Another Year of Outstanding Development Engineering and InFEWS Doctoral Graduates

Another Year of Outstanding Development Engineering and InFEWS Doctoral Graduates

Now in its sixth year, the Development Engineering PhD program enables UC Berkeley doctoral students from engineering and social science fields to pursue applied technological research in low-resource regions around the world. The InFEWS—Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Water, and Energy Systems—Fellowship, as part of this doctoral program, enables students to work with and for poor communities that face extreme challenges accessing nutritious food, clean and reliable energy, and safe water. Both programs recognize and stand to correct Paul Polak’s observation that 90 percent of the world’s design efforts are aimed at 10 percent of the population.

Among this year’s graduates are: Julia Kramer, who received a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a Master in Public Health and whose research focuses on global health and equity; Alana Siegner, a graduate of the Energy and Resources Group whose work addresses food distribution, access, and justice questions; and Christopher Hyun, also a PhD graduate of the Energy and Resources Group, whose research addresses water, pollution, and development, largely in South Asia.

Julia Kramer: Design for Global Health Accessibility

Julia Kramer has earned multiple advanced degrees at UC Berkeley: a Master of Public Health, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering. In addition to her scholarly work, she is co-founder of Reflex Design Collective, a consulting firm that uses design thinking to fight social inequality, and Visualize, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering and supporting midwives to screen for cervical cancer.

Kramer’s dissertation, “Designing for Health Accessibility: Case Studies of Human-Centered Design to Improve Access to Cervical Cancer Screening,” is based on her Development Engineering work in Ghana, India, and Nicaragua. She describes the impetus and framework for her research thus: “Our world faces immense challenges in global health and equity. We see huge disparities in access to health care across geographies, and while we have made massive strides in addressing health issues, we know that these disparities persist. In my dissertation, I explore the role of human-centered design to improve global health access. Human-centered design, a cross-disciplinary creative problem-solving approach, has been applied and studied in both academic research and industry practice, but its role in improving global health access remains poorly understood.

“I present research on designing for health accessibility in the context of one particular disease: cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is an illustrative example of the global disparities in access to health care, given that cervical cancer is preventable. Every year, 300,000 women around the world die of cervical cancer, and 90% are  in low- and middle-income countries. My research examines the work of two organizations that created unique solutions to improve access to cervical cancer screening in India and Nicaragua. I developed case studies of each organization grounded in ethnographic fieldwork, including over 250 hours of observation and 15 interviews over two years. Through these case studies, I show how early efforts to understand the barriers inhibiting cervical cancer screening access allow design practitioners to create novel and feasible ways to address these barriers. This demonstrates the importance of design practitioners considering multiple dimensions of accessibility, while conducting design research in order to improve the potential impact of their ideas and prototypes. Overall, this dissertation establishes the foundation of a new framework to ‘design for accessibility’ that can spark further research across sectors, including but not limited to global health.”

Alana Siegner: Education at the Intersection of Food Systems and Climate Change

After graduating with a double major in Environmental Studies and International Relation from Tufts University, Alana Siegner spent three summers in Uganda working on an Engineers Without Borders clean water storage project. Siegner then served as an AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools, working with 8th graders in Boston Public Schools. At UC Berkeley, where she completed a PhD from the Energy & Resources Group (ERG) and was an InFEWS Fellow, she researched sustainable, agroecological food systems and farm-to-school programs as mechanisms for developing student environmental and climate literacy. Her master’s project focused on the San Juan Islands as a case study of high-functioning school food programs and environmental education; and she served as a sustainable agriculture intern for two summers, working alongside small scale diversified farmers on Lopez Island. Siegner has developed, implemented, and evaluated food and climate change curriculum. She served as a graduate student researcher with the Berkeley Food Institute, working on a study of East Bay urban agroecology, with a focus on food distribution, access, and justice questions; and as an agriculture and plumbing systems engineer for the THIMBY tiny house project, a collaboration of ERG students, faculty, and graduate students from other departments.

The dissertation chapter most closely tied to Siegner’s InFEWS Fellowship is “Education: Experiential Food and Climate Change Curricula on Farms, in School Gardens, and in Humanities Classrooms.” It addresses the motivation for creating experiential, interdisciplinary, action- and solution-oriented climate change educational resources for a variety of educational settings. Using an integrated Food-Energy-Water nexus framing, she introduces concepts of systems thinking and experiential learning about natural resources as they relate to climate change education in the United States. Examples of experiential and solutions-oriented interdisciplinary curricula are provided from the San Juan Islands in Washington state, from Oakland, California, and from Washington, D.C. 

Christopher Hyun: The Challenge of Sanitation in Low-Income Communities    

Christopher Hyun has over a decade of experience in South Asia, working on water, sanitation, pollution, culture, religion, and development, particularly in the Ganges River Basin in Varanasi, India. He has worked with multiple NGOs on capacity building, education, and watershed and waste management. He earned a M.Sc. in Environmental Science from Banaras Hindu University, and in 2013 moved to Berkeley to join the master’s program in the Energy & Resources Group, then continuing on to become an InFEWS Fellow and complete his PhD at ERG with a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering.

Hyun’s dissertation, “Shit, Now What? Overcoming the Struggles of Infrastructure, Inequity, and Capacity to Achieve Sanitation for All,” details how and why inadequate sanitation is a hallmark of low-income communities in low- and middle-income countries. He writes: “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) attempts to address this challenge by declaring ‘sanitation for all’ and targeting a 50 percent reduction of ‘untreated wastewater’ by 2030. However, urban areas of low- and middle-income countries have struggled to reach such treatment targets. Since the 1980s, development practitioners and researchers have interrogated the reasons for these shortcomings, primarily focused on the need for decentralized technology; however, increasingly blame has focused on the complexity of social phenomena. My scholarship is grounded in empirical research on the challenge of sanitation in low-income communities. While centered on the crisis of sanitation, I seek to advance and inform critical theoretical and policy-relevant debates on socio-technical systems, local governance, and capacity building.

“I hypothesize that sanitation shortcomings indicate gaps and miscommunications in our collective understanding of sanitation systems. Practitioners and researchers often base interventions on the ‘sanitation service chain,’ which defines the sanitation system as an engineering one as opposed to one with both social and technological dimensions. Therefore, I ask: (1) What are the definitions, functions, and actors of sanitation uncovered across major disciplines? (2) How do these disciplinary understandings compare to baseline understandings of sanitation, i.e. SDG 6 and the sanitation service chain? I led a cross-disciplinary review team from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and Columbia University. Our discussion and results provide conceptual clarity to the complexity of sanitation systems through (1) the development of an augmented sanitation framework, as well as (2) recommendations for how cross-disciplinary research can support and advance the Sustainable Development Goals.”

A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao—who both earned PhDs in Engineering at Cal, have expertise in design and innovation, and lecture for the Blum Center and the Haas School of Business—that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

For their 23 students—comprising even shares of graduates and undergraduates, technical and non-technical majors, and women and men—determining appropriate technological interventions to disaster-driven problems became visceral. And as the class moved online, connected by Google and Zoom instead of open studio space, the students observed how all manner of organizations were struggling to use technology to protect lives and livelihoods due to the fast-moving coronavirus.

Ethan Stobbe, a Master of Engineering student, recounted that the class started with different readings about drone technology. One reading was written for and by engineers whose view of drones was promotional and laudatory, and the other was written by and for government employees who warned about public policy problems presented by unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I realized there was this massive disconnect between the people who develop the technology and get excited about it and push it,” he said, “and the people who have to use technology to make life in a disaster zone more bearable. That’s the beauty of this class—to see both sides—and to understand how to bring technology that’s less than a decade old into a disaster response zone.”

Stobbe was assigned to the “cash disbursements” team with a fellow engineer and two lawyers. They included: Karen Olivia Jimeno, a Master of Development Practice and Fulbright student from the Philippines; Mozheng (Edward) Hu, a Master of Engineering student focused on product design from China; and Ifejesu Ogunleye, a Master of Development Practice student who trained in law at University of Manchester and the Nigerian Law School. As they conducted interviews about cash disbursement with representatives from FEMA, Give Directly, and other organizations, they were guided by Dzombak and Rao not just to focus on the mobile technology, but on “framing and reframing” their understanding of how to make cash disbursements more effective. 

Alex Diaz, Head of Crisis Response & Humanitarian Aid at Google.org, lectured to students on disaster prevention, response, and recovery, focusing on the roles of technology and governance.

The team’s first framing question was: How might we help streamline the disbursement of cash relief while maximizing its impact in disaster response? This prompted the students to question how the disbursement process works, why particular steps in the process are difficult, which organizations are the largest, and what existing standards govern the field. After conducting several interviews with practitioners, they learned that cash allocation can be enhanced through crowdsourced information and public accountability, but that targeting people is a challenge and enrollment and verification takes time. So they reframed their question to: How might we speed up the distribution of cash transfers by improving the enrollment of and verification process of disaster survivors?

The team’s final idea, which included a prototype website presented over Zoom in early May, was “biometric pre-registration” along with a policy guide to address legal concerns. The idea was to compel individuals in flood, hurricane, and other disaster zones to pre-register their biometric information on a website, in order to receive cash disbursements more easily in the event of a calamity. The point, argued the team, is to work around the problem of identification, as driver’s licenses, social security documents, and birth certificates often disintegrate in disasters. During their final presentation, the team acknowledged how seeing the rollout of the CARES Act, in which tax returns were used as a verification method, validated the need for solutions that enable quick access to cash for citizens.

