How to track your period safely post-Roe

As soon as Roe v. Wade was overturned on Friday, June 24, calls for people to delete their period-tracking apps were all over social media. These apps gather extremely personal data that could pinpoint a missed period. The fear is that in the hands of law enforcement, this data could be used to bolster a criminal case against a person who attempts to get an abortion in a state where it is restricted or banned.

Understandably, a lot of people are scared and confused. So here’s our guide to what you need to know about period-tracking apps, what the apps’ makers say about their often murky privacy policies, and what alternative methods you can use to track your menstrual cycle that don’t involve handing your data over.

Why use a period tracker?

Stress or dietary changes, among other factors, can make periods irregular and unpredictable. Tracking them can help expose underlying health issues, such as fibroids, which are noncancerous uterine growths. It can also help people spot patterns in mood and energy, which can often be affected by ovulation. People trying to get pregnant often use period trackers to figure out when they’re most fertile. 

So why are people panicking?

The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US triggered laws that made abortion illegal in 13 states, and more states are likely to ban abortion in the coming months. In states that have banned abortions, people could now be prosecuted if they are alleged to have had one. The worry is that their digital data footprint could be used to build such a case. Missing your period is not a crime, but evidence of it could be subpoenaed and used to bolster a case against someone suspected of an abortion. 

What do companies that make period-tracking apps have to say about this?

We reached out to some of the major period-tracking apps—Flo, Clue, and SpotOn (an app from Planned Parenthood)—for comment on what their privacy settings are and whether they would turn information over to authorities in states where abortion is illegal. Clue and SpotOn did not respond, though Clue stated on Twitter that because it is based in the European Union, it is not permitted to share data with authorities in the US: 

“We would have a primary legal duty under European law not to disclose any private health data. We repeat: we would not respond to any disclosure request or attempted subpoena of our users’ health data by US authorities. But we would let you and the world know if they tried.”

Neither Flo nor SpotOn have said whether they would turn over data to the authorities. Another app called Stardust, which skyrocketed to the top of App Store download ranks this past weekend thanks to viral videos the company posted promising privacy, actually states in its privacy policy that it will turn over data to authorities “whether or not legally required.” The moral of the story? If you want to be sure, read the fine print. 

All this means that the risks of tracking your menstrual cycle via an app may outweigh the benefits, and if you live in a state that has banned abortion or looks likely to ban abortion imminently, you may decide that your safest bet is to stop using this technology. But before you do, here are some things to think about:

1. Put it into perspective. If you live in a state that has banned abortion, you should also pay attention to the other digital traces you might leave. “Period-tracking apps should not be your biggest concern,” says Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist and security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He says that social media posts, text messages, and Google search history would be a higher priority for authorities seeking to digitally prove an abortion. 

2. Before you delete your app, save your information. You’ve got a ton of valuable data and information you don’t want to lose, says Aliza Aufrichtig, who created a spreadsheet template for tracking periods. Either write your information in a notebook or do what Aufrichtig did and enter it into a spreadsheet. 

3. After you delete your app, ask the app provider to delete your data. Just because you removed the app from your phone does not mean the company has gotten rid of your records. In fact, California is the only state where they are legally required to delete your data. Still, many companies are willing to delete it upon request. Here’s a helpful guide from the Washington Post that walks you through how you can do this.

Here’s how to safely track your period without an app.

1. Use a spreadsheet. It’s relatively easy to re-create the functions of a period tracker in a spreadsheet by listing out the dates of your past periods and figuring out the average length of time from the first day of one to the first day of the next. You can turn to one of the many templates already available online, like the period tracker created by Aufrichtig and the Menstrual Cycle Calendar and Period Tracker created by Laura Cutler. If you enjoy the science-y aspect of period apps, templates offer the ability to send yourself reminders about upcoming periods, record symptoms, and track blood flow.

2. Use a digital calendar. If spreadsheets make you dizzy and your entire life is on a digital calendar already, try making your period a recurring event, suggests Emory University student Alexa Mohsenzadeh, who made a TikTok video demonstrating the process

Mohsenzadeh says that she doesn’t miss apps. “I can tailor this to my needs and add notes about how I’m feeling and see if it’s correlated to my period,” she says. “You just have to input it once.” 

