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BME Senior Wins Grand Challenges Video/Essay Contest

Memories of the "three-foot high pipes carrying mucky, yellowed liquid that served as a drinking source for the millions living on the streets."

March 10, 2009 —

Farzana Ansari, a Viterbi School senior majoring in biomedical engineering, won third place in the Grand Challenges Summit video/essay contest and was awarded a $5,000 prize during the conference proceedings on March 2. 

Farzana Ansari Gallery 2
Farzana Ansari
The contest was part of an educational outreach effort to stimulate student interest in the conference. 

College students around the country were eligible to create videos of between one and three minutes in length and a 1,000-word essay with bibliography in response to the question: Which of the 14 grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering would YOU choose to address, and how would you do it?

Ansari said she was "truly shocked" and very honored to be chosen from the nationwide pool of student entries. The judges received 28 outstanding entries from 14 different universities. The three winning videos were shown during the first day of conference proceedings. 

Those who served as judges were:

  • Jason Piche, Intellectual Property Attorney, IBM Corporation
  • Janis J. Rehlaender, Retired, Director of Corporate Planning, Baxter International; Chairman, Darien, CT Board of Education
  • Martha M. McDade, President, Environmental Excellence Engineering P.C.
  • Rebecca Lula, Founder and President, K1 Concepts

Following is Ansari's essay and link to the video:

Farzana Ansari, senior, biomedical engineering
Video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwQeb8WSyu4
Video title: Quenching the Thirst of Many, Community by Community

"Quenching the Thirst of Many, Community by Community," by senior biomedical engineering major Farzana Ansari.
My memories of visiting Mumbai, India with my parents are still quite vivid. I can recall the abject poverty lining even the most upscale districts of the city, slums climbing the urban walls and commercial buildings like vines. Wooden shacks with no doors and precariously placed roofs housed refrigerators, lighting fixtures, and even the occasional television. But perhaps the most memorable images of these poverty-stricken avenues were the three-foot high pipes that ran behind the shacks, carrying mucky, yellowed liquid that served as a drinking source for the millions living on the streets.

Mumbai stands as my living reminder at how desperate the global need for access to clean water really is. This metropolis is only one home of many to the 2.5 billion people who are left without sanitary drinking water on a daily basis [1]. It is reported that over 5 million people die each year from water-born diseases, 98 percent of which live in developing nations [2]. In these countries, poor sanitation facilities – if any exist – are unable to prevent bacterial contamination mostly attributed to human defecation near or in local water resources. Furthermore, 26 countries have been deemed “water scarce” in which failed irrigation facilities, drought, or exhaustion of traditional resources have left an estimated 436 million without any water supply – a number the World Bank believes will rise to 1.4 billion people in 48 countries by 2025 [3].

Attempting to reduce these dramatic numbers requires us to bring down our focus from the millions to the hundreds. Simply implementing large-scale filtration technologies throughout the world does not completely address the fundamental challenges of sustainability and affordability in developing countries, as demonstrated by the irrigation pipes carrying unsanitary water through Mumbai’s slums. Instead, a multidisciplinary approach integrating engineering solutions with cultural understanding and education must be adopted to address each community’s specific needs and limitations. Solutions should involve the resources and people of a given community in need, whether to operate portable filters in a family household or to construct simple mechanical pump systems for small neighborhoods.

Employing community members and their resources to implement engineering solutions has several benefits, the first of which is more targeted educational measures. A focus on smaller communities enables a better understanding of not only the technological needs and restrictions of the environment and people, but also the knowledge gap that exists in regard to sanitation and hygiene. The Haath Mein Sehat (HMS) project in Mumbai involves a comprehensive program that distributes affordable and portable filtration systems as well as hosts several public workshops, street plays, and market stalls to educate community residents on basic hygiene [4]. UC Berkeley students and local Mumbai college students conduct needs assessments to obtain a better understanding of existing treatment methods and water sources, and subsequently provide educational resources for residents to make better decisions about their drinking water.