Dzombak and Rao see the educational approach they offer to the cash disbursement and other teams as part of the emerging discipline of Development Engineering. “Development Engineering embraces complexity as a sub-discipline in itself,” explained Rao. “A lot of ways that design-based problem solving or technology-driven problem solving is taught—the problem isn’t engaged in a multi-dimensional way.”

Dzombak underscored that although the course teaches design methodologies, “The actual project is the focus and outcome of the class. The projects themselves demand that one builds technical and social fluencies and specifically how to move back and forth between the two to solve problems that matter.”

Dzombak feels strongly that STEM education needs more problem contextualization, more emphasis on ethics, and more rigor around collaboration and teamwork. She was drawn to Development Engineering during her PhD at UC Berkeley because she wants to see academic inventions tested and applied but also because she believes that well implemented technologies, devised in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way, can improve and even save lives.

Rao explained that there is a long orthodoxy in higher education that you must learn theory before exploring applied technologies or solutions—an orthodoxy that stems from the need for deep knowledge before tackling complex problems. “But there is also an urgency to many problems,” said Rao. “Students have a hunger for them and there are many ways to contribute to problems before you have a PhD in a specific field.”

Rao noted that the accessibility of technology is changing who gets to intervene in disasters and how. “The ability to manufacture a mechanical part would previously have required a high degree of fluency in several knowledge areas and toolkits,” he said. “Now, a rough prototype of that  product can be designed and built with a credit card and a few clicks. In many cases, the learning curve on technical tools has eased to the point where you can engage with tools and theory simultaneously and cater to students where they are.”

Dzombak noted that the augmented reality and data visualization sessions of their course would not have been possible four years ago when she and Rao were working on their doctorates. “Every student would have needed a background in programming and hardware in order to engage in that space. But given where toolkits are now, students were able to download software, do some reading, and then engage in a meaningful way.”

Since technologies will alway be advancing, Dzombak and Rao believe there is a growing space for people who are tech savvy but not tech specialized and can frame questions while leveraging the latest tools. “We’re trying to teach students how to learn how to learn in a very explicit way,” said Dzombak. “Because of the way jobs are shifting, people are going to be forced to get up to speed on new technologies and figure out how to use them to tackle problem areas.”

The student team that explored drone imagery is an example of this approach. They were excited to apply drone technology to fire mitigation in California. But after talking to fire chiefs, image processing researchers, and drone operators and designers, they surfaced several problem areas in which they did not have the expertise to make a contribution. For example, they knew that one of the challenges in using drone video footage during disasters is how best to parse the massive amount of data generated. And they also knew that drones suffer from flight mechanics and battery power issues during disasters, but those issues are best handled by drone manufacturers. Where could they make an impact?

One area where they found less activity is how to leverage public and private drone operation after the first hour of a disaster. The “Rapidash” prototype—developed by Master of Development Practice Student Aaron Scherf, Master of Engineering Student Wai Yan Nyein, Cognitive Science Student Meera Ramesh, and Data Science Student Jinsu Elhance—is an app that enables public and and private drone operators to collaborate during disasters by providing maps of high vulnerability areas and access by firefighters to this information. The idea is to get firefighters crucial information about the direction and density of a blaze as soon as possible and especially when public drones are too far away. 

Katie Wetstone, a Master of Development Practice student who was assigned to the “disinformation” team, said that this kind of idea formation has been a strength of the class. “We were given a structured way to process information after interviews and organize different insights,” she said. “This approach is different from other courses, in that we have more time to research and understand a problem space rather than jumping to a solution.”

Wetstone said it wasn’t until the last third of the class, after interviews with Alex Diaz at Google.org and Chris Worman at TechSoup, that her team homed in on the idea that disinformation is a “public sector problem in a private sector space.” They also realized that immediately after a disaster there is an “information vacuum period” when a lot of disinformation spreads, making people vulnerable to news that increases anxiety and bad decisions. 

“This whole problem is a balance between education, technology, and policy,” said Master of Development Practice Student Sadie Frank. “Until the policy mechanisms around enforcement and regulation of social media change, or until private social media companies make significant personnel investments, our best approach might be to teach people how to recognize and avoid disinformation.”

During the final projects showcase, the disinformation team presented “Compasio,” a downloadable device extension that filters potentially inaccurate information on social media through pre-verified accounts and geolocation. The software essentially warns users when information is suspect or unverified. 

Dzombak notes that “Innovation in Disaster Response” is not meant to jumpstart social enterprise ideas, such as new apps and web services, though it might. “The training is meant to prevent unintended consequences once students go into the workforce. That’s why we spent a lot of time on critical thinking, ethics and values, decision-making,  and teaming.”

Deniz Dogruer, an Engineering Education PhD Student and COO of Squishy Robotics, who served as the graduate student instructor for the course, noted that the range of disaster-related problem spaces students explored—drones, disinformation, evacuation, disaster documentation, and cash disbursement—made the course particularly complex to teach but also advantageous for development engineering training.

On Zoom: Innovation in Disaster Response Graduate Instructor Deniz Dogruer (upper left) and Course Developer-Lecturers Rachel Dzombak (upper right) and Vivek Rao (bottom).

Although the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the course online gave faculty and students a chance to consider the importance of technology during disasters, Dzombak said it’s been a “mixed bag.” 

“In some ways, it gives students an excellent way to connect with their learning. The disinformation team, for example, was inundated with so many examples of how their problem can manifest,” she said. “On the flip side, so many people think the future of education is purely online. But the intangibles that we’re trying to teach—collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, process iteration, emotional connections—are just drastically changed. I think the irony is that solving complex societal problems requires people collaboration as much if not more than advances in technology. We need to be present with each other, not just with the machine.” 

—Tamara Straus

George Moore Wins Chancellor’s Award for Public Service

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students.

George Moore Wins Chancellor’s Award for Public Service

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students. The Blum Center emailed with Moore to find out more about his academic and extracurricular interests and views on the culture of STEM.  

What was it like to move to UC Berkeley for grad school after growing up in Alabama and attending University of South Alabama? 

These two places have really different cultural values. So, in addition to the excitement of being in a new physical space, there was a lot for me to learn about Bay Area culture. In general, my decision to come to Berkeley was intentional: I knew that my academic capacity and personal lifestyle would be challenged.

Why have you felt compelled to help underrepresented communities develop STEM skills or advance in their STEM careers?

All underrepresented communities are not the same. It would be foolish to think that I have something helpful to offer just because I also identify as a member of an underrepresented community. But because support for these communities is insufficient, I feel inspired to give what I have to offer. Because I have been able to navigate a piece of the STEM institutional system, it’s easier for me to feel more comfortable offering my service in these disciplines. What I think is most important is that I offer my experience and advice purely as a resource, and not a conviction, that should be imposed on someone else’s lifestyle. In other words, it’s not my place to steer underrepresented folks towards an engineering degree or, more broadly, pursuing a STEM career. Instead, one of my essential goals is to shed some light on how to navigate and leverage opportunities in STEM when the system is not designed for you to succeed. I’d hate to see someone abandon their cultural values for a career in STEM. 

Tell us about your service work—with the SMASH Academy and the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet, share, and learn from scholars at the SMASH Academy and community members of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. With both groups, I was able to share some of the Human Centered Design strategies that I and other practitioners use to address big problems. My hope is that my work reassures and, if necessary, instills confidence in SMASH Scholars and the PPN community so that they are aware of their capacity to solve their own problems.

As vice president of the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Student Association, what kinds of programs have you implemented?

I’ve worked alongside Liya Weldegebriel (BGESS President) and several other strong black graduate students on the BGESS executive team to help provide supportive programming for BGESS members this year. A few notable programs include our Buddy Lunch mentorship program, Professional Development Workshop, Cultural Exchange Speakers Series, and attendance at AfroTech in the Fall. The Buddy Lunch program matches BGESS members based on their interests and encourages them to meet up for lunch to share experiences and advice navigating life at UC Berkeley. Recently, the program has moved to virtual lunches via Zoom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Professional Development Workshop was inspired by conversations about figuring out how to prepare ourselves for life after graduate school. The Cultural Exchange Speaker Series have offered a platform to have culturally relevant conversations with each other. These events range from panel sessions with prominent black scholars in STEM to sharing our own cultural backgrounds—acknowledging that while we share a lot of the same values and struggles as the black graduates in STEM, our cultural backgrounds are actually quite different. AfroTech is an annual Conference held in the Bay Area that focuses on accelerating black careers in engineering, design, and entrepreneurship. Thousands of black professionals in STEM and related fields attend this conference every year. In the Fall of 2019, we had at least 15 BGESS members attend. 

Your LinkedIn page notes that you are “On a mission to thread a desire for empowering marginalized communities with a passion for sustainable design. Hence, I stay familiar, and critical, of frameworks like the Human-centered Design process and Life Cycle Analysis.” Please explain your skepticism about HCD and LCA. What issues does it fail to address for marginalized communities?

While these frameworks are constantly being modified to better serve their purpose, “service to marginalized communities” is not always included in that purpose. So it’s important that I use these frameworks with caution and understand the underlying assumptions that other researchers and practitioners have made. A good understanding of these assumptions is what enables me to refine these frameworks to better serve a marginalized community of interest.

