Photo courtesy of Justin Selig

November 14, 2016

Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Global Health: Not Your Everyday Project Team

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Jaundice-therapy incubators, water-quality testing devices, and vaccine fridges – this team is merging “entrepreneurial scrappiness” and engineering creativity with a global health outlook. In their own words, Cornell Engineering World Health is a group of dynamic and diverse students who work “to provide creative solutions to health care problems in developing countries.” The team, led by co-presidents Kate Schole ’17 and Justin Selig ’17 , shows initiative and passion for its work and impact on society.

As I talk to the co-presidents about their current projects, their excitement is palpable. Schole, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, explains that the team’s recently acquired project is a device to separate mycotoxin-infected corn kernels from otherwise usable corn. They plan on making an inexpensive, efficient and creative method of doing so, which would be important to communities with low food availability, such as in Kenya, where they plan on implementing this device.

Schole described this project, like others, as an immensely enriching experience.

“You really learn how to learn, and you learn how to make decisions and adjust and if something goes wrong, you have to figure out what the next step is,” she said.

For Selig, EWH provides an opportunity to combine his passion for hands-on engineering and management of ideas. One such project is a jaundice-therapy apparatus, which aims at providing phototherapy to diseased babies.

Jaundice causes yellowing of the skin and eyes due to excess of a yellowing pigment, bilirubin. The incubator would be built to shine blue light onto the baby to reduce the amount of bilirubin in the blood. While phototherapy is a common treatment for neonatal jaundice, their vision is to make the incubator portable as well as culturally acceptable in rural communities.

Team members stand in Pallapatla, where the team plans to implement the water quality control system.

Team members stand in Pallapatla, where the team plans to implement the water quality control system.

Furthermore, team members are working on building a water-quality monitoring device, to be attached on wells to test pH, conductivity, temperature and other characteristics. In order to assess the site and logistics, two of their team members traveled to the Pallapatla in rural India this October, where they are working with a non-profit, Forefront.

“We really wanted to transition into the phase where we were working with actual doctors, nurses,” Selig said. “People in these developing regions who could provide insight and give feedback on devices that we were developing so that we can hand them a prototype that was actually workable.”

Cornell EWH has also volunteered with an international community development non-profit, MEDLIFE. Members have traveled to Lima, Peru, to work with medical brigades and gain perspective on health care needs of people in developing regions.

Samir Durvasula ’17, electrical team lead, who has worked with Cornell EWH on water-quality device and jaundice-therapy projects, emphasizes the importance of the social aspects of the project team.

“I really value the fact that we are a service minded team that is focused on making an impact in communities,” Durvasula said. “Our first priority is to find the needs of developing communities and find engineering solutions towards finding problems.

The team’s dynamism is reflected in its attempt to understand real global health problems, along with trying out new projects every year. As Durvasula points out “the learning never stops”.

“I very much enjoy the fact that we have a different projects every year. Because each project has its own challenges, we are always learning new concepts and ideas,” he said.

The team’s incredible commitment to societal impact and interdisciplinary learning is reflected in its team members. Rohit Jha ’17, the business team lead, describes the team as a representation of diversity of personalities and academic backgrounds.

“This team has an HADM major, an AEM major, and a Global Health major along with engineers from different backgrounds,” Jha said. “Whenever I need help or want to have a casual conversation about life or just want to be goofy, I can always rely on someone from my project team.”

Indeed, the team’s combination of talent and curiosity and the alignment of different passions towards a common interest is representative of their interdisciplinary work and the key to their success.