3. Go analog and use a notebook or paper planner. We’re a technology publication, but the fact is that the safest way to keep your menstrual data from being accessible to others is to take it offline. You can invest in a paper planner or just use a notebook to keep track of your period and how you’re feeling. 

If that sounds like too much work, and you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense template, try the free, printable Menstrual Cycle Diary available from the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research.

4. If your state is unlikely to ban abortion, you might still be able to safely use a period-tracking app. The crucial thing will be to choose one that has clear privacy settings and has publicly promised not to share user data with authorities. Quintin says Clue is a good option because it’s beholden to EU privacy laws and has gone on the record with its promise not to share information with authorities. 

The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions was dealt a massive blow by the US Supreme Court today.

Coming less than a week after it overturned the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade, the court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA could have far-reaching results for US climate policy as the world continues to set new records for emissions that drive global climate change.  

What was the ruling?

The decision states that the EPA’s actions in a 2015 rule, which included caps on emissions from power plants, overstepped the agency’s authority.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” the decision reads. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

Only Congress has the power to make “a decision of such magnitude and consequence,” it continues. 

This decision is likely to have “broad implications,” says Deborah Sivas, an environmental law professor at Stanford University. The court is not only constraining what the EPA can do on climate policy going forward, she adds; this opinion “seems to be a major blow for agency deference,” meaning that other agencies could face limitations in the future as well.

The ruling, which is the latest in a string of bombshell cases from the court, fell largely along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, and he was joined by his fellow conservatives: Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

What is the decision all about?

The main question in the case was how much power the EPA should have to regulate carbon emissions and what it should be allowed to do to accomplish that job. That question was occcasioned by a 2015 EPA rule called the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan targeted greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, requiring each state to make a plan to cut emissions and submit it to the federal government.

Several states and private groups immediately challenged the Clean Power Plan when it was released, calling it an overreach on the part of the agency, and the Supreme Court put it on hold in 2016. After a repeal of the plan during Donald Trump’s presidency and some legal back-and-forth, a Washington, DC, district court ruled in January 2021 that the Clean Power Plan did fall within the EPA’s authority.

The Supreme Court case West Virginia v. EPA is a result of challenges to that district court decision. A handful of states, as well as several coal companies, argued that the EPA did not have the authority to regulate emissions the way it tried to do in the Clean Power Plan.

What were the arguments in the case?

The states argue that the EPA should only be allowed to regulate individual power plants, not to set industry-wide standards.

Second, they argue that because the EPA was instating rules that would have wide-reaching economic impacts, the agency was broadly overstepping what Congress gave it the power to do.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave the EPA authority to regulate pollution, and amendments in 1990 expanded the agency’s role. This authority has been interpreted to include greenhouse-gas emissions, as the Supreme Court found in a 2007 case.

The Biden administration argues that the court shouldn’t be looking at the effects of the Clean Power Plan at all, since in fact the plan never took took effect. It contends that the court should wait until there are new rules released before it decides how the EPA should regulate emissions. 

But the justices sided with the complaining states, ruling that the EPA’s plan overstepped the agency’s authority.

The dissenting justices argue that the ruling strips the EPA’s authority to regulate pollution, including greenhouse gases, an authority they say was granted by the Clean Air Act. 

In the dissenting opinion, the justices described the potential harms of climate change, including flooding, heat waves, and natural disasters, saying: “Congress charged EPA with addressing those potentially catastrophic harms, including through regulation of fossil-fuel-fired power plants.

“Section 111 of the Clean Air Act directs EPA to regulate stationary sources of any substance that ‘causes, or contributes significantly to, air pollution’ and that ‘may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.’ Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases fit that description.”

What does this all mean?

The decision will limit the ability of agencies like the EPA to take action on climate without backing from Congress. 

The agency will still be able to take some actions in regulating emissions, including requiring new technologies at power plants. But more wide-reaching programs, like setting emissions caps to encourage a shift away from coal, might be constrained in the future. 

“It sends a signal to EPA that when they make future rules about greenhouse gasses in particular, that they’re going to be highly constrained in what they can do,” says David Victor, a public policy professor at the University of California, San Diego.

