Na primeira pessoa, Jorge Marques Silva partilha connosco a sua experiência Fulbright, 2019-2020.  Ao abrigo da Bolsa Fulbright para Investigação com o apoio da FCT e no âmbito do seu doutoramento em Sustainable Energy do Instituto Superior Técnico, Universidade de Lisboa , Jorge passou 7 meses no Massachusetts Institute of Technology– MIT, Cambridge, MA.


«Starting my PhD studies and embarking on this Fulbright journey in the USA were two of the most exciting and challenging endeavors I have committed myself to. As a MIT Portugal [1] PhD student at Instituto Superior Técnico (IST) [2] in Lisbon, I knew I would have the chance to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) [3] for a research period as part of the Sustainable Energy Systems [4] Doctoral Program. Yet, the situation unexpectedly changed as in 2019, MIT Portugal decided to suspend further visits to MIT. Along with a sad feeling, a strong and resilient instinct to search for alternatives grew inside me. The crucial moment happened when I learned about Fulbright Portugal [5] and its pivotal role in strengthening the collaboration between Portugal and the USA, in the fields of Science and Education. In December 2018, after an insightful presentation given by the Executive Director Otília Reis, I realized I met the requirements for a Fulbright Research Grant with support of FCT [6] — except one: The Letter of Affiliation.

Luckily and in a timely manner, I have established contact with Professor Paul Sclavounos [7] from the Laboratory for Ship and Platform Flow (LSPF) [8] at the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering. Together with my group at IST, we won a MIT Portugal Seed Funding [9] for our joint collaboration. Professor Sclavounos kindly invited me for a research visit on campus at MIT. The Portuguese Fulbright Committee was quite flexible during my application, which I am truly thankful for. After the interview I was pleased to be among the selected candidates. And this is how it all started!

By September 2019 there I was packing my bags and saying goodbye to family and friends for the upcoming 6-month adventure. And boy it was an adventure!

Firstly, it was extremely hard to find affordable accommodation in the Greater Boston area. I landed in Boston Logan Airport holding my 3 bags and a hostel booking for 5 nights! I urgently needed a medium-term housing plan for September and October. In an effort to dodge any housing scams [10], I decided to house-hunt in the field. Around MIT and Harvard, nothing was either affordable or available for a monthly contract. Together with Claudio – another MIT Portugal student – I found the best solution: a nearby Airbnb in Cambridge — yes, a tourist-like accommodation for 2 months! Even sharing a bedroom, each of us paid around $1000/month! In late October I finally moved to a new flat with a more reasonable rent. The landlords were Portuguese and so was the whole block. It felt like home!

Arriving on campus was also a hectic sensation. I was welcomed by Mayoka, the Visiting Students Coordinator at the International Students Office (ISO) [11] at MIT, who introduced me to all the available MIT resources. Then I was warmly received by Professor Sclavounos, David and Emily — the research group at LSPF, MIT. I was provided a computer desk which included a nice view over the Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge (or Mass Ave as it is commonly known).  As the Fall semester began, I started off by presenting the Wave Energy Converter (WEC)[12] model I had developed that far. This consisted on an Oscillating Water Column (OWC) [13] coupled with an innovative turbine developed at IST from a wave energy power plant in Mutriku, Spain [14]. In the first weeks of my Fulbright grant, Professor Sclavounos and I travelled to Azores in Portugal to attend the 2019 MIT Portugal Conference [15], where he gave a stimulating talk on our project. I also had the opportunity to present a poster about the WEC model.

Over the course of the semester, we would regularly discuss on how to extract more power from the WEC, especially during the low efficiency periods of the wave cycle. Hence, I have developed a Fuzzy controller [16], optimized with a Genetic Algorithm [17] to maximize the WEC’s turbine power generation. The controller showed small improvements of 1% to 1.5%, depending on the considered sea state. Another focus of my work was the wave energy forecasting for predictive control of the WEC’s generator. In early 2020 I used real data from the Mutriku plant to develop a Support Vector Machine (SVM) [18] algorithm to forecast the OWC’s air pressure. The SVM technique had been used in other projects at the lab and Emily and David provided relevant guidance. I was able to use the available workstations to run my simulations. By the end of my stay in March, I was able to accurately forecast the future values of pressure within a 10% prediction error, which we deemed valuable. This will be relevant for future work on a predictive control strategy. As a deliverable, we have reported our study findings to MIT Portugal.