Development Engineering Scholar Woojin Jung Finds Significant Discrepancies in Global Poverty Measures

Development Engineering Scholar Woojin Jung Finds Significant Discrepancies in Global Poverty Measures

Woojin Jung, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Social Work, credits her interdisciplinary education in social welfare, public policy, and development engineering for her award-winning research. In December, she was honored with the 2020 Society for Social Work and Research Outstanding Social Work Doctoral Dissertation Award for Combating Poverty Through Aid: A Critical Analysis of Alternative Models, which she wrote at UC Berkeley to fulfill her PhD in social work and development engineering. To find out more about Jung’s poverty measurement research and her contributions to development engineering, the Blum Center conducted the following interview.

Rutgers School of Social Work. Photo by John O’Boyle

Your dissertation examines the discrepancies between different global poverty measures and brings that analysis to bear on identifying the salient dimensions of poverty in developing countries. What were your most surprising or meaningful takeaways from this analysis?

One surprising finding is that the discrepancies between the two approaches to poverty were larger than I thought. For instance, in Cambodia in 2010, only 10 percent of the population was poor by a $1.90 poverty measure, but almost half of the population was living in poverty by multidimensional measure. In development agencies, when it comes to the usage of indicators, income measures dominate but this study shows that each measure requires attention. How to incorporate multiple measures is another issue. Policymakers and research communities can juxtapose various measures one by one, taking a dashboard approach, but I want to take a systemic account of discrepancies. It was interesting to me that exceptions and mismatches between measures are not always bad but may serve as interesting sources of information and have the potential to be used as a policy instrument.

The most unexpected finding was that some evidence of the match between needs and policy intervention, which I would call the diagnosis and prescription match. My study finds that the “capability poor” countries receive marginally higher social sector aid relative to economic sector aid.[1] Social sector aid aiming to address capability poverty has skyrocketed since the beginning of the 2000s, significantly outpacing the economic and production aid. The result of the analysis tells us that higher rate of social sector aid is not uniform but more in countries where poverty is more multidimensional. Further research can expand this discussion by analyzing whether the considerable policy shift favoring the social sector was in response to the growing rate of “capability poor” countries to “income poor countries” or in response to the large magnitude of capability poverty as relative to income poverty. As for the individual country, more attention can be paid to outliers lacking the diagnosis and treatment match[2]

Given what you know about discrepancies between measures of international poverty and advances in technology to better measure poverty, how can the development community better distribute aid in, say, Myanmar, where you focus some of your paper?  

I would say that development communities should be more clear and consistent about the definition and concepts of poverty and policy responses to address poverty. Rhetorically, the development community calls for tackling “poverty.” However, in terms of aid targeting, they equate the meaning of poverty with low gross national income. Strictly speaking, poverty and low gross national income inform needs from different angles. The poverty rate exclusively focuses on those falling below the poverty line and reflects the distribution of income (and dimensions of other wellbeing). However, average national income, which is a measure of central tendency, takes account of everyone’s income, and the super-rich can move the mean upward. In my previous study, I found out that aid per capita per country is explained by GNI per capita and population, but poverty rate does not have any significant explanatory power, or even if it does, it is in the negative direction (the poorer, the less aid). The ways economic growth and national income translate into poverty reduction differs by country; both income and poverty should be taken together. For instance, among countries with a similar average income per capita, should not those with a large proportion of poor be receiving more aid?

I also think that development communities should take advantage of the advancement of technology to measure poverty. We can validate and test the performance of new poverty measures through supervised learning, triangulate alternative measures, and use them to impute missing data. I found that the areas with the highest needs often have the least certain data, spatially and timely irrelevant. When serving these areas, even if the development community uses their best intentions, it is left with ad-hoc decisions to pick beneficiary communities. When the World Bank and Korea International Cooperation Agency started their community-centered development (CCD) projects in Myanmar in 2012-2013, the country didn’t have any reliable income and consumption data to identify the most impoverished townships or villages. The country’s first DHS data became available in 2015 and 2016, but proxy poverty measures such as the wealth index[3] are available in only 441 village clusters. Using geospatial interpolation techniques or poverty prediction techniques using satellite imagery, development communities can better pinpoint where the poor are and fill the development gaps using global social welfare program—development aid.

Your study concludes with a call for social work research and practice to return to the basics, and to begin by considering client needs. Why are you compelled to make this call?

Actually, I am speaking to the broad field of social science, including social welfare/social work and development engineering. I was compelled to make this call because a particular way of generating evidence may have obscured broader lessons. The knowledge continuum of a development project is composed of need assessment, implementation, evaluation, and policy uptake. Each piece of evidence can contribute to creating a holistic sense of impact. There will be a cost involved in putting too much emphasis on one of the continuums (e.g., outcome evaluation), a specific sector (e.g., health), or scope (micro approach). For instance, rigorous experimental studies can tease out socio-economic impacts of interventions but are less likely to recover quantities that are useful for policy.

Similarly, too much emphasis on outcomes can result in disproportionate aid allocation to sectors with easy-to-measure outcomes, such as health, HIV/AIDS prevention, while stifling innovations with hard-to-reach populations. With the promise of the big data revolution, questions also arise over the value added—other than confirming what’s already been known—in the international development context. Many development projects have failed because they did not simply pass the scrutiny of the very first test: Does the intervention take precedence over all competing resources for individuals and communities in extreme deprivation? Is providing a laptop for a child really a priority for children suffering from lack of water or food and in a village without electricity?

The sub-field of social welfare/social work is heavily leaning towards health science while the sub-field dedicated to anti-poverty policies has been losing its ground, particularly in the U.S. Still, I am not quite convinced why studies covering individual health outcomes such as patients experiencing depression or sleeplessness are more likely to be funded than inquiries about poverty, inequality, or structural impediments to finding decent work, which might affect billions of people and many other social problems. Part of the reason would be the substantial funding streams exclusively earmarked to the health sector with concrete indicators for success. Science that advances health is important to both the rich and the poor, but science that reduces poverty would be only an issue for the poor. I think such an imbalance in social welfare and in social science as a whole can be partly remedied by going back to basics, starting from client and user needs.

Tell us about your effort to combine fine-grained spatial techniques with satellite imagery to assess aid allocation in data-sparse communities in Myanmar. What did that involve, and what did you discover?

My efforts focused on creating poverty variables, combining spatial analysis and remote sensing methods. They involve the entire process of data science techniques—atomized data collection, the representation of non-traditional data, downstream machine learning tasks, and data visualization. Like in many other countries, Myanmar does not have poverty data at a small community level where aid projects are taking place. This would make it difficult to say whether aid-receiving communities are poorer than non-aid receiving communities or whether aid volume is explained by the degree of wealth. I used spatial interpolation techniques to overlay the gridded wealth field onto the georeferenced aid project locations, so that we can estimate the level of poverty in project villages as compared to non-project villages. The fine-grained spatial analysis also allows measurement of poverty at a small scale such as a 5 km by 5 km square grid depending on the resolution of the images, and it does not depend on administrative boundaries. What I also found interesting is that there are multiple ways of measuring poverty or needs broadly so that we can link needs and interventions. One of those is a distance to conflict areas from project villages, a measure of need relevant to fragile and conflict-prone countries. Beyond spatial interpolation, I also use nontraditional data sources such as daytime and nighttime satellite images. For instance, annual average nighttime luminosity across Myanmar was extracted from raster/image files and was trained to predict poverty using a convolutional neural network.

Through this new approach, I discovered mixed evidence in needs-based targeting. Community centered development (CCD) in Myanmar disproportionately flows to better-off communities, as indicated by a lower share of vulnerable populations per township and areas that shine brighter. However, unlike the literature that argues that aid favors the richest, my study suggests that a need-based allocation is also in place in Myanmar, at least for community-centered development, an aid instrument known for its emphasis on participation and inclusion. The previous studies used aggregated poverty measures at the state level, which is the highest administrative level, across African countries. Within villages of similar levels of population and electrification, aid goes to areas with low assets. The analytic tool I developed also helped me answer other questions. I found that the donor’s ideology shapes the design of aid projects design and project design matters in targeting. One CCD project concentrates on poorer regions, while the other project supports villages close to conflict zones.

Why did you choose to get a designated emphasis in development engineering? What did the field bring to your dissertation and how might it shape your academic career?

With a policy analyst background in development agencies, I wanted to continue work on international development and was about to start a concurrent MA in economics while earning a PhD. At that time, I also discovered the development engineering program and sought advice from Dr. Clair Brown to weigh in. I like what the program is aiming for—that is, addressing poverty by emphasizing human-centered design, adapting technology to local needs, and scaling up interventions. So I decided to take a route to development engineering.

I took core development engineering courses and was connected with innovative projects and their research teams, such as the Darfur Cook Stove project. That inspired me a lot, so for the last chapter of my dissertation, I wanted to survey “technology-informed data-intensive projects” (e.g., Development Impact Lab projects supported by the Blum Center) and interview principal investigators. However, after the discussion with the Blum Center, I realized that there is no centralized reservoir/data warehouse to collect such data. Due to this obstacle in doing a study of other studies, I thought, “Why don’t I get involved in data-savvy research?” and I ended up doing such research. The rigorous core and elective course of development engineering paved my way toward building data fluency and programming skills.

As I acknowledged in my dissertation, being part of the development engineering group has expanded my area of interest to the application of technology for social good. I really benefited from the marriage between STEM and social science education. For instance, I drew my aid occurrence and density outcome variable from spatial differences in African elephant densities. The development engineering program helped me select rigorous data science and impact evaluation courses to promote my analytic skills. It put me in touch with faculty members from various disciplines. The guidance and mentorship from my advisor, Dr. Brown, as well as Dr. Agogino and Dr. Levin, have been strong. Dr. Brown has been nourishing my scholarship in every way from the formulation of the research question to coaching for a job interview, to following up with article submission. The NSF INFEWS fellowship was also a tremendous financial support to pursue my dissertation.

