ALUMNI Q&A: Brian Spatocco ENG’08

“The School of Engineering is a small community of scholars that has access to the incredible resources of the whole university. For me, it was the best of both worlds.” – Brian Spatocco

After graduating first in his class from the School of Engineering in 2008, Brian Spatocco was a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, from which he received his MPhil degree. He expects to receive his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from MIT in July 2015, where he is a fellow at the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design. He is also a founder and director of GridForm, a microgrid planning system designed to provide significant cost and time efficiencies for rural electrification projects in third world countries.

Why did you choose the School of Engineering?

I had two reasons. First, it met my criterion of being a Tier One research institution. Even in high school, I thought I might consider graduate school. I’m from Sewell, New Jersey and had also received a scholarship to go to school in New Jersey from the state’s Outstanding Scholar Recruitment Program. So the combination of Rutgers research plus state funding was hard to resist!

Why did you decide to study in South Korea your sophomore year?

Looking back, part of my decision was because I came from a racially and ethnically homogenous town in South Jersey. I’d never been challenged with an uncomfortable environment.

I’d also come to Rutgers with a number of AP credits from high school, so I’d been taking classes with juniors as a freshman. I was overworked and a little burnt out! I realized I had enough credits to study abroad, so I told the study abroad office that I wanted a different culture and an English-language university. They recommended Korea. I applied and was accepted by the Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul! I took women’s studies courses.

What was it like to be a Gates Scholar at Cambridge?

Rutgers had not had a Gates Scholar for a number of years. But my year, 2008, was a crazy year! There were four of us – more than any other school in the country -- that year. We all went over together. It was a wonderful experience that was hugely attributable to Rutgers support. Dr. Arthur Casciato and the Office of Distinguished Fellowships were hugely instrumental in helping me fill out my application and prepare for my interview. 

As Gates Scholars, we received state proclamations from the governor and the New Jersey senate and state assembly at a statehouse ceremony, which was exciting.

You also graduated first in your class.

Several of us had 4.0 rankings, although I don’t think I realized this until senior year. It was the culmination of a lot of small moments along the way, when I would do well in class and then move forward with the expectation of continuing to do the same quality of work in future classes.

What is your focus as a PhD student at MIT?

My dissertation involves enabling a renewable energy future by creating economically viable grid-scaled storage.  Solar panels and wind turbines, for instance, produce energy sporadically because they’re dependent on the sun shining or the wind blowing. In order to leverage this energy in meaningful ways for a modern society, we need to be able to store it for use on demand.

The batteries we’re designing focus on delivering storage at costs per kWh that are competitive with natural gas and that have lifetimes on the investment timelines for the utilities industry. I hold a patent for low-temperature liquid metal batteries for grid-scaled storage and look forward to seeing Ambri, the company spun out of our lab, succeed in the coming years!

What have you done as a Tata Fellow?

The Tata Trusts, an Indian equivalent to the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, fund the Tata Center at MIT. They support MIT brainpower that is applied to problems that could improve life in India. GridForm, which I founded in 2014, is a team of graduate students who raise our own money and direct our own student-run research. While it’s unusual for students to be able to do this, it’s definitely in the spirit of MIT.

We’re currently engaged in a microgrid mapping and planning project. We’ve developed software that maps rural villages without electricity to help expedite the process of electrifying them. My fellow team members and I have visited India many times over the last two years and have partnered with an incredible Indian electrification company -- SELCO -- that is experienced with rural electric projects.

How has your work improved this process?

Previously, it was possible to electrify only a handful of villages a year, which was really inefficient in a country where millions are without electricity. We want to make it easier for companies like SELCO in terms of cost and time efficiencies, so they can spend more of their time interacting with rural stakeholders and less behind computers and in transit. We are trying to empower Indian entrepreneurs and citizens to electrify their villages, by providing them with the tools they need to help plan and manage their project.

What’s next for you?

I’ll be starting a job in August at a venture capital company in Washington, DC and thinking about all sorts of amazing gizmos and gadgets. I love working with smart people and small teams – and I’m incredibly excited to be able to work with top entrepreneurs on meaningful projects.

Where do you find the time to accomplish so much?

I like to do a couple of things at the same time. Since I have the incredible privilege of working full-time on interesting things, I try to focus on doing things that feel meaningful and have value for society. I work 16 to 18 hours a day doing what I love, so my work is like a hobby. I don’t think I’m special in any sense like that. I just sleep less!

What do you value most about your SoE education?

Rutgers was hugely formative for me. It had top research and academics and a diverse cross-section of society.

The SoE is very unique in being a pretty small school that’s housed in a giant university. You are part of a small community of excellent scholars and incredible people. You have access to the rich resources of the whole university – not just those of the SoE. 

What advice do you have for today’s SoE students?

This small community is truly the best of both worlds. There is room to take advantage of so many things. It’s all there for the taking, if you want to go for it.

I’ve brought this attitude with me to MIT and beyond. If I want to do mapping in India – there’s money to do that if you’re motivated. Don’t be apathetic: take advantage of all that is available to you.

What are some favorite Rutgers memories?

In senior year, I joined the Cap and Skull honors society, which was a great way to meet people from across the University. Fewer than 20 students are inducted each year. This big moment for my family and me meant more to me than graduation!

I remember November 9, 2006, the day Rutgers beat Louisville in football with a single field goal kick. I’m not a huge college sports fan, but I remember that big day because the campus had a great sense of unity and I felt truly connected to everyone else.

What do you do for fun these days?

I make stuff. I’m into blacksmithing, electronics programming, and 3-D printing. Last summer I built a combined grill and smoker for roasting whole pigs!

I love going to Tanglewood in the summer and I love to ski in Vermont – my favorite place on the planet.

What’s the last movie you saw?

Her, with Joaquin Phoenix. I really liked it – it’s thought provoking.

What are you reading?

I’m reading David McCullough’s book on John Adams. It’s amazing to realize that the founding fathers were taking a leap of faith just like any modern innovator would today.

If you could take time off tomorrow and go on a trip, where would you go?

I’d have to choose between two places. Morocco would be incredible for art. As a materials scientist, I love the patterning of Islamic art. Myanmar is also appealing. It’s an alien culture that’s opening up to the world and not yet trodden with tourists.