Fall 2014 Issue

A Change is Going to Come

By Kelley Freund

Photo courtesy of Katherine Potter '04

One day, while working on your farm near Mount Mugogo, you look up to see a group of Rwandan men and women carrying furniture, mechanical equipment and computers up the hillside. A woman in red pants is with them, taking photographs and helping carry the equipment. She has light-brown hair and a slight, athletic build, like a dancer. You wonder: who is this strange woman and why is she here?

The woman is Katherine Potter ’04, an American. She does in fact dance, using a freestyle dance space for barefoot “dance jam” and occasionally taking samba and modern classes. And while she had a childhood ambition to become a photographer for National Geographic, she is now a scientist.

Potter is currently serving as the temporary principal investigator for the Rwanda Climate Observatory, a partnership between the Rwandan Ministry of Education and MIT. The observatory aims to measure climate data in Africa. In a country where most people grow tea and coffee, or leave to go to college in another country and don’t come back, Potter is helping the growing number of young adults in Rwanda who are interested in science make a difference in their own backyard.

So how did Potter end up on this mountain? You might say it started with a free lunch.

After graduating from William & Mary with a double major in chemistry and environmental science, Potter knew she wanted to go back to school, but wasn’t sure for what. “I loved chemistry and I cared about environmental issues, but I didn’t really see how those would go together for me,” Potter said.

In 2004, Potter began working with an AmeriCorps organization in Boston doing an environmental education program in inner city schools. Living off a limited salary and food stamps (the organization felt participants should be living at the income level of the people they were serving), Potter and her AmeriCorps colleagues would scour the city for free food.

In February of that year, Potter attended an event at the Museum of Science in Boston geared towards teaching area educators about climate change — and it included a free lunch. Three MIT professors talked about the science of climate change, engineering solutions to climate change, and the political and environmental connections of the issue.

“When one professor talked about the science and the atmospheric chemistry of climate change, it was just like BOOM,” Potter said. “I had never been exposed to the fact that this could be a potential field of research. I knew about climate change but hadn’t thought about it as so connected to chemistry. I was frantically taking notes the whole time.”

A writer of thank-you notes, Potter sent the professor, Ronald Prinn, an email. He responded, inviting her to meet up to talk more climate change. In the professor’s head, Potter was probably a 40-year-old teacher in Boston, so when a 20-something showed up, he was surprised. He asked her if she was interested in grad school, more specifically the program at MIT. Since it was already mid-March and applications were past due, Potter assumed she would have to wait until the next year.

Prinn had other ideas. He told her to go down to the ninth floor and ask a woman named Carol for the admissions application to the program. “Carol told me it was a good sign if Ron sent me,” said Potter. “But I hadn’t gotten any of my stuff together. It was this frantic period of contacting professors for letters of recommendation, compiling resumes, writing a personal statement, studying for and taking my GREs — all within a week.”

It seemed like a dream come true, but when Potter got her acceptance letter, she hesitated. “A few months ago researching climate change was not even within my realm of possibilities, and here I am going into a Ph.D. program at MIT,” Potter said. “I hadn’t looked into other climate change programs out there. So I went back to the three W&M professors who’d written my recommendations. All of them said, ‘Why would you turn down an acceptance to MIT?’ It was fate.”
Potter earned her Ph.D. in 2011 and began looking for other opportunities. “It was specifically my intention not to stay at MIT,” she said. “I wanted to see something else.”

That something else was Rwanda.

In 1994, Rwanda’s population of 7 million was composed of three ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the entire Tutsi minority population for the country’s social, economic and political pressures. Tutsi civilians were also accused of supporting a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Through the use of propaganda and constant political maneuvering, Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and his group increased divisions between Hutu and Tutsi. The Hutu remembered past years of oppressive Tutsi rule, and many of them not only resented but also feared the minority.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Potter '04

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down. Violence began almost immediately. Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Political leaders who might have been able to take charge of the situation and other high-profile opponents of the Hutu extremist plans were killed immediately. Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee. In the weeks after April 6, 800,000 people perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three-quarters of the Tutsi population. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were murdered because they opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it. The civil war and genocide ended when the Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the RPF, defeated the Hutu perpetrator regime. Paul Kagame became an influential leader at this time, serving as vice president and minster of defense from 1994 until 2000, when he became president.


Since becoming president, Kagame has prioritized national development in Rwanda. In 2008, he visited MIT, looking for collaborations in order to build up his nation’s universities. Young Rwandans were going to school elsewhere and not coming back. “He wanted to get into science and research to keep people in the country,” Potter said. “He wanted to figure out what projects could be done in Rwanda by Rwandans.”

The president met with Potter’s supervisor, Professor Prinn, who told him climate change was important, especially because the African economy still relies heavily on local agriculture.