The data science training and my interdisciplinary background with social welfare, public policy, and development dngineering will profoundly shape my academic career. I believe my unique contribution to the field is showing how to harness technology and data to identify the needs of the most impoverished in the world—from the eyes of social work, as well as for its direct work experience with clients.

—Tamara Straus


[1] Particularly low policy score (CPIA) countries receive more assistance to the civil service and governance subsector, which was a sub-sector that led to the increase in aid to the social sector.

[2] For instance, Zimbabwe in 2016 received a higher ratio of social sector aid (USD 151) despite its income poverty status. In contrast, Sudan in 2010 received a lower rate of social sector aid (USD 6.77) despite its capability poor status.

[3] Although the wealth index cannot be used directly to construct benchmark measures of poverty, these asset-based measures are capable of capturing a household’s long-term economic welfare in poor regions lacking consumption, expenditure and price data.

Matthew D. Potts and the Scholarship of Resource Economics

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship.

Matthew D. Potts and the Scholarship of Resource Economics

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship. Potts specializes in resource economics, an interdisciplinary field in which he conducts quantitative analyses of forest management, biofuels, plantation agriculture, land use planning, land use policy, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and tropical ecology.

“In my research group, we ask how interactions among human labor, history, technology, and nature are  shaping tropical lands and the well-being of resource dependent communities,” said Potts at a winter Blum Center Faculty Salon. 

Much of Potts’ research in tropical forests provides insights into how to sustainably manage these landscapes, which he says provide public and market goods. Public goods include carbon storage and animal habitats. Market goods include raw materials such as timber, land for agricultural production, and gold. 

At the salon, Potts highlighted stories of three commodities: the story of oil palm in Pasoh, Malaysia; the story of cacao in Sulawesi, Indonesia; and the story presented by Jimena Diaz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, of gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.

Potts presented findings from fieldwork he conducted in cross-boundary subsidies in a Malaysian plantation landscape, using oil palm as the primary crop in his analysis. (Cross-boundary subsidies are caused by organisms or materials that cross or traverse habitat patch boundaries, subsidizing the resident populations.) Using two decades of ecological data, Potts and his research colleagues illustrated how subsidies from neighboring oil palm plantations triggered powerful secondary “cascading” effects on natural habitats located >1.3 km away. Specifically, they found that 1) oil palm fruit drove 100-fold increases in crop-raiding native wild boar, 2) wild boar used thousands of understory plants to construct birthing nests in the pristine forest interior, and 3) nest building caused a 62 percent decline in forest tree sapling density over the 24-year study period. As described in their 2017 Nature Communications study, “The long-term, landscape-scale indirect effects from agriculture suggest its full ecological footprint may be larger in extent than is currently recognized. Cross-boundary subsidy cascades may be widespread in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems and present significant conservation challenges.”

Next, Potts presented an analysis of sustainable cacao intensification initiatives in Southwest Sulawesi, conducted by his former student Lisa Kelley, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa whose initial research was supported by the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab. Kelley explored how a rapid smallholder cacao boom in the 1980s-2000s produced mixed benefits for farmers and negatively impacted forests. Over the last 20 years, Sulawesi cacao farmers experienced significant yield losses due to the reduced profitability and sustainability of the crop. In one of Kelley’s interviewers, a farmer reported: “When chocolate is young, it produces well and doesn’t require too much work. After it’s mature, it produces little and requires too much work. Meanwhile the price of chocolate goes up and down. As soon as my peppercorn trees yield, I will leave it.” 

To improve sustainable cacao production, the Indonesian government, companies like Mars and Nestle, and international organizations like USAID and the World Agroforestry Centre have invested since 2000 half a billion dollars into farmer education and land improvements. Using GoogleEarth to understand land effects, Kelley is working on a study to determine the degree to which the investments have borne results. 

Concluding the salon, Potts’ graduate student, Jimena Diaz, presented her ongoing research on the social and ecological effects of small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru. Diaz emphasized that her research explores the intersection between the social relations of gold production, including labor practices and technologies used in mining, and the ecological consequences of these diverse mining production practices. Through her fieldwork, Diaz has found  that small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios has grown rapidly in the past 15 years, causing ecological change and rapid deforestation. Mercury is present in almost all gold mining areas, because it is used to bind fine gold particles into an amalgam that is later burned to release the mercury. 

Informal gold miners in Madre de Dios, Peru. © Jimena Diaz

“Misconceptions of mercury and mining practices are common in Madre de Dios,” said Diaz. An important finding from her field research is that not all mining areas are contaminated by mercury and that the type of machinery used in mining may help to explain differences in mercury contamination. Different gold production practices also have different impacts on patterns of deforestation. Areas where miners use heavy machinery tend to show more uniform patterns in deforestation and forest regeneration in comparison to those areas worked with suction pump based technologies. Diaz recommends greater involvement of miners in the design of mining regulations and an explicit recognition of the importance of small-scale mining as a livelihood for a large portion of the region’s population.

“Nature is quite resilient and there are ways to mine that are less impactful,” said Diaz. “Miners themselves don’t want to destroy rainforests, but they also don’t have a lot of economic choices.” 

–Dalia Elkhalifa

Why We Are Expanding the Field of Development Engineering

Why We Are Expanding the Field of Development Engineering

By Shankar Sastry

This winter, the Blum Center was among the many groups in academia and development to celebrate the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT and Michael Kremer of Harvard were lauded for their innovative use of randomized control trials and behavioral economics to evaluate the effectiveness of global poverty interventions—and for a body of scholarship that has transformed the field of development economics.

Stated the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: “This year’s Laureates have introduced a new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty. In brief, it involves dividing this issue into smaller, more manageable, questions—for example, the most effective interventions for improving educational outcomes or child health. They have shown that these smaller, more precise, questions are often best answered via carefully designed experiments among the people who are most affected.”

One of Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer’s innovations—strengthened by other leading development economists like UC Berkeley’s Edward Miguel—is to emphasize the importance of field work and the contribution of teams. Previously, development economists worked largely in isolation; today, their studies often include dozens or even hundreds of people representing government, nonprofits, civic organizations, and private firms. This approach leads to greater transparency of both the data collected and the methodology used, as well as a richer inquiry into which poverty reduction programs and policies should be studied and whether or how they should grow.

At the Blum Center, we are studying how advances in development economics are part of a new and emerging field, which we call “global problem solving” and “development engineering.” This field is responsive  to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the fact that, in many cases, we have the scientific and technological tools to meet the United Nations’ 17 goals but not the financial will or transformative tools for changing people’s behavior to achieve them. Development engineering builds on what development economics has revealed—which poverty interventions are succeeding—and then modifies or scales or re-invents them for implementation elsewhere.

In this way, development engineering is both deeply indebted to development economics as well as a transdisciplinary field for our time. Its rigor is in understanding complex societal challenges—such as the need to build earthquake and typhoon-resistant homes around the globe—and then devising the technological, cultural, financial, policy tools, and work force development to implement these problem solutions.

Elizabeth Hausler, who received her PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Cal, and went on to found Build Change to empower people to live and learn in safer homes and schools, is an exemplary development engineer. When she visited the Blum Center recently, she said her organization’s greatest challenge is not in seismic technologies but in all that surrounds resilient construction in developing nations: community buy-in, policy frameworks, government advocacy, financial product availability and affordability, and ensuring local construction workers are well trained.

Hausler called her efforts “Money, Technology, People” or “The Financial, The Technical, and the Social,” describing a kind of holy trinity of development engineering demands. Another way to describe development engineering is that it enables iterative problem identification and solution formulation propelled by interdisciplinary teams. In essence, we are advocating a transdisciplinary approach that combines the insights-oriented rigor of development economics with the solutions-oriented rigor of engineering. We also aim to integrate business, natural resources, public health, and social sciences into development engineering in order to appropriately and ethically create, implement, and scale new technologies to benefit people living in resource-deprived regions.

Over the next year, the Blum Center will take steps toward realizing the promises of development engineering by partnering with the College of Engineering and the Haas School of Business to hire two tenure track professors. One will be an assistant professor whose focus area may include: engineering better health, the nexus of food, energy and water systems, accessible low-cost energy technologies, the digital transformation of societal systems, climate change mitigation, or sustainable design and communities. Applicants will be hired 50 percent into the Blum Center and 50 percent into a home department in Bioengineering, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Operations Research, Materials Science & Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, or Nuclear Engineering.

The second hire will be an assistant, associate, or full professor in Entrepreneurship in Developing Economies who will split his or her time between the Blum Center and the Haas School and whose research topics may include productivity, innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises, financing for entrepreneurial activities, start-ups, venture capital funding, incubators, and policies to promote new businesses.

These professors will help us realize the promises of development engineering and be leaders, with their future students, in the achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Suleiman Halasah: Environment as a Cross-boundary Peacebuilding Tool

Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

Suleiman Halasah: Environment as a Cross-boundary Peacebuilding Tool

By Jason Liu

In 2002, Suleiman Halasah graduated from the University of Jordan with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to work first as a teaching assistant for the University of Jordan’s Department of Computer Engineering and then as a control engineer for the Jordan Valley Authority on irrigation projects. Yet within a few years, Halasah came to realize the work wasn’t for him. “I would sit in an office all day being totally disconnected from life,” he said. 