The federal government will still be able to encourage emissions cuts through incentives like tax credits and public investment, Victor explains, but when it comes to enforcing binding rules on climate action, it could be even more limited in the future, leaving it to states to step in.

“This case adds to a darkening cloud of uncertainty about the capacity of the federal government to regulate pollution,” Victor says. 

That uncertainty will make it harder for the federal government to make promises to other countries and influence their actions on climate, he says, and it could potentially cool private investment. 

Some see this case as a call to action for Congress. “Broadly, this reinforces how important congressional action on climate policy is,” says Lindsey Walter, deputy director of climate and energy at Third Way, a public policy think tank.

But as the dissenting justices put it, the decision is a blow to the federal government’s ability to move on climate change: 

“Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.’” 

This story will be updated.

The Download: Algorithms’ shame trap, and London’s safer road crossings

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

How algorithms trap us in a cycle of shame

Working in finance at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, mathematician Cathy O’Neil got a firsthand look at how much people trusted algorithms—and how much destruction they were causing. Disheartened, she moved to the tech industry, but encountered the same blind faith. After leaving, she wrote a book in 2016 that dismantled the idea that algorithms are objective. 

O’Neil showed how every algorithm is trained on historical data to recognize patterns, and how they break down in damaging ways. Algorithms designed to predict the chance of re-arrest, for example, can unfairly burden people, typically people of color, who are poor, live in the wrong neighborhood, or have untreated mental-­health problems or addictions.

Over time, she came to realize another significant factor that was reinforcing these inequities: shame. Society has been shaming people for things they have no choice or voice in, such as weight or addiction problems, and weaponizing that humiliation. The next step, O’Neill recognized, was fighting back. Read the full story.

—Allison Arieff

London is experimenting with traffic lights that put pedestrians first

The news: For pedestrians, walking in a city can be like navigating an obstacle course. Transport for London, the public body behind transport services in the British capital, has been testing a new type of crossing designed to make getting around the busy streets safer and easier.

How does it work? Instead of waiting for the “green man” as a signal to cross the road, pedestrians will encounter green as the default setting when they approach one of 18 crossings around the city. The light changes to red only when the sensor detects an approaching vehicle—a first in the UK.

How’s it been received? After a trial of nine months, the data is encouraging: there is virtually no impact on traffic, it saves pedestrians time, and it makes them 13% more likely to comply with traffic signals. Read the full story.

—Rachael Revesz

Check out these stories from our new Urbanism issue. You can read the full magazine for yourself and subscribe to get future editions delivered to your door for just $120 a year.

– How social media filters are helping people to explore their gender identity.
– The limitations of tree-planting as a way to mitigate climate change.

Podcast: Who watches the AI that watches students?

A boy wrote about his suicide attempt. He didn’t realize his school’s software was watching. While schools commonly use AI to sift through students’ digital lives and flag keywords that may be considered concerning, critics ask: at what cost to privacy? We delve into this story, and the wider world of school surveillance, in the latest episode of our award-winning podcast, In Machines We Trust.

Check it out here.

ICYMI: Our TR35 list of innovators for 2022

In case you missed it yesterday, our annual TR35 list of the most exciting young minds aged 35 and under is now out! Read it online here or subscribe to read about them in the print edition of our new Urbanism issue here.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 There’s now a crazy patchwork of abortion laws in the US
Overturning Roe has triggered a legal quagmire—including some abortion laws that contract others within the same state. (FT $)
+ Protestors are doxxing the Supreme Court on TikTok. (Motherboard)
+ Planned Parenthood’s abortion scheduling tool could share data. (WP $)
+ Here’s the kind of data state authorities could try to use to prosecute. (WSJ $)
+ Tech firms need to be transparent about what they’re asked to share. (WP $)
+ Here’s what people in the trigger states are Googling. (Vox)

2 Chinese students were lured into spying for Beijing
The recent graduates were tasked with translating hacked documents. (FT $)
+ The FBI accused him of spying for China. It ruined his life. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Why it’s time to adjust our expectations of AI
Researchers are getting fed up with the hype. (WSJ $)
+ Meta still wants to build intelligent machines that learn like humans, though. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Understanding how the brain’s neurons really work will aid better AI models. (Economist $)

