Beside Still Waters: Devi Lockwood SM ‘19

Devi Lockwood was wandering down the Infinite Corridor in the Fall of 2018 when she noticed a sheaf of brochures perched on the door of a small office to her left. The brochures had information about grants awarded by the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT).

A Masters student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, Lockwood was no stranger to wandering. Or to finding potential treasure along her way. She’d spent a month on her bicycle, pedaling 800 miles alone from Memphis Tennessee, to Venice Louisiana, to interview people who lived along the Mississippi River. Originally a folklore project for Lockwood’s senior thesis at Harvard, the solo trip soon morphed into something else: an anecdotal survey about water and climate change.

“The further I rode down river, the more I heard about water, and about how climate change was impacting these people’s lives,” says Lockwood, who describes her months biking along the river as “a chain reaction of human kindness.” She also calls it “a transformational and career launching moment,” that would set her on a course across the globe. “The Mississippi delta is one of the frontlines in climate change,” she says. “And I started to think how interesting it would be to set some of the stories I heard there in dialogue with stories I might hear around the world.”

That idea—and a few awards and grants—powered Lockwood through four more years of travel and story-collecting, an odyssey that took her to 19 countries and yielded more than 800 interviews and stories. Gleaned from travel to all corners of the earth—the project has taken her to every continent save Antarctica—Lockwood’s stories are poignant, revealing, and even ironic. She has spoken with inhabitants of Tuvalu, a low-lying Pacific island nation whose 10,000 inhabitants can no longer draw water from underground wells and now rely on rain as their only source of water. In England, she met a young woman from a town in Denmark whose water was contaminated by a factory that manufactured waterproof outdoor clothing. “I was struck by the irony of people’s water being polluted by a company trying to help people enjoy nature,” she observes.

All the stories were fascinating. Some—and some of the most compelling–were difficult to hear. “I met one young man in Kazakhstan whose brother was burned to death by a pail of boiling water,” she recalls. “Their water was contaminated; they were boiling it to make it potable.”

Devi Lockwood SM '19
Devi Lockwood SM ’19

Lockwood came to MIT to create a compelling platform that could bring her research—and the human voices she’d so assiduously cultivated across the globe—to as many eyes and ears as possible. “I had all these amazing stories,” says Lockwood, now a broadly published writer on water and climate change who currently works as a fellow at the New York Times Opinion Section. “I didn’t want them to simply reside on my backup drive or hover somewhere in the cloud.”

Her idea for the platform was a website called 1,001 stories. The site would showcase the interviews and anecdotes she’d recorded. Users could access those stories through an interactive map, clicking onto a region of the globe to read about and listen to the people she’d interviewed there. Lockwood had made a few initial attempts at building her site with various colleagues she’d met while traveling. But the efforts hadn’t produced much beyond a preliminary beta version of her vision.

MIT, she knew, was the right place for her to take the next step. “One of the great things about being at MIT is that you can do both science and art,” says Lockwood. “From being able to borrow art from the museum to put in my room for a year to the abundance of public art on campus, MIT puts art and science on the same plane.”

Supported by the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT) grant—she’d applied shortly after she spotted the brochures on her walk through the Infinite Corridor—Lockwood assembled a team to design, build, and launch 1,001 Stories. Jeff Delviscio, a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, contributed expertise in animation and video editing. Anna Chung, a digital media researcher and designer at the MIT Center for Civic Media, reached out to the developers of a map the team liked and obtained the code. Samia Bouzid, a Boston-based multimedia storyteller, provided story direction and editing.

“Another amazing thing about my year at MIT was the people I was surrounded with,” she says. “People who have very different skill sets from my own. Because I’d pretty much gone as far as my own skill set could take me.”

Lockwood debuted 1,001 Stories this past April on the MIT Campus during the Cambridge Science Festival, organized annually by the MIT Museum.  A few weeks later, with website launched, she attended a career services event on campus, where she met Sam Ford SM ‘07, Director of Cultural Intelligence at publisher Simon & Schuster. Ford, a graduate of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, was presenting a few of the titles to be published by Simon & Schuster’s just launched “Tiller” imprint. Afterwards Lockwood spoke to him about 1,001 Stories.

“It’s yet another way just being at MIT was helpful,” says Lockwood. “Now I have a book deal. We’re aiming for publication on Earth Day 2021.”

Posted on November 13, 2019 by Ken Shulman