Kathryn Tso ’22 | History + Materials Science

Tso aims to effect change through policy work.

Tso, who is earning a double major in history and in materials science, finds that materials science enables her to explore environmental chemistry and issues related to waste and pollution, while history provides her with context — revealing the interplay of technology with society and illuminating the key roles that government often plays.

Series: Meet the MIT Bilinguals

For Kathryn Tso ’22, the path to a range of work on climate change, Covid-19, and systemic racism, started with — of all things — fast fashion.

Back in her first year at MIT, Tso was a typical broke student who liked to shop. She initially sought trendy bargain items but soon began to wonder how clothes could be so inexpensive. “I started digging into it and found the clothes I was buying were really badly sourced. That’s when I started trying to shift my consumer practices,” she says.

As she learned more about the sustainability of textiles, Tso’s academic interests also started to shift. Having arrived at MIT thinking she might major in chemistry, she eventually settled on a double major in history and materials science. She finds that materials science enables her to explore environmental chemistry and other issues related to waste and pollution, while history provides her with context — revealing the interplay of technology with society and illuminating the key role government often plays.

“When I first started taking history courses, I didn't realize how much policy would really interest me,” she recalls.

Tackling policy and the pandemic

As a first-year student, Tso took the history class 21H.214 "War and American Society" and says she was surprised to discover the widespread impact of U.S. ideas and policies. “That class was the first time I saw how much influence America has had — and not necessarily positive — on developing countries,” she says. “High school was more about the great things America does, so this course was an eye-opener.”

Tso’s interest in policy has continue to grow since then, leading her to participate this past summer in the Covid-19 Policy Hackathon, a challenge created by economics students at MIT and Stanford to develop innovative policy solutions to issues raised by the pandemic.

Tso and her hackathon team looked at ways to protect essential workers at the height of the pandemic, examining the use of public transportation in Detroit and developing a policy proposal for providing personal protective equipment and Covid-19 testing to workers at key bus stops.

“It was really cool to do this research — which my history classes had prepared me for,” she says, explaining that coursework in MIT's humanities, arts, and social science fields has given her the abiliites to frame problems, conduct in-depth research, and communicate research findings.

A focus on climate

Tso notes that the devastating impacts of Covid-19 have driven crucial issues related to climate change out of the headlines, at least temporarily. “I do get disheartened," she says, "when the focus in the world is not on climate change anymore," and notes that she was excited that MIT has just unveiled an ambitious new research effort called Climate Grand Challenges to accelerate cross-disciplinary work on mitigation and adaptation solutions.

To do her part, Tso has gotten involved in the MIT Energy Club, the 3,000-member student-run organization that runs the influential MIT Energy Conference. Named one of the club’s two vice presidents of external relations this May, Tso is now working to expand the club’s reach both on campus and in the Greater Boston energy community.

Tso says she cares about sharing accurate information about climate change issues in part because she had a teacher in high school who was a climate change denier — and Tso never challenged the teacher’s assumptions. “When I came to MIT, I thought: Why didn’t I say or do something back then? I think a lot of the reason was, I didn’t have the figures and facts to back up my views, and didn’t know how to talk about climate change.”

That’s not true anymore. In fact, this summer Tso helped generate informative content for the MIT Climate Portal  while interning for MIT's Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI).  The portal provides a window into MIT work related to climate change and serves as a global forum for discussing and learning about climate science, technology, policy, and advocacy. (Thanks to MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Tso also got the chance this summer to work for the Darwin Project, a marine modeling initiative in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.)

Civic engagement, diversity, and law school

Advocating for significant issues is a strong theme running through Tso’s MIT experience. In addition to working to combat climate change, Tso is also involved with the Asian American Initiative, a new advocacy group on campus focused on civic engagement — including voting and civic engagement. And, she’s working to foster more diversity in the Greek system on campus by serving on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the MIT Panhellenic Association. “Essentially, we are trying to find ways to make Greek life more accessible and more aware,” she says. 

Going forward, Tso says she plans to continue to study the power of policy to effect change. She is particularly looking forward to taking IDS.060 "Environmental Law, Policy, and Economics: Pollution Prevention and Control," a subject within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS).  The subject examines some of the downsides of chemical creation — such as industrial toxins — as well as the role of science and economics in legal decisions. “I find that super interesting,” she says.

It’s all work that should prepare Tso well for law school — the career path she is currently considering. And, while she is engaged with complex issues that resist easy solutions, Tso remains upbeat: “I generally have more hope than not for the future,” she says. “It’s amazing the difference good policy can make.”


Suggested links

MIT History

MIT Climate Portal

MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative

Climate Grand Challenges

MIT Energy Conference


Story by SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Photograph courtesy of Kathryn Tso '22
23 August 2020