Halasah was also disillusioned with the impact he was having at the Jordan Valley Authority. “Working with the government is really hard because of one main point: it’s a huge institution,” he said. “Making any change is almost impossible, especially if you’re assigned to a project far from the center of power. ”

Halasah’s frustration came with a silver lining, however. Because of the slow pace of work, he had free time to pursue other passions and became involved in several Jordan-based NGOs focused on peacebuilding, community development, and volunteering.

“One of the main projects I did was establishing a village computer lab that was the only one for 100 kilometers,” he said. “I saw how the lab brought opportunities to change people’s lives, and ever since then I’ve been focused on what I can do to directly help other people.”

In 2006, Halasah joined the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel where he co-founded a photovoltaic solar field company called the Arava Power. He went on to found the environmental service consulting agency i.GREENs; served as the acting associate director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management; and now co-directs the Jordan-Israel Center for Community, Environment, and Research (JICCER), which supports the well-being of natural and human systems of the Arava valley through cross-border community initiatives and research. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. in off-grid water and wastewater systems in the West Bank from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel.

Energy & Resources Group Professor Isha Ray (right) and Suleiman Halasah discuss sustainability challenges in the Middle East at the nexus of food, energy, and water systems. © Laura Turbow

Halasah came to speak at UC Berkeley on October 29 in an event co-hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Master of Development Practice, and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

Discussant Isha Ray, associate professor at the Energy & Resources Group and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, joined Halasah afterward and highlighted some of the key takeaways: how those working on development often focus on financial and technological solutions, while ignoring cultural, political, and social realities; how patience goes beyond being a virtue in development but is the very key to success; how governments at times track and control nomadic tribes under the guise of development; and how the current push for “scaling up” needs redress as communities are location-specific.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Halasah before the event at Berkeley’s beloved Yali’s Cafe to ask him about his work. While waiting for our coffee, I asked how he would describe his day job. Halasah said:

“My main focus is to bring people together, so that they can get to know each other and discuss hard questions. But if the audience focuses on water, then I focus on how water can do this. If the audience focuses on environmental issues, then that’s how I present work. Ultimately, I use different opportunities for bringing people together to catalyze peace building in the Middle East.”

During his career, Halasah said he was shaped by two factors. The first was his father. When connecting the dots on how an electrical engineer in Jordan ended up at the Arava Institute in Israel, the first thing Halasah said was: The flexibility my Dad gave helped a lot. My Dad very much believed that I should lead my own direction in life and as long as I felt like it was the right thing to do, he would support me.”

The second shaping factor for Halasah was traveling. Halasah has been to conferences all over the world to share his work in community development, peace building, and how he’s able to transcend the complicated politics of the Middle East. He has also traveled as a tourist to the US, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Uganda, and many other countries.

“When you meet people from other nationalities, it opens your eyes,” said Halasah. “You don’t see yourself as superior to others. You see that everybody is very proud of their culture and the divisive things that separate people from different cultures and nations don’t exist anymore. It’s humbling.”

As I listened to Halasah’s talk at the Blum Center later in the day, it was clear how these experiences were reflected in both his professional choices and his outlook on development. 

“The approach today is mainly one-directional. The implementer comes to the community saying, ‘This is your problem, this is its effect on you, and this is how I’m going to solve it.’ The community itself is totally disconnected. As a result, communities don’t take ownership of the solution, they don’t see it as their system. Then comes complications with the system when some part fails and people say, ‘This is their technology. Why should I fix it? How should I fix it? The NGO needs to come to see what is wrong with it.’” 

Instead, Halasah argues, we need to “work directly with the community on defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and figuring out what assets they have. It should all ultimately come from them.” For Halasah this means conducting interviews, holding roundtables with all stakeholders, and making sure the community has a voice at every step. “It’s their problem; they should know more about it than we do,” said Halasah. 

Another topic that Halasah is passionate about is environmental peacekeeping. In explaining how natural resources, pollution, and social spaces can play a role in peace building, Halasah said, “For any conflict, there is a core problem, but there are also so many other things that can be opportunities for peacebuilding and community development. The environmental approach works because it affects everyone. And that’s something that can be used to bring people together.”

Halasah continued: “Once you bring people together people don’t talk about each other as ‘the other,’ as an imaginary person in their head—they realize it’s a human in front of them that shares a lot of the same interests.  People ultimately care about their level of living, about securing their food and water. They care about their kids, how their kids are being treated, and the resources they have. I see the environment as not only a tool for peacebuilding but also for community stability as it gets everybody to talk about their shared interests.”

Halasah had a clear answer when I asked what the key factor in making these talks successful is: trust. He said: “There’s high potential for things to be done, but the main obstacle is that people don’t trust each other. With my work, we always have a balanced team that represents different communities. I have an Israeli partner. She brings me to all her community meetings in Israel, and I bring her to all my meetings on the Jordanian side. When people see that there’s somebody from the other side that they learn to trust, there’s more open communication.”

As our coffee cups emptied and Halasah prepared to go to his next meeting, I asked him what advice he would give students pursuing a career in development engineering. Among seeing each moment as a learning opportunity, persevering, and staying positive, Halasah ended with this: 

“I would say interdisciplinary projects are the best way to learn and get a full picture about something. If you are an engineer that looks at a technical solution, it doesn’t make sense to be isolated from the community. You need to go out there in the field to meet with people, listen to them, and see what they think. Too often, we think we have the right answer for something, but it might be for the wrong problem. We need to understand what people need in order to understand what the solution is.”


In Salute and Celebration of Women Social Entrepreneurs

In Salute and Celebration of Women Social Entrepreneurs

By Shankar Sastry

At the Blum Center, women using their entrepreneurial and discipline-specific talents to start innovative projects and organizations has been a goal since our founding. The difference today compared to 13 years ago is that there are more networks and investment opportunities for female founders. Yet barriers still exist (to be broken).

At the October 1 CITRIS Women in Tech Initiative “Inclusion by Design: Practical Tips for Improving STEM Equality,” the Blum Center’s Phillip Denny was part of a panel discussing ways to increase the participation and success of women and under-represented people in entrepreneurship.

“Networks and mentors are extremely important for female innovators, as they are for everyone,” said Denny who directs the Big Ideas Contest.

Recently, Denny documented in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article that in Big Ideas there is a correlation between female participants’ success and the number of female judges in the pool. The researchers also found that women mentors, who advise on project plans, offer much needed perspectives and networks and have a better understanding of some of the types of products and services that women are proposing.

In this month’s newsletter, we are featuring several women entrepreneurs who have come through Blum Hall.

Maria Artundauga, 2019 winner of the Big Ideas Contest, discusses how her personal and professional experiences led her to found Respira Labs, a Skydeck startup, and how she navigates male-dominated spaces as a woman of color and an immigrant.

Also in this month’s newsletter is an interview with Jill Finlayson, Cal graduate, longtime Big Ideas Contest mentor, and director of Women in Technology Initiative at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) at UC Berkeley, where she supports research and initiatives to promote the equitable participation of women in the tech industry.

Also featured is the work of Vicentia Gyau, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and Global Poverty & Practice alumna, who co-founded the nonprofit Education Redefined for All to  improve public education and workforce development in Ghana.

In addition, October was another tremendous month for Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino and her startup Squishy Robotics, which makes shape-shifting robots for first responders in disaster situations. The Professor of Mechanical Engineering was named one of the 30 women in robotics by Robohub, and her invention won the Grand Winner Award at 2019 Silicon Valley TechPlanter competition in the global accelerator category.

Please join me in the celebration of these and other women founders and social entrepreneurs at the Blum Center, at UC Berkeley, and beyond.

And please take a look at Jason Liu’s article on the Development Engineering course Design, Evaluate and Scale Technologies (DevEng200), which is being taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science students, more than half of whom hail from outside the U.S.  

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

A Project-Based Course on Collaboration, Diversity, and Design Thinking

A Project-Based Course on Collaboration, Diversity, and Design Thinking

By Jason Liu

How does one bring a social impact idea from conception to reality? 

That question is central to DEVENG C200: Design, Evaluate and Scale Development Technologies, a Development Engineering course taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science graduate students this fall.   

Because the emerging field of Development Engineering is highly interdisciplinary, DEVENG C200 is taught as a collaboration among Blum Center Education Director and Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, Haas School of Business Professor David Levine, and College of Natural Resources Associate Professor Matthew Potts, all of whom are faculty from the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. Yael Perez, a Blum Center researcher and coordinator for the Development Engineering program, also provides support for the student teams, especially in their project formulation and interactions with local communities. 

According to Levine, who specializes in the economic analysis of developing countries, the class is meant to help students practice design thinking and engineering in low-resource settings. 

During the first week of class, students participated in a project fair, where sponsors of ongoing Development Engineering projects introduced themselves to the students. Projects included a technology for arsenic removal from drinking water in California’s Central Valley and a community-based enterprise for recycling plastic waste for infrastructure in Kenya. Students were tasked with reconceptualizing the product design for user needs, performing needs assessments for stakeholders, and analyzing the social integration of the projects in their respective communities. 

“The goal of the class is for the students to learn how a product evolves through user interaction, how it is contextualized culturally and otherwise, and how to improve a design so it better serves the needs of its users,” said Perez, who completed a UC Berkeley PhD in Architecture focused on collaborative design. “Students will need to think beyond their initial conceptions of the project and seek feedback from stakeholders to adjust their ideas to the users’ needs in a particular place and context.” 

Levine, who has taught the course previously, added: “These projects are serving real communities and some will become real solutions that will operate on a real scale. Students will go through needs assessments, use their creativity to find new solutions, develop relevant business plans, and eventually get to see how impactful those solutions actually are.” 