The ability to provide a more holistic education on sanitation closely ties to a second benefit of the small-scale filtration or water pump approach: sustainability. HMS workshops and public performances are able to target fundamental hygienic tasks, such as washing hands or using toilets, thus preventing later recontamination of clean water resources. The USC collegiate chapter of Engineers Without Borders (USC EWB) approached the ideas of sustainability through the design of acentralized water pump in rural Honduras. Students in the organization searched out and purchased supplies from the native country, including PVS pipe, steel pipe, concrete, rebar, bricks, and industrial materials needed for a pump and filter [5]. In addition, community members gathered natural resources such as gravel and sand as well as volunteered their labor and learned how to build and maintain the system themselves.

In addition to involving residents with the construction of pump and/or filtration systems, some projects have tried to achieve sustainability through active participation of the community after the system is installed. PlayPump International, a non-profit organization, decided to focus on serving the youth of rural areas through installation of a 1,000 merry-go-round water pumps throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Like USC EWB, the South African organization recruits locals to install the pump, which consists of a roundabout that drives water from an underground source into a 2,500-liter tank that stands about seven meters above ground [6]. In addition to providing play equipment for local children, the four-sided tank has two billboards for local consumer advertisements and two more for educational health messages. Any profit generated is then used by the community to maintain their system.

PlayPump International’s revenue production through advertisement is also exemplary of how smaller, more integrative clean water projects can open up new avenues for funding. Many ongoing projects are seeking ways to incorporate local materials and labor into their systems, and in doing so are promoting investment in developing nations and avoiding costs incurred by importing more expensive (and more complicated) technologies. Furthermore, some philanthropists have discovered more appeal in the successes of collegiate and nonprofit focused efforts in smaller communities and chosen to donate to their cause. In April of 2008, the Davis Projects for Peace program sponsored 79 socially innovative projects that included a proposal by Middlebury freshman Shabana Natisa Basij-Rasikh that seeks to install six wells in the outskirts of Kabul that will serve clean drinking water to over 6,000 residents [7].

Through non-profit efforts across the world, student and private organizations alike have demonstrated how direct engagement with communities in need ultimately results in more effective and visible results in both the short and long term. Engineers, entrepreneurs, and social activists need to work together and unite cultural awareness with engineering creativity to establish a lasting and hygienic water supply for future generations. Like any engineering challenge, the lack of access to clean water requires engineers to witness the problem firsthand before they can design a solution. Direct engagement with the hundreds who suffer throughout the globe will enable us to eventually save the millions looking to quench their thirst.

[1] World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP). Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation. UNICEF, New York and WHO, Geneva, 2008.

[2] Peter H. Gleick. Dirty Water: Estimated Deaths from Water-Related Disease 2000 – 2020. Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, August 15, 2002.

[3] Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. “Access to Water in Developing Countries.” Postnote, Number 178, May 2002.

[4] Anu Sridharan. Engineers for a Sustainable World (UC Berkeley). Telephone Interview. January 15, 2009.

[5] Alex John. Engineers Without Borders (University of Southern California).Personal Interview. January 14, 2009

[6] Play Pump International. “How the PlayPump Works.” Last updated December 2008.  http://www.playpumps.org; Accessed January 16, 2009.

[7] Blair Kloman. “Two Middlebury College student proposals receive funding from Davis Projects for Peace.” Published April 23, 2008. http://www.middlebury.edu/about/pubaff/news_releases/2008/pubaff_633445491175819496.htm, Accessed January 16, 2009. 

About Farzana Ansari: Farzana Ansari is a senior in engineering at the University of Southern California. Originally from Riverside, California, she is majoring in biomedical engineering and plans to pursue a master degree in mechanical engineering. Farzana was prompted to enter the video/essay contest because she was inspired by the NAE’s initiative to unite engineers across the nation – and across the world – to identify the priorities in technology today and brainstorm solutions to the challenges we face. Furthermore, the goals of the Grand Challenges tied in closely with her beliefs as an editor of USC’s online engineering magazine Illumin: to explore the impact engineering has on everyday life. She wrote, “I believed that entering this contest would further my motivation to continue understanding the social and political influences that engineering has on the world.”

Farzana plans to enter the medical device industry, hopefully to work on cardiovascular or rehabilitative devices. And, of course, in between, she wants to take every opportunity she can to travel the world. Through her research, Farzana writes that she was incredibly impressed by how there is never one solution to an engineering challenge; rather, there are many solutions that seek the same goals. "The key is direct engagement with the community we serve, whether it’s the nurses in hospitals who deal with health informatics on a daily basis or the impoverished who need access to clean water in the slums of Mumbai."