4 Bitcoin is facing its biggest drop in more than 10 years
The age of freewheeling growth really is coming to an end. (Bloomberg $)
+ The crash is a threat to funds worth millions stolen by North Korea. (Reuters)
+ The cryptoapocalypse could worsen before it levels out. (The Guardian)
+ The EU is one step closer towards regulating crypto. (Reuters)

5 Singapore’s new online safety laws are a thinly-veiled power grab
Empowering its authoritarian government to exert even greater control over civilians. (Rest of World)

6 Recommendations algorithms require effort to work properly
Telling them what you like makes it more likely it’ll present you with decent suggestions. (The Verge)

7 China’s on a mission to find an Earth-like planet
But what they’ll find is anyone’s guess. (Motherboard)
+ The ESA’s Gaia probe is shining a light on what’s floating in the Milky Way. (Wired $) 

8 Inside YouTube’s meta world of video critique
Video creators analyzing other video creators makes for compelling watching. (NYT $)
+ Long-form videos are helping creators to stave off creative burnout. (NBC)

9 Time-pressed daters are vetting potential suitors over video chat
To get the lay of the land before committing to an IRL meet-up. (The Atlantic $)

10 How fandoms shaped the internet ❤️
For better—and for worse. (New Yorker $)

Quote of the day

“This is no mere monkey business.”


—A lawsuit filed by Yuga Labs, the creators of the Bored Ape NFT collection, against conceptual artists Ryder Ripps, claims Ripps copied their distinctive simian artwork, Gizmodo reports.

The big story

This restaurant duo want a zero-carbon food system. Can it happen?

September 2020

When Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint opened The Perennial, the most ambitious and expensive restaurant of their careers, they had a grand vision: they wanted it to be completely carbon-neutral. Their “laboratory of environmentalism in the food world” opened in San Francisco in January 2016, and its pièce de résistance was serving meat with a dramatically lower carbon footprint than normal. 

Myint and Leibowitz realized they were on to something much bigger—and that the easiest, most practical way to tackle global warming might be through food. But they also realized that what has been called the “country’s most sustainable restaurant” couldn’t fix the broken system by itself. So in early 2019, they dared themselves to do something else that nobody expected. They shut The Perennial down. Read the full story.

—Clint Rainey

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ A look inside the UK’s blossoming trainspotting scene (don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name.)
+ This is the very definition of a burn.
+ A solid science joke.
+ This amusing Twitter account compiles some of the strangest public Spotify playlists out there (Shout out to Rappers With Memory Problems)
+ Have you been lucky enough to see any of these weird and wonderful buildings in person?

The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Introducing: Our TR35 list of innovators for 2022

Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.

As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.

To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.

Read the full list here.

The Urbanism issue

JA22 cover

The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras. 

The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:

– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.

– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.

– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.

– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.

– How a rebellious French city is fighting back against its growing network of police surveillance cameras.

Correction: A story in yesterday’s newsletter stated that the US had 60,000 charging stations for electric vehicles. There are in fact 6,000. We apologize for the error.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Donald Trump’s online supporters are confusing themselves 
They’re tying themselves in knots trying to debunk former aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony—despite what the evidence says. (WP $)
+ Hutchinson’s January 6 testimony is the most damning yet. (The Atlantic $)
+ A summary of the most shocking revelations she made. (Vox

2 A pro-China influence campaign is targeting the rare earths industry
The group wants to undermine trust in Western companies to further China’s dominance of the sector. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Instagram is hiding posts that mention abortion
Posts offering to sell and mail guns are fine though, apparently. (AP)
+ Facebook was quick to label an abortion rights vandalism group ‘terrorists.’ (The Intercept)
+ Big Tech remains silent on questions about data privacy in a post-Roe US. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Bitcoin is poised to drop even further
Just as investors were starting to feel optimistic again. (Bloomberg $)
+ A guy nicknamed ‘Crypto Jesus’ has allegedly racked up a $47 million crypto debt. (Motherboard)
+ We’re still waiting for regulators to get their heads around crypto. (Slate $)
+ Life, death, taxes, bitcoin volatility? (FT $)

