During the Winter 2019 pilot course of +Impact Studio: Translating Research into Practice (BA670), we sat down with student Sheela Lal (MBA ’19) to talk about her experiences in the class, tackling the wicked problem of lead service lines in Flint. This work drew on Ross Professor Eric Schwartz’s machine-learning algorithm—using municipal and other data to determine which houses are likely to have lead pipes. Future classes will continue Sheela’s work and introduce the next big question: how can we help the financially precarious or unbanked accomplish necessary financial transactions in society?
What new or fresh discovery have you made from this course?
The way the course is designed allows the students to think about problems week-over-week, and over the course of twelve as opposed to six weeks so that they really think about it. The way that I’m learning and digesting information is subtly changing over that period. I know that I am perceiving problems from a more structured, wicked problem perspective, so I know that a lot of the big problems that we face in this world are caused by many different vectors. But I’m learning how to be able to silo them in ways that are more effective, and then bring them back together in order think of better solutions.
What do you get from working with students from other disciplines?
Working with students from other disciplines is probably my favorite part of the class. I get to learn from students who think differently than I do and who have been trained academically to look at a problem a different way. For a university that has so many brilliant students—hundreds of the graduate programs are in the top ten—this is an opportunity for me to actually tap into that knowledge and talent
In the process of your class work, what did you learn about Flint?
So I come from an interdisciplinary background, and I’ve worked in politics a bit, so understanding the Flint water crisis wasn’t totally new to me, but I have actively been learning about just what happened when GM left, how many black folks moved up to Michigan from the deep south, and then many white folks followed and tried to establish wealth on top of that. It was incredibly surprising to me that when GM closed down their factories in Flint, ninety percent of the wealth left as well. So what differences occur in a place that’s been so reliant on one employer as opposed to a place like Grand Rapids where there was more economic diversity to keep the city afloat? I’ll be moving to Detroit after I’m done with school, and I constantly think about who all of the new development is for, how it is held up as a model, while at the same time thinking about Flint and understanding what recovery should and shouldn’t look like.
How will the knowledge gained from this class apply to a future career?
I’m going into human capital consulting after I’m done with my MBA, and this class has illuminated for me just how long-term design thinking strategies can be used in understanding the human condition while trying to find a solution that works for actual individuals. On the personal side, I am working with a lot of really great Asian-American women in the Detroit metro area to start an organization called Rising Voices—aimed at helping Asian-American families throughout the state of Michigan advocate for themselves politically at the local state and federal level. We’ve already integrated some design thinking principles in the listening sessions. Before we even start the organization, we want to ensure that this is an organization that can actually add value as opposed to just extracting money from funders.