Elisabeth Drake finds hope–for herself and the planet–through connections with others. And her greatest source of optimism is teaching students at MIT.
That’s why, though she is officially retired, Drake is still involved with Sustainable Energy, an interdisciplinary graduate class at the Institute. While serving as associate director of the MIT Energy Laboratory from 1990 to 2000, she became intrigued by the connections between excessive energy use and environmental problems. To work on this issue, she and colleagues developed MIT’s first sustainable-energy course.
Drake began her career as a cryogenic engineer at Arthur D. Little, where she designed and tested experiments for the Apollo lunar-surface project and consulted with operators of liquefied-natural-gas facilities. In the 1970s, she helped start an ADL group in hazardous facilities risk management and worked as vice president of the company’s practice in technological risk management.
Drake left ADL in 1982 to teach at Northeastern University as the Cabot Professor of Chemical Engineering and chair of the chemical-engineering department. She also began to struggle with alcoholism. She returned to ADL in 1986, but two years later she was fired as a result of her drinking problem and ended up in a halfway house. Living there, she was able to turn her life around. “I finally learned I needed to stop isolating and start connecting with others to break my cycle of addiction,” she says.
Fifty years after graduating from MIT, Drake recalls isolation and stress during her student days. To help foster community, she helped establish the Women’s Independent Living Group (WILG) more than 30 years ago and today serves as a board advisor. WILG’s 45 residents live in a five-story house at 355 Mass. Ave. “They look out for each other,” says Drake. “It’s very positive.” Drake herself recently moved to a retirement community in Newton, where she enjoys her cats, gardening, many friends, and volunteer work–when she’s not at MIT, that is.
Her work today at the Institute involves teaching students how to increase global energy resources while drastically reducing carbon footprints through an energy portfolio including solar, wind, biomass, and nuclear power, as well as carbon sequestration. “Interacting with students has given me great hope for the future,” she says.