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A Far-Flung SCU Community Brings Electricity to Haitian Clinic

Medical/Dental Clinic in Leon, Haiti
The medical/dental clinic in Leon, Haiti
Photo: Robert Downey

Each fall, 15 or so engineering students enroll in ENGR 110, Engineering Projects for the Community, and spend the next 10 weeks focused on creating a solution for a neighboring school, science camp, or local organization's challenge. Because of the short timeframe, projects are generally limited in scope, but every now and again an opportunity arises, an unlikely crew comes together, and some magic happens. Following is an example of just that kind of synergy and an explanation of how a medical and dental clinic in rural Haiti have benefited from the dogged determination of a disparate cast of characters brought together through Santa Clara engineering.

THE PLAYERS:

Bob Downey '92: SCU economics alumnus, medical diagnostics and laboratory services specialist, resident of San Diego, secretary of the nonprofit organization Seattle-King County Disaster Team (SKCDT) that runs a medical and dental clinic in Haiti, and recipient of Santa Clara's 2012 Ignatian Award recognizing alumni for outstanding achievement in service to humanity.

Shoba Krishnan: associate professor of electrical engineering, proponent of community-based projects and community building, tireless student mentor.

Luanda Rotondano Marinho: visiting student from Brazil who spent a year studying engineering at SCU, tenacious problem solver.

Mike Strykowski: co-founder of The Solar Way Forward, extensive background in solar design for schools in Africa, consultant to solar energy practitioners, mentor and consultant on numerous SCU energy projects.

THE PROBLEM:

The medical/dental clinic in the small village of Leon, Haiti, run by volunteers from Seattle-King County Disaster Team had no electricity. Power was generated by a large diesel generator at the nearby Catholic parish, which was problematic because of the cost and limited availability of diesel. The lack of consistent electricity caused problems for the dentist who has not been able to run the compressor to power dental tools such as drills. Additionally, treatment of nighttime emergencies such as difficult labor/deliveries or traumatic injuries was inhibited because of the lack of proper lighting.

THE SOLUTION:

Design a solar photovoltaic system with the following criteria:

  • parts must be either available locally in Haiti or sized appropriately for transport from the U.S. with the SKCDT volunteers
  • system must be easily installed, rugged, and designed to deter theft
  • instructions for installation and maintenance must be detailed

THE STORY:

When Bob Downey approached Shoba Krishnan about having a student take on this project, he could sense that she was leery. "It's best if the students have face-to-face contact with the customer," she said. "Bob was in San Diego, the installation was in Haiti. There was no way to go and assess the situation. It's important that students get that experience of meeting the community they are trying to serve and seeing firsthand their needs and challenges. Students don't get it if it's not in front of them physically." But Bob was determined. "I was familiar with the work the School of Engineering has done in other parts of the world and thought this would be a good opportunity," he said. Even though he was based in Southern California and his colleagues who would help with the installation were in the state of Washington, he had confidence in SCU's ability to come through. "I wouldn't have chosen another school because I know the reputation SCU has for quality education and sustainable, practical projects," he said. That explains his eagerness to collaborate, but what made Shoba overcome her reluctance? "He was a Santa Clara grad so I just believed in him; they've never let me down," she said.

Enter Luanda. With a Brazilian education in controls and automation engineering that fell somewhere between SCU's electrical and mechanical engineering programs, Luanda was eager to take on a renewable energy project. "I've been doing volunteer work for a few years now," she said, "but being able to participate in this project and see the impact of the work we did was one of the most amazing experiences I had at Santa Clara University." Twice a week she and Bob met by phone to formulate a plan that made the most sense for Haiti; soon Luanda got to work designing the system. A project of this scope cannot be completed in 10 weeks, so she continued working on it after the quarter finished, through the Christmas break, and past the New Year holiday.

Along the way, Shoba introduced Mike Strykowski into the mix. Mike's enthusiasm for spreading the gospel of renewable energy is infectious. "I enjoy the mental gymnastics of putting systems in the middle of nowhere," Mike said. "This is not a cookie-cutter operation, and the idea of doing solar panels in Haiti and working with divergent groups was exciting. Also, SCU's policy of encouraging service-oriented projects was a guiding factor in my involvement. Many universities don't push that—with others it's all about the money. SCU prepares students to make money, but that's not the only focus. That appeals to me." With his boots-on-the-ground knowledge of what was appropriate and was (or was not) available in Haiti, his input was important in determining the components that included PV panels, battery inverters, cabling mounting, and more—half of which were to be procured in Haiti and half to be purchased in the U.S.

After Bob confirmed the pieces that could be sourced in Haiti, Luanda, Mike, Shoba, and electrical engineering student Russell Weatherby addressed the challenge of training. Mike provided a sample mount solar panel and controller, and over the course of a weekend the team videotaped the process of building the system step-by-step. Next, Luanda wrote a project report, shipped some equipment to Seattle for the SKCDT volunteers to take with them in February for the installation, and the team waited to hear news from Bob about how the installation went.

THE RESULT:

Solar array installed in Leon, Haiti
One solar array was installed on the clinic, another at a distance.
Photo: Robert Downey

A few weeks later, a happy email: "Everything is installed and working great. Thanks for your help!" Reflecting on the collaboration, Bob recently reported, "The videos and other documentation were invaluable to a successful project. Additionally, how Shoba, Mike, and Luanda arranged to have the system assembled and tested on campus prior to shipment was very helpful. We were under a very short time window to get everything in country, up and running. All those things together helped to make it happen successfully in this very remote area."

And what has the effect been on the clinic? "Having electricity at the clinic has been so very helpful," Bob relayed. "A man with a compound open leg fracture was brought in one evening this past June. Our physicians and paramedics were able to stabilize him working under regular light."

Oh, and that dentist? While we don't have a report on how many more teeth he's been able to drill, Bob did report: "The dentist is doing well and is able to run the air compressor for the drill off of the power generated from the solar." A happy ending, indeed, and as Shoba says, "…that's just one project!"