Regarding the social experience, I was a part of the MIT Visiting Student Association [19] – VISTA for short – a collaborative organization that aims to connect international students. This was especially important for my integration into the community. During the first week on campus, I attended an open board meeting where I volunteered to guide the next orientation session of newcomers. This was the first step to later become an active board member in my role of VP of Communication. My team member Diana and I (and later with Marcella) were responsible for composing the weekly newsletter and disseminate the upcoming VISTA events. I have also contributed to the design and implementation of several social events, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Ice Skating and biweekly Networking and Karaoke nights. The participation in VISTA allowed me to bond with people from different countries and continents, which was truly enriching! Among them, I would like to mention Lorenz, Lorenzo, Claudio, Caio, Taka, Richard, Gaïlé, Cyril, Sofia, Niki, Katharina, Marta and Claudia. Some of them even became my roommates or house regulars! We celebrated several birthdays and gathered on a weekly basis, if not daily! We also went together on trips to New York, Philadelphia, Niagara Falls among other places. Outside VISTA, I have also participated in activities organized by Dana from the ISO and other MIT initiatives like the Language Conversation Exchange [20] — I can never complain about the food :).

In February 2020 I had the privilege to attend the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar [21] which was held in Nashville, Tennessee [22]. It was a fascinating experience. The music industry was the motto for this brilliant event. Besides the inspiring talks, during those days I had the chance to expand my network, getting in touch with numerous Fulbrighters from distinct parts of the world, taking internships in several areas of the US. Together we contributed with some community work at the Turnip Green Creative Reuse [23], a non-profit association that fosters creativity and sustainability through reuse. In addition, we were also invited to visit Jammber [24], a payment and ownership platform for the global entertainment industry. Overall, we had a lot of fun together. Nashville is in fact a lively and enjoyable city, heart of the country music [25]! Finally, I was lucky this all took place just before the Covid-19 pandemic took over!

As an overall reflection, despite the initial setbacks I am genuinely happy about my decision to go on board this odyssey! Certainly, it was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. Since its genesis after World War II, the Fulbright Program [26] has been a symbol of world peace and international collaboration through educational exchange. I feel honored to be an ambassador of my country and share these values. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Fulbright Portugal for accepting me in the Program. The confidence on my potential also brought responsibility to carry out my tasks.

The ocean waves are an important renewable resource that may contribute significantly to the supply of clean energy [27]. I believe the work I developed at MIT is useful and will contribute to promoting wave energy generation and to a more sustainable way of life. At the moment, I am preparing my first publication on this research. Apart from work, I hold dear the friends I made throughout this journey.

To conclude, I encourage people to pursue and embrace such an experience. I am happy to share my story and help with questions someone might have. In the meantime, here’s a handful of takeaways and tips:

  • The US culture is not extremely different from the European in general and from the Portuguese in particular, when compared to other parts of the world.
  • However, I have experienced a more distant and formal interaction among people.
  • The best way to be socially involved is reaching out to student associations: signup and participate in events, volunteer for organization, check university’s event calendar.
  • Rules are stricter in general.
  • Tipping for drinks and food is socially mandatory in order to provide sufficient income to waiters.
  • Technology is cheaper and easier to order.
  • The community is vastly diverse and brings together some of the brightest minds.
  • The housing market is quite expensive in the Boston area and unfortunately scams are frequent. Our Home Boston[28] is a trustworthy and secure platform. Online associations and Facebook groups can also be an option: search for Housing Boston, Cambridge, MIT, Harvard. Always be careful.
  • Traveling within the US can be expensive if not planed on beforehand. Cheaper ways to travel include bus instead of train and low-cost flight companies can also be an option.
  • Overall, the cost of living is higher; supermarket goods are generally more expensive.»

Lisbon, May 25 2020

Jorge Manuel Marques Silva

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