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Bioengineers design for public health in Malawi


By Elizabeth Myong     8/29/16 6:42pm

Several Rice University students spent this summer in Blantyre, Malawi working under the Rice 360⁰ Institute for Global Health internship alongside students from The University of Malawi Polytechnic. During this two month long internship, students focused on two main issues at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital: preventing neonatal hypothermia and assessing common modes of failure in oxygen concentrators.

Rice and Malawian students first approached these issues by observing doctors and nurses from the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, identifying the gaps in knowledge, and engineering solutions to solve the discovered issues.

“We tried to identify common modes of failure and solutions using locally available resources,” Hanszen College senior Tahir Malik said. “For example, the oxygen concentrator filters would go missing or get dirty. We could easily have brought filters from the U.S., but that’s not a long term solution. We tried to think, ‘what’s the best local material that could solve this issue?’”

According to Brown College junior Theresa Sonka, the student team came up with several project ideas and launched an educational program to inform nurses and doctors of preventive measures and maintenance guidelines for oxygen concentrator filters.

Additionally, Malik said students were able to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the engineering process by learning how to communicate precisely, design in a new social context, and unify teammates’ perspectives to reach a common goal.

“I love the idea of taking something that is produced in class and actually having real world applications for it,” Brown College senior Christine Diaz said.

In fact, the program allowed Malik and Diaz to bring one of their Rice-based engineering projects full circle.

The pair initially developed the pneuma-shoe, an intermittent pneumatic compression device, during their spring GLHT 360 class in order to prevent a disease called venous thromboembolism which causes the formation of blood clots in post-operative patients. During the project development at Rice, Diaz and Malik were only able to skype the doctors at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital about the device.

Fortunately, the internship allowed them the opportunity to directly talk to doctors and nurses about their concerns and learn the social context that they were designing for.

In Malawi, Malik and Diaz gave a presentation about the pneuma-shoe to doctors and nurses at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and are planning to bring it to the National Biomedical Engineering Competition.

But the students agree that they learned a lot more than just engineering.

“Working with the Malawi students taught us a lot about international collaboration and communication,” Sonka said. “We lived in a house with them and learned so much together.”

While living together, Malik discovered that his Malawian roommate, Vincent, had the same taste in music as he listened to Macklemore. Some Malawian students even picked up phrases like “What’s up?” while Rice students were taught conversational Chewa. And Diaz learned to appreciate the Malawi mentality.

“When the work day ends, everyone actually stops working. I think this was really valuable to learn,” Diaz said. “At Rice, we all get caught up in the workload and working as long as possible.”

At the same time, Sonka, Diaz and Malik were impressed by the commitment and passion of their peers.

“There seems to be a drive for excellence and innovation that is universal,” Malik said.

Ann Saterbak, associate dean of engineering, cites this drive as one of her motivations for traveling to Malawi to teach and work with faculty at the Polytechnic.

“In comparison to my visit last summer, one of the most gratifying things that I observed was the operation of the Design Lab at the Polytechnic,” Saterbak said. “The Design Lab was full of students working hard on a range of products, and it was great to see such enthusiasm.”

The students said they feel privileged to have worked in Malawi.

“It was an awesome experience overall, but I couldn't have possibly imagined what it would entail beforehand,” Sonka said.

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