When asked what he thought the most important skill will be for the students to succeed in their projects, Levine responded, “Nothing is more important than listening. The world is complicated and we have to try to understand what the problems are on a deep level. Too often we assume that really smart people at Berkeley have all the solutions and too often they’re wrong. Instead, we need to use all the surveys and data possible to understand the potential solutions to a problem, collect feedback, and continue refining the solution.” 

While listening is an important skill for DEVENG C200 students, Perez noted that the diversity of students is also an important characteristic. 

“Diversity in any company or team improves creativity, brings new ideas, and fosters new ways of thinking,” she said, citing a Harvard Business Review article.

Diversity is indeed reflected in the student makeup of DEVENG 200, in which a third are business students and the rest are pursuing advanced degrees in engineering, education, natural resources, and public policy. More than half the class also hails from outside the U.S. 

Student goals for the semester are similarly diverse. Haley Wohlever, a first-year Mechanical Engineering PhD student, Engineers Without Borders graduate, and fellow in the Blum Center’s program on Innovation in the Nexus of Food Energy and Water System (InFEWS), said, “My goal for DEVENG C200 is to be exposed to the process of creating a working business model to implement technology targeted towards a particular society. [I’ve seen] how multi-faceted these Development Engineering problems are, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to study the social and economic pieces of the solution.” Other students discussed team characteristic goals, such as being transparent, respectful, and proactive, as they formed into eight teams focused on seven projects. 

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One of the most popular projects chosen was TakatakaPlastics, sponsored by Paige Balcom, a Mechanical and Development Engineering PhD student, InFEWS Fellow, and advisee of Agogino. The main goal of the project is to convert the plastic waste in developing countries into durable and affordable construction material.

Explaining what excites her about Takataka Plastics, Balcom said, “I saw how [Takataka Plastics] could make a huge impact on the lives of my Ugandan friends. By turning waste into saleable products, we’re creating jobs, cleaning up litter, reducing public health issues, and reducing greenhouse gases released by burning plastic. Takataka is helping change people’s view of plastic waste from dirty, untouchable ‘rubbish’ to an untapped resource and helping them realize the impact plastic has on their environment.”

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In 2018, Takataka Plastics successfully tested a prototype and recently received its first order from Uganda. DEVENG C200 students will create a marketing strategy to franchise the project across Uganda, design additional products from the available plastic, and tailor the technical product to better satisfy user needs. 

Another project, Air Cathode Assisted Iron Electrocoagulation (ACAIE): Arsenic Solutions, was introduced by InFEWS Fellow Dana Hernandez, an Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Ashok Gadgil and other members of his lab to develop an affordable arsenic removal treatment technology. The technology will provide clean water for communities in California’s Central Valley and has scalable prototypes in development. ACAIE: Arsenic Solution won Berkeley’s Big Idea Contest last year. Students will work with Hernandez to socially integrate the technology into the communities of the Central Valley, scale the project, and create a business model for the product. 

DEVENG C200 Students Adrian Hinkle and Soliver Fusi, both InFEWS PhD Fellows as well, are leading the Urine to Fertilizer project, which focuses on converting urine into an affordable fertilizer that increases food production while promoting sustainable sanitation in Kenya. Fusi said, “I’m attracted to the fundamental premise of my work because I’m not creating anything new–I’m just finding ways to make do with what we already have, such as urine.” Previous researchers, working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Kara Nelson, have successfully tested a proof of concept in Kenya in 2017 while Fusi and Hinkle will finalize technical research, the needs assessments for their Kenyan stakeholders, and the economic viability of urine-derived fertilizers with the students of DEVENG C200.

Anaya Hall, an Energy and Resource Group Ph.D. student and InFEWS Fellow, is leading the Peel: Scaling Compost for Carbon Sequestration and Community Resilience project, which addresses the inefficiencies and significant greenhouse gas emissions coming from conventional composting practices in California. With the project still in its early stages, students will work on solving operational questions, such as how to scale and where to site the project, while also determining if compost utilization can be turned into an effective, socially beneficial, and environmentally friendly business model. 

Another project, Aakar Innovation, seeks to address the dearth of effective menstrual hygiene management in India through environmentally friendly, comfortable, and convenient menstrual pads. Sponsored by Aakar Social Board Members Jaydeep Mandal and Ajay Muttreja, Aakar Innovation aims to destigmatize menstruation and empower females in rural India. Students will work with the Indian nonprofit to conduct needs assessments and create a financial strategy to scale the project. 

Meanwhile, the Edu-Comp project is working to find bothsustainable technological and educational solutions to food waste at the Native American Yocha Dehe Wintun Academy, a school for indigenous people located near Sacramento. The project sponsors are Yael Perez and InFEWS Fellow George Moore, a Mechanical Engineering student of Professor Agogino, who are building on the work of students in Professor Kosa Goucher-Lambert’s ME290 class last spring. DEVENG C200 students will work to find educational supplements to technological solutions, customize the device itself to fit the needs of the school, and determine benchmarks for success.

Lastly, Shelby Witherby, an InFEWS Fellow with a PhD in Developmental Engineering, is leading the SAFR: Fluoride Removal project, which addresses the lack of an affordable solution to fluoride contaminated drinking water in rural India. Several field tests for the project have been completed and Witherby hopes to finalize the design of the prototype, address waste disposal, and organize local maintenance for the system with DEVENG C200 students this semester. 

By the end of the class, students will have immersed themselves in these projects and, as Professor Agogino stated, will have learned methodologies for working with underserved communities and developing  integrated solutions for complex sustainability challenges.

“Ultimately,” she said, “they will have also potentially co-designed innovative solutions for communities in need.

 

Empowering Students Inside and Outside the Classroom

Empowering Students Inside and Outside the Classroom

By Shankar Sastry

How do we educate students to become lifelong learners? University professors are continually grappling with this question, as we aim to spark students’ curiosity and engage them in thought-provoking coursework.

This fall, I am re-engaging in teaching undergraduates after 11 years, leading a 200-person course on robotics and intelligent machines. Although I will need to extensively supplement the textbook I wrote more than 20 years ago for the course, I am excited to connect with students in my field and take part in a changing undergraduate pedagogy at the nexus of technology, design, and problem solving.

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Students today learn differently than my generation and have new tools at their disposal. In my class, all lectures will be recorded and made available online. This allows students to engage with the material in new ways. If they miss a lecture, they can catch up afterward. If they have questions or find a topic challenging, they can consume the lecture at their own pace, pausing to make sense of information or look up answers to questions as they arise. Indeed, it is common for students to have class-viewing sessions in their dorms. And if students are familiar with a topic area, they can watch at 1.5 speed or just focus where they need deeper understanding.

This approach is a boon for faculty as well. It frees us up to answer more substantive questions and workshop homework or challenges rather than respond to the students’ request “to explain that theorem one more time.” Giving students the ability to learn at their own pace and in their own style is one way to make learning more self-directed. It also transforming the role of faculty from holders of knowledge to knowledge guides and exploration counsellors.

Another way we are trying to inspire lifelong learners is by engaging curiosity. For the second time, we are offering a Development Engineering graduate section of our core undergraduate Global Poverty & Practice class. By opening up a graduate section designed for engineers, we aim to encourage engineering graduate students to pursue knowledge they might otherwise not encounter. The class will connect critical debates around development and foreign aid with current issues around technology (such as data privacy) and research (AI and job churn).

Finally, if we are to educate lifelong learners, we must acknowledge we are aiming not only to expand students’ intellect but also their life choices. Attending Berkeley is a widely viewed as a catalyst to becoming an engaged citizen—but only if students have the time to reflect on their individual motivations and career trajectories. Too often at Berkeley, we don’t create enough space for students to have conversations about their individual growth and journeys. To that end, we are developing a toolkit that will help faculty better facilitate conversations around personal motivations, leadership skills, and offer student workshops that will help them design (and re-design!) lives that are purposeful and fulfilling.


Learning from Failure: NextDrop’s Water Information Pilot in Bangalore

Learning from Failure: NextDrop’s Water Information Pilot in Bangalore

Access to clean, reliable drinking water remains one of the biggest challenges in developing countries, and public water services in India are no exception. There, over 150 million people are served by intermittent piped water systems. In many Indian cities, water is available roughly four hours per day; while several cities report that water may flow through pipes to homes and businesses only once every five to ten days.

At the March Blum Center Faculty Salon, Professors Isha Ray of the Energy and Resources Group and Alison Post of the Political Science Department shared their analysis of the effects of the Development Impact Lab-supported social enterprise NextDrop, which designed a mobile phone intervention to alert Indian households via text when to expect water supply.

NextDrop was designed not so much to solve India’s water provision problems but to give Indian citizens back their lost time. Co-founders Thejo Kote, Emily Kumpel, Ari Olmos, Anu Sridharan, and Anish Jhinail piloted the project in 2010 in Hubli-Dharwad, a city of 1.1 million people in the state of Karnataka, where water can take up to eight days to arrive via pipe and faucet. They estimated that individual households lost seven days a year waiting for water and regularly needed to rely on unsafe sources.

With support from Big Ideas and the USAID-supported Development Impact Lab, the NextDrop team moved forward with piloting their service. In its first implementation phase, the team sourced real-time information about the distribution of water from valvemen, the individuals charged with turning water valves on and off in neighborhoods. NextDrop provided these valvemen with in-kind rewards for sending SMS notifications. In turn, NextDrop notified residents in the neighborhood, also via text, that their water would arrive within roughly 30 minutes. After piloting in Hubli-Dharwad, NextDrop began operations in Bangalore and Mysore.

