Acacia Leakey is no stranger to sustainable engineering — in fact, she grew up with it. A 2018 graduate of Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS), she received her BE and MS degrees in mechanical engineering and has been instrumental in establishing the College’s Global Innovation Field School at Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya. She is putting her education to work developing sustainable off-grid technological solutions for African economic development.
Leakey is involved in truly inspiring work, but where does inspiration like this come from?
Leakey grew up on a farm in Nakuru, Kenya, where her parents still live today. They established a seed company to cater to the “forgotten” but more nutritious and drought-resistant crops, and designed their business model to increase access to their product for consumers. By today’s standards, they created a “social enterprise” but at the time, she says, they were just doing what made sense and would be most beneficial for customers.
According to Leakey, there are two important values that her upbringing and family life instilled: being a good citizen and doing what one can for society; and conservation in the natural world, and being aware of the small things and how nature impacts every aspect of life.
“These values combined to shape my goal of protecting the environment, but also recognizing that millions of peoples’ quality of life needs to be improved, fast,” Leakey said. “I see sustainable technology and processes as both a solution to provide mechanisms for people to get the services they need, and also an opportunity to set society on a sustainable trajectory in the long term.”
In addition to the family’s farm and seed business, her great uncle, Richard Leakey, founded the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), for which Stony Brook serves as the academic base, providing support and programming for undergraduate and graduate students across disciplines. She began working there in 2012, but that isn’t stopping her from forging her own path in sustainable engineering for off-grid populations. While on campus, she co-founded the Stony Brook Wildlife Conservation Society and served as a member of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, the Stony Brook Global Innovation Team, and the e-TBI Research Group.
Mechanical Engineering Professor Jon Longtin served as Leakey’s advisor for her master’s thesis, which focused on exploring novel membrane technologies to desalinate the mildly brackish water found in, for example, Lake Turkana in Kenya. “In many ways, I was the student and she the expert on the project,” he said. “I recognized and valued the enthusiasm and vitality with which she approached her project and have no doubt that she will carry this attitude forward in her career with many great achievements to come.”
As a recent graduate, her career is off to a promising start. During her time at Stony Brook and after, she served as an engineering project coordinator for BeLocal Group, where she worked in Madagascar to help identify potential challenges and mentored undergraduate CEAS students through the senior design process. For the last year, she has worked as a lead engineering and project management consultant for Sustainable Off-grid Solutions for African Economic Development (SOSED), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to renewable energy and productive use technologies. She finds the work rewarding and would like to engage Stony Brook CEAS students in SOSED’s initiatives in a way that robustly engages them in social, political and economic issues.
“Part of the work has been to learn about and meet with organizations working in Kenya,” she said. “There is some really important, creative work going on and collaborating with these innovators is a privilege.”
Leakey said her Stony Brook experience was instrumental in shaping how she saw herself as an engineer and her understanding of the discipline.
“The University has such an incredible breadth of resources, many of which are really unexpected. I learned the value of taking advantage of these and putting the effort in to get involved where I otherwise may not have.”
For example, in an Ecofeminism class she learned of a talk related to agriculture and technology in Africa. At the talk she met Jeff and Mickie Nagel and Eric Bergerson from BeLocal, which eventually led to two months in Madagascar, followed by the opportunity to work with engineering students in a mentorship position, “all of which taught me a lot in general but also a lot about myself,” she said.
“At a level uniquely beyond her years, Acacia works side by side with our faculty, identifying sustainable off-grid problems and solutions and creating relevant programs for our students,” said Robert Kukta, Senior Associate Dean of Education and Innovation for CEAS. “She was leading our students as an undergraduate and mentoring them as a graduate student. Today, as an alum, she continues to engage and inspire them to help make a difference in the world.”
“My overwhelming emotion is gratitude to all the people who have helped me experience what I have experienced and contributed to shaping the person I am and the interests I have,” said Leakey. “I feel exceptionally fortunate to be in the position I am in, and to give back and create new opportunities for Stony Brook students, as well as continuing to work in Kenya to contribute to sustainability.”