There is currently a network of stations around the world that measure compounds in the atmosphere and capture climate data. This network is known as the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) and is funded in part by NASA and NOAA. The organization was started in the 1970s in response to the depletion of the ozone layer. “You don’t really think about it, but these networks are where climate information comes from,” said Potter. There are stations in places like Ireland, Australia and Switzerland.

According to Potter, there is very limited climate information coming out of Africa. While there have been a couple of locations trying to collect data, there has been little to no success with collecting data for a longer period of time. There is a station in South Africa, but it is more focused on short-lived air pollution compounds rather than the greenhouse and ozone-depleting gases.

While Africa accounts for a fifth of the world’s landmass, the continent has no long-term continuous record of air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. “When you’re trying to figure out what’s going on in the world, you want these stations spread out,” Potter said. “And we know so little about what’s going on in this huge part of the world.”

Prinn proposed to Kagame that a station be set up in Rwanda to join the collaborative AGAGE network. After working in the bubble of academia, Potter jumped at the opportunity to work with the people in Rwanda. “I needed to interact with people,” she said. “MIT is not reality. Put me in the real world! That was the appeal of Rwanda. It was doing science, but it was so people-based.”

As temporary principal investigator for the Rwanda Climate Observatory, working under Prinn, Potter’s role has been to build the observatory from the ground up and to train local staff in the science and long-term maintenance of the station. The observatory is currently situated at an interim location on Mount Mugogo. The chosen final location is Mount Karisimbi, a 4,500-meter volcano in northwestern Rwanda. “Mount Mugogo is more accessible and we can more easily train people and work out the instrument and equipment bugs in a less harsh location,” Potter said.

According to Potter, Rwanda is a good place for an AGAGE station because of its mountains. “You want these stations to be in a remote place,” she said. “If you put a station in Boston in the middle of the city, you just measure all the pollution in Boston. But if you have a remote location, like a mountain, you’re getting a broader picture.”

The project has not been without its difficulties. Potter said there have been a lot of logistical problems with getting things like supplies. “In science, when you’re doing precise measurements, there are very specific things you need,” said Potter. “Like a vacuum pump, for example. Our community knows from experience, it’s this brand; this is the specific vacuum pump that we need. We know it’s tried and tested.”

If you’re a kid growing up in Rwanda, there usually is no asking what you want to be when you grow up. After all, 90 percent of the working population in the country farms. So that’s what you grow up to do.

But the buying process is structured differently in Rwanda in order to prevent corruption. Every purchase has to go through a bidding process, where the object needed is advertised in the newspaper. Since the observatory project is largely funded by the government of Rwanda — salaries, personnel, infrastructure — the organization must go through the process.

“Each one of these purchases has been a huge struggle and it slows things down a lot,” Potter said. “With all of these stations, we need to make them as identical as possible so you can compare data. If something is functioning slightly differently, how do you compare that? There are a lot of safeguards set up in the Rwandan government that I’m sure are very effective for other purposes, but for doing this it makes it difficult.

“We’re in the Ministry of Education, but then we’ve been dealing with Ministry of Infrastructure because of electricity and roads. We’re dealing with all of these different ministries and everything we do requires letters, approvals, meetings. It’s hard to get science done.”

In spite of the obstacles, the good things far outweigh the difficulties, Potter said. She credits the people of Rwanda for her making her job so enjoyable. “There are people I’ve met that are really amazing,” she said. “We hired four technicians who take care of the day-to-day maintenance of the station, checking that all the pumps are working, checking on the data, changing instrument filters. We would normally have just one, but we decided to hire more to build up knowledge in Rwanda as much as we can right now.

“The idea is that eventually it will be run completely by Rwandans. Seeing their confidence build has been really nice.”

Potter said the project is important in multiple ways. Because there has been so little climate change information coming out of Africa, it’s helping to fill an international data gap. The data also will specifically help Africans by enhancing regional computer modeling to predict rainfall and drought. The observatory partnership between the Rwandan government and MIT has also led to the development of a master’s program at the University of Rwanda.

Though still officially principal investigator, Potter is transitioning out of her role to begin letting the people in Rwanda have more control over the project. There are times when she feels it’s the right decision, and other times where she wants to stick around because she understands what this means to Rwanda.

“They’re so excited about starting this master’s degree program at the university, about recruiting these Rwandan technicians and teaching them about it,” Potter said. It’s the enthusiasm of the Rwandans involved, Potter believes, that ensures the future of the observatory.

“Somebody comes from a foreign country, sets up a weather station, and maybe trains one person, but then they’re gone and it just sits there and dies and gets rusty. I think that happens a lot. What’s so great about this observatory being in the AGAGE network is that’s not going to happen. There are so many people behind it now in Rwanda who are invested in it, and with the support from colleagues in the AGAGE network, I am confident this will survive.”