innovation accelerator program. They incorporated their company — Biobot Analytics — in the fall of 2017 and began tracking opioid use, a nationwide public health threat, in sewage water. Interest was tepid; they brought in seven clients.

Facing the pandemic

In early 2020, when research showed that the SARS COV2 virus was excreted in the stool of infected patients, they pivoted and developed the assay to detect Covid-19 in sewage. Even before the magnitude of the pandemic was recognized, Biobot Analytics was “overwhelmed” with requests from city leaders around the country pleading for their services. What was clear: data derived from sewage indicated whether the numbers of Covid-19 cases were rising or declining, and public health experts were using Biobot’s data to track the rates of disease in their communities.

Looking back, Ghaeli says the “first few months of the pandemic were definitely crazy.” Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Biobot Analytics has since grown from two co-founders to a team of 82 and has analyzed sewage for locales in all 50 states and locations across Canada. Last year, Bloomberg called Biobot Analytics “a pandemic-era leader on testing to detect levels of the coronavirus in wastewater” and Fast Company ranked it among the top-three most innovative biotechnology companies of 2021 (after Covid vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna).

While the pandemic is now in decline, Ghaeli and Matus continue to explore how they can leverage their technology to understand aspects of human health and behavior. Data on smoking, stress, and nutrition, as well as a host of infectious diseases, can be analyzed in sewage, says Ghaeli. They are already testing for influenza, an area that will ramp up work this fall. 

“I see wastewater epidemiology becoming one of the core pillars of pandemic preparedness globally,” says Ghaeli. “Covid has demonstrated the value and role that this technology has to play in our urban future, and it should be a permanent part of our urban fabric. We have a road map of about a dozen pathogens that we want to start building analysis for in the coming year. We definitely see this as becoming a shift in how we think about the health of our cities and how we monitor and respond to human health in cities. We want to be the company that ushers in this new era in urban public health.”

“We have been thrilled to see Biobot thrive,” says Ratti. “At Senseable we believe that our research should not only contribute scientifically, but also have an impact on cities and citizens lives.”

An aspect of entrepreneurship that has come as a welcome surprise for Ghaeli is the deep friendship she and Matus have developed. That connection, she says, has been good for their company as well.

“Especially now, moving into later stages in life, we’re able to connect on all sorts of different things,” says Ghaeli. “Being able to bring our personal lives into our professional relationship has only strengthened our partnership and working relationship.”

Return to campus

Despite the international accolades for her pioneering work and the high interest among investors supporting Biobot’s growth, Ghaeli was stunned to receive an invitation to deliver the SA+P commencement address. It has not been five years since she left her work at Senseable City Lab.

“When I first received the email and invitation, I had to read the letter multiple times to make sure I was reading it correctly,” she says. “When I was certain it was unlikely a mistake, I immediately thought, ‘who am I to stand up in front of these MIT graduates?’ I’m not even an MIT graduate.

“I just realized that the best that I can do is share my journey and hope that that it will show the graduates what a very near future will look like.”

Ghaeli says her time at MIT remains special and she is excited to return to campus. 

“There was a cool freedom that came with being there as a researcher. I got to know people from different schools and was able to work across different projects, all of which related to cities and the future of our cities, which is where my passion is. I think that being a researcher affords you this special place where you can be an interloper through different departments. You have your ‘home,’ but you’re not tied to a class schedule or a thesis. I met the most incredible people that are life-long friends.

“My time at MIT shows that one of the things MIT stands for — and that you really feel when you’re there — is that really special things happen at the intersection of disciplines. I feel that that is very much embodied in Biobot and in MIT, as an institution. It trickles down into individuals and how they approach work and thought, and everyone is very excited to foster interdisciplinary learning and collaboration.”