That is where Professors Alison Post, co-director of the Global Metropolitan Studies Program, and Isha Ray, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, became involved. Post and Ray worked with NextDrop in Bangalore so that the efficacy of its solution could be evaluated through a randomized control trial (RCT).

Post explained that the research design for the NextDrop RCT involved selecting a mixed-income study site that was representative of Bangalore’s demographics. The aim of the RCT was to capture the extent to which 3,000 households in the study area benefited from NextDrop’s system.

“We had several reasons to anticipate positive impacts on household welfare, particularly for household members charged with managing water supply,” said Post. “We hypothesized that improved predictability of water would decrease water wait times, and free up time for other tasks, earnings, community and family events. Additionally, we predicted that the intervention would have a positive psychological impact by decreasing stress related to water scarcity. We also expected receipt of NextDrop notifications to increase the frequency with which citizens contacted the utility directly with service problems, rather than going to informal intermediaries. These impacts were expected to be most notable among low-income households.”

However, the results of the RCT revealed a very different story. The study—two years in planning and execution—showed NextDrop’s SMS services had a null-to-modest impact on household welfare.

“The most evident program impact was a modest reduction in stress levels related to managing household water supply among low-income households,” said Post. “Other than that, there was very little impact.”

Ray and Post then set out to understand why the results were not as positive as expected. A major reason was that the Bangalore valvemen upon which NextDrop’s system depended were not reporting accurate water valve opening and closing times. During the Hubli-Dharwad pilot, NextDrop used in-kind and recognition-based incentives to encourage valvemen to send water release notifications. And since the community was more close knit in Hubli-Dharwad and the city much smaller (by more than 9 million people), NextDrop was able to develop one-on-one relationships with individual valvemen.

However, when NextDrop launched its system in Bangalore, the enterprise dropped its incentive program and asked the city’s water utility to require valvemen to send reports to NextDrop. This new hierarchical reporting system was arguably more sustainable at a larger scale, but proved to be less effective for keeping the valvemen on board. Analyzing their survey data and NextDrop’s internal data with Political Science Ph.D. student Tanu Kumar, Post and Ray found that valvemen reported only 70 percent of the time and 63 percent of the reports were inaccurate.

A parallel ethnographic study with graduate student Christopher Hyun shed light on how Bangalore’s valvemen operated and how they interacted with NextDrop’s information system. Hyun, a development engineering student pursuing a PhD from the Energy and Resources Group, discovered that valvemen in Bangalore generally had limited time to report when they turned on the water. The valvemen were constantly putting out fires—fixing broken pipes and rushing around the city trying to get water to residents with minimal resources and backup. Notifications, if sent at all, were often sent during tea breaks or during other downtime.

Analysis of survey data collected for the RCT revealed an additional reason the NextDrop system was not generating benefits in Bangalore: many women waiting for water at home didn’t own their own cell phones. The devices were often with their husbands at work or with their children at school or doing errands. NextDrop failed to understand a key aspect of its information value chain: the intended beneficiaries of their information didn’t have the means to receive it.

Kumar, Post, and Ray created a causal framework—an “information pipeline” with six nodes to mark where informational interventions can stop working.

“The framework is especially useful for helping practitioners consider all the necessary steps when scaling or replicating a development intervention in a new setting,” said Post. “It points out realistic challenges in a human information chain and shows the many ways in which informational interventions can break down.”

To further understand the RCT results, Ray and Post conducted a literature review, comparing their results across the broader landscape of the development intervention literature, specifically looking at the roles of last-mile human intermediaries. They found a surprising lack of discussion on the topic.

“Prominent studies in development literature seem to omit these key players,” said Ray. “There is little emphasis on the frontline actors and on what motivates them. It is absolutely essential to understand the role of human intermediaries and how drastically the conditions and results of an intervention can change from one setting to the next. Clearly, our RCT results demonstrate a need to place greater emphasis on considering the human element: these critical factors are usually not discussed unless the study failed, but should be taken seriously in all evaluation models of development work.”

—Lisa Bauer

Kara Nelson on Aspirational Technologies and the Sustainable Development Goals

Kara Nelson on Aspirational Technologies and the Sustainable Development Goals

In 1990, at the age of 20, Kara Nelson found herself in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe, just months before the independence government lifted a 10-year ban on land redistribution. The UC Berkeley biophysics student was taking a gap year to see what life was like as a non-student, and the realities of what she chose to see hit her hard.

“For six months, part of my work was with refugees from the independence war who were living in an informal settlement just outside the capital city of Harare. I became exposed to the fact that they didn’t have access to any type of basic infrastructure we take for granted in the United States, including water and sanitation.”

Nelson, now a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, didn’t realize then that water and sanitation would become the focus of her career. Yet when she returned to campus, she shifted her coursework toward more applied science and took classes in African American and peace and conflict studies, while looking for opportunities to connect the science she was doing to the issues she cared about. She came to realize that engineering had the set of tools for applied research that could address critical infrastructure challenges in the developing world.

At University of Washington, while earning a M.S.E. in environmental engineering, Nelson looked for classes on the intersection of development and engineering but they didn’t exist. So she created a summer class on water and sanitation in low-income countries with a group of fellow students and a few professors. The experience further confirmed her interests. And she told herself she would pursue a PhD only if she could do dissertation work outside the U.S. Although it took Nelson several years to put together the funding, research, and logistical pieces, the UC Davis PhD managed to spend 20 months in Mexico as part of a research group at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, exploring low-cost, low-energy wastewater treatment systems.

“In Mexico, I developed a contextual understanding of the similar challenges that low-income countries confront and how the problems change based on local drivers and conditions,” said Nelson. “The barriers to solving water and sanitation problems around the world are huge, and they can’t be surmounted with just money.”

Nelson recounted this from her office in Davis Hall, where she has a bird’s eye view of the San Francisco Bay, framed paintings of water scenes, and photos of her two sons. Nelson may be a leading scholar on global water and sanitation research, with more than 90 journal papers to her name and a resume that extends 23 pages, but she does not boast her achievements. She speaks in a measured cadence that indicates a habit for meticulous thinking. Among her recognitions are a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2003), a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2003), an Award of Merit from the Water Environment Foundation’s Disinfection Committee (2011), and a Fulbright Fellowship in Colombia from the US Information Agency (2014).

Close to 30 years in water, sanitation, and hygiene (“WASH”) research have taken the professor from Oregon to India, Kenya, China, Ghana, Panama, back to Mexico, and around the United States. These time and travel commitments have made her wise as well as careful about how to make WASH services affordable and environmentally sustainable. As a new professor, she participated in a project in Mexico teaching rural communities how to build their own water treatment devices with locally available materials. This was in line with the philosophy of “appropriate technology,” an engineering approach popularized by German economist E.F. Schumacher that advocated human-scale, decentralized, and often village-based technologies for poor communities.

“This sounds like a great idea,” explained Nelson, “but who wants to spend every week for a month building a water treatment system for your house when you’ve got other priorities?”

Nelson advocates “aspirational technology,” the idea that development engineers like herself should be designing not for poor people, but for people. “Aspirational technology is what people want for meeting their drinking water or sanitation needs,” she explained. “They want it to be exciting the way a smartphone is exciting—something you are proud to share with your neighbors and in-laws and make you feel you’re creating a better world for your children. One of the shortcomings of the appropriate technology movement is that it was sometimes perceived as designing technologies for poor people, as if they were different than technologies for rich people and that poor people had different aspirations. They don’t.”

Nelson adds that these solutions, even if they are aspirational, must not require implementation and maintenance from individual households. A shortcoming of many appropriate technologies is that they rely on low-income households to, for example, purify their own water or safely remove human waste from their households, when this is not something expected of people in the Global North. Nelson advocates that when engineers design technologies—whether for densely populated neighborhoods in Bangalore or small towns in California’s Central Valley—they must think of a whole package of household services at an affordable cost.

Increasingly, Nelson’s applied research is focused on hybrid solutions to water and sanitation in industrialized and developing countries. That is because in developing country cities, centralized systems will likely never meet universal water and sanitation needs—and in developed countries,  the large, centralized, infrastructure-heavy systems are not adaptable enough to be environmentally sustainable.

Through the U.S. National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center ReNUWIt (Reinventing our Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure), where Nelson leads the engineering research thrust, she is studying approaches to recycle wastewater in buildings to conserve both water and energy. Another project, in Kenya and started with her former graduate student William Tarpeh, involves recovering nutrients from urine for fertilizer. Nelson is also a leading expert on intermittent water supply, a ubiquitous problem in developing countries, in which drinking water pipes deliver water only periodically. And yet another project involves turning wastewater back into drinking water through a series of advanced treatment steps, with applications for Southern California and other water-scarce cities.

Nelson is also focused on using recycled waste water to irrigate food crops—both in the U.S. and in developing countries—because the looming food crisis is tightly connected to the unfolding environmental crisis. She explains that many of our food systems are not sustainable due to the runoff of fertilizer, which is polluting surface water and in some cases ground water. Nelson is convinced that across the globe hybrid water and sanitation solutions can improve livelihoods and reduce environmental pollution.

“In industrialized countries, we have great opportunities to offset more pristine waters by using recycled water to irrigate food,” she said. “In developing countries, about 10 percent of the world’s food is irrigated with wastewater, which allows farmers to increase their productivity, but it’s inadequately treated so it exacerbates public health problems.”