5 Solar panels that shield crops from extreme heat are showing promise
But if the crops taste bad, it’s all a colossal waste of money. (NYT $)
+ These materials were meant to revolutionize the solar industry. Why hasn’t it happened? (MIT Technology Review)
+ Readying the US for solar power is a thankless task. (Motherboard)

6 Debate streamers are guiding conspiracy theorists back to reality
Thanks to a combination of a light touch, logic and gentle compassion. (CNET)
+ How to talk to conspiracy theorists—and still be kind. (MIT Technology Review)

7 A lot of seals look the same to us 🦭
Facial recognition can help researchers tell them apart. (Hakai Magazine)
+ A UK independent legal review wants to ban facial recognition. (FT $)

8 How a deported hacker’s skills helped him to reenter the US
But also made him a target. (Rest of World)
+ A former Uber security chief has been accused of hacking. (Reuters)
+ The FBI is concerned by the rise of people using deepfakes to apply for jobs. (Insider)

9 YouTube’s babies are growing up 🎂
While their families have vlogged their lives since birth, the now-teenagers are pretty relaxed about it. (Rolling Stone)

10 Happy 10th birthday to one of the internet’s favorite tweets
A decade on, it still rings true. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day


“They think they’re onto something visionary, but their product actually fails a basic logical test.” 


—Liron Shapira, a tech investor and writer, tells The Atlantic that web3 and crypto founders mostly have not worked out why their products need to be on the blockchain to begin with. 

The big story

AI is learning how to create itself

May 2021

A little stick figure with a wedge-shaped head shuffles across the screen. It moves in a half crouch, dragging one knee along the ground. It’s walking! Er, sort of. 

Yet Rui Wang is delighted. “Every day I walk into my office and open my computer, and I don’t know what to expect,” he says. 


An artificial-intelligence researcher at Uber, Wang likes to leave the Paired Open-Ended Trailblazer, a piece of software he helped develop, running on his laptop overnight. POET is a kind of training dojo for virtual bots. So far, they aren’t learning to do much at all. These AI agents are not playing Go, spotting signs of cancer, or folding proteins—they’re trying to navigate a crude cartoon landscape of fences and ravines without falling over.

But it’s not what the bots are learning that’s exciting—it’s how they’re learning. It may seem basic at the moment, but for Wang and a handful of other researchers, POET hints at a revolutionary new way to create supersmart machines: by getting AI to make itself. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Here’s why Sonic the Hedgehog is an exhausted millennial icon.
+ A helpful guide explaining how to throw the perfect barbecue this summer.
+ Yikes, who had gigantic pythons slithering around Florida for 2022 bingo?
+ New York’s last public pay phone is now an exhibit in the Museum of the City of NY.
+ These ants aren’t just hard workers—they’re also fossil hunters!

Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

Investing in women pays off

Lisa Burton O’Toole, SM ’09, PhD ’13, was born on a cattle farm outside of Fort Worth, Texas, the daughter of a horseshoer and an administrative assistant. Raised by a single mom who had three jobs and urged her two daughters to reach for the stars, she grew up determined to work hard to land a great job.

A data scientist and small-business founder who is now a vice president at HearstLab, she evaluates and invests in startups led by women in media, data, technology, and finance. She and her team support companies across the country, aiming to close the gap in venture capital funding for women by helping founders build healthy, sustainable, and highly scalable businesses. The organization provides women who lead startups with access to 130 female leaders at Hearst businesses who are willing to share their networks and know-how.

“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

Paying it forward: supporting under­represented students in STEM

Especially for people of color, the road to MIT often begins with advice and encouragement from a teacher or guidance counselor. That was the case for Michael Dixon ’88, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He’d long been interested in outer space, reading science texts and science fiction as well as watching PBS’s Nova series on WTTW, Chicago’s public television station. However, the idea that his interests could lead to a profession hadn’t crossed his mind until his public high school’s guidance counselor encouraged him to apply to MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program. The six-week summer course is targeted to rising high school seniors from marginalized communities. Dixon was captivated by the curriculum and enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow students. He applied to MIT and returned the next fall as an undergraduate in physics.

As a Course 8 graduate, Dixon originally considered joining the staff of one of the US national laboratories before earning a PhD. But he felt destined for a different path—one that allowed him to pursue his other interests as well as physics. He also wanted to remain in the Boston area, since his soon-to-be wife, Crystal Camille Dixon ’90, would not be graduating from MIT for two more years. 

Dixon found a job as an assistant chaplain at the Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, and began teaching there as well. “I’ve always considered my life to be a faith journey,” he says. In fact, he went on to earn a master’s in divinity at the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and he has been a minister as well as a teacher for the last 20 years. “At Brooks I learned that teaching is my calling,” he says. “As a teacher, I could mentor and support students and pay what I’d received from my teachers forward.” Dixon also earned a PhD in education from Boston College in 2003.

After moving on from Brooks, Dixon taught physics and math at public schools in Newton and then Boston. His goal was to make STEM subjects more appealing to all students, especially Black and brown ones. 

In 2005, Dixon got the opportunity to run Dorchester’s Parkside Christian Academy, where he had been teaching. He and Crystal assumed leadership roles at the school, expanding it from K–8 to pre-K through grade 12. They renamed the school Crossfactor Academy; Dixon served as both a STEM teacher and head of school, and Crystal served as director of administration. They also enrolled their six sons. “The goal was to create a space where students of color would be encouraged and expected to succeed in STEM coursework because the proper scaffolding and rigor would be available to them at every grade level,” he says. “On each and every test score, [Crossfactor students] exceeded expectations outsiders had for them.” 

Crossfactor Academy shut down in 2018, primarily for financial reasons. “It was a great run,” Dixon says. “I know we made a difference in the lives of these kids and their families. That was the hardest part of shutting down—the students and their families.” 

Dixon continues to work toward bolstering education through various efforts both inside and outside of the classroom, including founding the STEM committee of Black Alumni of MIT (BAMIT), which leads BAMIT’s efforts to expand K–12 STEM education for students of color. He also now teaches in the Boston Public Schools at the Dearborn STEM Academy. “We celebrate Pi Day in my classroom,” he says. “I’m committed to being that teacher who advises and encourages kids of color to pursue careers in the science, math, and engineering fields. That won’t ever change. My teachers did the same for me.”

Four decades on the front lines of environmental activism

“My focus has always been on social change,” says Steven Lewis Yaffee, PhD ’79, a professor of natural resources and environmental policy at the University of Michigan. “On training practitioners to go out and effect change in the real world.”

Yaffee caught the eco bug in middle school in Maryland when he read Rachel Carson’s now seminal book Silent Spring. At the University of Michigan, he studied wildlife and aquatic science as an undergraduate and then earned a master’s degree in policy. At his first job, working on energy facility siting at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he met MIT professor Lawrence Susskind, who encouraged him to enroll in the environmental policy PhD program at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). 

“MIT helped me in so many ways,” says Yaffee, who taught MIT’s first undergrad course in environmental issues as a PhD student. “I learned how to best reach my audience in the classroom,” he says. “DUSP also taught me decision-making dynamics and processes. And last but certainly not least, it was at MIT where I met the love of my life and my closest colleague, Julia Wondolleck.” Yaffee and Wondolleck, MCP ’80, PhD ’83, overlapped at DUSP for two years and married in the MIT chapel in 1983. She recently retired after 38 years of teaching at the University of Michigan.

Yaffee, who has written or coauthored six books, has seen myriad evolutions and changes during his four decades on the front lines of environmental activism and education. “In the 1970s, the issues were much more local, and activism was more grassroots,” he observes. “It was much easier to reach consensus on action. Today, with environmental issues expanding from local to global, it’s much harder to get traction, especially when working across national borders. The debate is also far more politicized than in the past. Social media has helped generate a broad skepticism of science and expertise.”

Despite these challenges—and the very real threat posed by climate change—Yaffee has lost neither his enthusiasm nor his righteous indignation. He says he still finds reasons for hope each day in the classroom, and each time he, his colleagues, and his students play together in the Ecotones, a jazz band he directs at Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

“In many ways, making music is a lot like the negotiation techniques I teach in class,” says Yaffee, who plays keyboards. “You have a lot of discordant parts, and you have to find a process to put them together so that what comes out is music and not just noise.”