Nelson is the rare full professor under 50 who pursued doctoral work in engineering solutions for low-income communities and has made it a continued focus. As a result, graduate students have been flocking to UC Berkeley to follow in her footsteps. They are among the first cohort of “development engineers”—engineers who pursue interdisciplinary technological interventions in low-resource settings.

Nelson’s development engineering PhD students who have gone on to academic careers include: William Tarpeh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University whose Kenya-based work focuses on extracting nitrogen from urine for producing liquid fertilizer; Emily Kumpel, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whose work focuses on water quality monitoring in Sub-Saharan Africa; and Andrea Silverman, an assistant professor of civil and urban engineering at New York University, who studies low-cost wastewater treatment in sub-Saharan Africa. In the NGO sector, she has mentored: Fermin Reygadas, executive director and co-founder of Fundacion Cantaro Azul, a nonprofit that develops and implements point-of-use ultraviolet water disinfection solutions in Mexico; and Ashley Murray Muspratt, founder of Pivot, a dual sanitation and renewable fuel company in Rwanda.

Said Nelson: “I feel strongly that the field of development engineering has to grow dramatically if we’re going to impact the development challenges around the world. Right now, we have the vast majority of our researchers at top universities focusing on issues that are important but often not the biggest priorities for the world’s low-income populations. If we’re going to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, we need many more researchers in the science and technology fields to be working on problems that people in low-resource communities face.”

Nelson is busy these days. In addition to her research and teaching commitments, she is the Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion for the College of Engineering. In this role she is leading initiatives to diversify the student body and faculty in engineering, such as the Advancing Faculty Diversity Initiative and the pipeline program NextProf. Another major emphasis is improving equity and climate across the college so that everyone has the support they need to reach their potential.

She said what continues to motivate her in the classroom is helping students think about water and sanitation from a systems perspective—connecting the technical and societal pieces and showing how engineers need to be working in teams that have expertise in public health, agriculture, energy, and policy. Along with Research Engineer Dr. Jennifer Stokes-Draut, she developed a popular class in 2017 called “Water Systems of the Future,” which aims to provide tomorrow’s water leaders with the skills needed to overcome barriers to innovation in the risk-averse water sector.

“We all aspire to improve livelihoods, so we should be designing technologies that truly meet people’s needs and expectations,” said Nelson. She paused to carefully consider her words: “I’m a techno optimist. I think our ecosystems are in crisis. But I do think technologies will help us get out of the mess that we’re in, if we can work together to transform our institutions and political will.”

—Tamara Straus

“Imagining the Future Helps Us Engineer Toward that Future”: A Q&A with Will Tarpeh

“Imagining the Future Helps Us Engineer Toward that Future”: A Q&A with Will Tarpeh

When Will Tarpeh was an undergraduate at Stanford University, he didn’t know if it was possible to be a research engineer who works in the developing world. His global interests started in high school, when he learned that more than 2 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. And they expanded throughout college, as he studied chemical engineering and African studies and interned at Sarar Transformación, a Mexican nonprofit focused on sanitation. “That’s when I got interested in ecological sanitation,” he said, “which is just the idea of using waste as fertilizer.”

Tarpeh, now an assistant professor in chemical engineering at Stanford, says his professional turning point happened at UC Berkeley in 2013, the year the Development Engineering program started. The Blum Center sat down with Tarpeh to learn more about his views of Development Engineering and how his research combines electrochemical engineering, global sanitation, and resource recovery.

How did Development Engineering shape your academic work in global sanitation?

It was extreme serendipity. Development Engineering started the year I got to Berkeley and made a lot of things possible. It gave me a formal structure—having a chapter in my dissertation that was explicitly about Development Engineering and about my sanitation work in Kenya. If it weren’t there and if I hadn’t gone to Berkeley, I might not have explored this part of my academic identity in as much detail. Now it’s such a crucial part, I can’t imagine being an academic without it.

What else drew you to Cal?

I wanted to work with Professor Kara Nelson, because she has a process engineering focus for achieving sanitation goals. She had a Gates Foundation grant that was part of their Grand Challenges exploration, and she and a post-doc were working on the idea of using ammonia from urine to disinfect feces. I tagged along and went to the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Expo, which was my dream at that time. I got to see all these cool toilets, and realized there was a large community of academic researchers who shared my interests.

How did your own research develop?

My first year in graduate school I reviewed journal papers and focused on unanswered questions. That’s when we landed on urine and recovering nitrogen. We chose urine because there were lots of motivations for separating out urine and feces. And from a chemical engineering perspective, we thought nitrogen from urine could be useful because nitrogen fertilizers are central to modern society—they’ve helped feed a growing population. We focused on what we could borrow from other subfields, such as the extraction of nitrogen from wastewater in the U.S., and also on what we could dream up on our own to address sanitation access.

How do you see your academic contributions?

My first paper as a PhD student compared materials that adsorb or concentrate nitrogen in urine. We compared four different adsorbents. Then we took the work to the field and published it in the Development Engineering journal—which meant characterizing the technology in lab, bringing it to the field, and in between looking at the operating and design parameters to show the trajectory as a contribution. Another contribution is in electrochemical nitrogen recovery. Electrochemistry and wastewater treatment have met in earnest over the past decade or so. I’ve been part of the first group of people to apply electrochemistry to urine and to extract nitrogen in a new way we call electrochemical stripping. It’s set some records in terms of nitrogen recovery efficiency and resulting energy efficiency.

You said in a previous interview that “a lot of the solutions to the world’s most pressing problems are in the minds of children who are simply preoccupied with survival.” Why are children a place to understand the world’s grand challenges?

Grand Challenges are really interesting because they are descriptive in nature. Through them, academics, UN representatives, and others try to describe a reality that millions of people experience. But I think the expertise really lies in the communities who experience the problems. We as scientists can try to lend our technical expertise in other communities—but the people who live in those communities are the real experts. That’s how I approach my work. This comes in part from growing up in a low-income household in the U.S., and knowing that resource-constrained communities have valuable skills and life experiences to solve their own problems.

How new is the field of Development Engineering?

 It’s not new in some ways. People have been doing this kind of engineering for as long as there’s been inequality. What’s new is that we’re studying how we do it and thinking about better ways to do it. Ten years ago, it was news to people that you need to engage the community when you design for it. It really was. We would learn about implementation failures all the time—and be surprised that engineers didn’t remember to ask people about their sanitation needs and, as a result, the new toilets got turned into closets because they had roofs. Now, I see the frequency with which that kind of thing is reported going down, which tells me there’s value in the Development Engineering enterprise. It formalizes things in a way that engineers who don’t focus on development can appreciate.

How important is field work to Development Engineering?

It’s a crucial site of learning. Going back and forth into the field has been extremely valuable to my research. Maybe the traditional model of humanitarian engineering was: you develop something in the lab about a problem in a developing community; you say, I have an answer for that; you characterize it in the lab; and you go out and say, here it is. But then you realize you were designing for constraints that didn’t reflect reality in the community. Development Engineering is about iterating. Over the course of my PhD, I went to Kenya and worked with Sanergy. That’s when I realized they were collecting urine but not yet creating value from it. Then I tinkered in the lab on the urine research, and spent the next four years going back and forth to see what worked and made adjustments, which allowed for the rigorous study we expect in academic communities.

 Is being a Development Engineer a liability in academia?

I don’t think it is the liability it was five or ten years ago. It’s attractive now to do Development Engineering because of the huge impact you can have. Another part of this is students are demanding training to try to solve development problems. I have engineering students who say global sanitation really gets them moving and motivated. From a disciplinary perspective, Development Engineering is one of the ways we stay relevant to our students and to the Grand Challenges that people are facing around the world.

Are you seeing more academic engineers like yourself who do applied research in developing countries?

I do feel there’s a generation of professors tying loose ends together and thinking about ways to leverage skill sets that are no longer within one discipline. Alice Agogino always talked about the wicked problems that refuse to be classified in one silo and that demand multiple approaches. Many professors now have multiple skill sets and are oriented toward solving wicked problems. I feel I’m part of this, combining electrochemical engineering, global sanitation, and resource recovery.

Do you think it’s significant that most of your mentors have been women?

Yes, and that was a recent epiphany. After Berkeley, I did a post-doc at University of Michigan, where I also was advised by two women—Nancy Love and Krista Wigginton. Female professors have impacted me, particularly by seeing the extra obstacles they have to go through and the strategies they use to succeed. Being supportively mentored by advisors who are different than me has prepared me to support students from diverse backgrounds in my own career.

How do you advocate for STEM inclusion and equality now that you’re a professor?

I recommend students and colleagues for awards, formally by writing recommendation letters and informally by suggesting people for collaborations and so on. Also, being a black male, I try to serve as a role model for students. At Stanford, I give lunch talks with minority or under-represented students. It doesn’t take a lot of time and it could be a high impact intervention for one of them. I also work to design impactful programs. Kara [Nelson] and I were involved in the Graduate Pathways Symposium at Berkeley for underrepresented minorities to apply to grad school. I also make sure when I work in Kenya, I give author credit to the local researchers on my academic papers.

 When will we achieve global sanitation?

There are some estimates that low and middle-income countries are not going to fully address the problem by 2050. One argument is that we won’t get there because of the barriers to creating centralized wastewater treatment facilities. But there are other options, namely resource efficiency. A paper I’m working on argues that if we take resource recovery one step further and bake sustainability into every process we do, we can minimize the inputs for everything we produce. The paper encapsulates the idea of the circular economy, of resource recovery. Of course, being a urine researcher, I believe separating urine has a role to play in that. I believe imagining the future helps us engineer toward that future.

—Tamara Straus

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