January 1, 2000 - The American Society of Mechanical Engineers: Botswana RPCV Amy Smith takes an alternative approach to design

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Botswana: Special Report: Inventor and Botswana RPCV Amy Smith: January 1, 2000 - The American Society of Mechanical Engineers: Botswana RPCV Amy Smith takes an alternative approach to design

By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, February 01, 2003 - 7:32 pm: Edit Post

Botswana RPCV Amy Smith takes an alternative approach to design

Botswana RPCV Amy Smith takes an alternative approach to design

Most mechanical engineers don't find themselves teaching English, math, and science in Africa after graduating from a technological institution in the U.S. But then, Amy Smith is not your typical mechanical engineer.

Smith, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984 and 1995 respectively, has found a way to combine two of her passions in life, a love of creative engineering design and a deep sense of responsibility to help others.

Inspired by four years spent in Botswana with the Peace Corps, Smith developed and now teaches an undergraduate course on engineering design for developing nations at her alma mater, while she devises low-tech solutions to modern-day issues in developing countries, and works toward another master's degree, this one in technology and policy.

A Volunteer Career
"I'd always known that I would do something like the Peace Corps after college," says Smith, whose interest in the developing world may hark back to the year she spent in Northwest India when she was six, and her father, now a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, taught in a small school there.

After receiving her bachelor's degree, Smith took a part-time job designing catheters and related equipment for a biomedical firm. This afforded her enough free time to do significant amounts of volunteer work - helping at soup kitchens, coaching for the Special Olympics, tutoring at inner-city high schools, and working for a food bank.

In 1986 she entered the Peace Corps where she taught secondary school for two years and spent two more as the regional beekeeping officer for the Ministry of Agriculture in Botswana.

"Teaching was really fun because I was in the middle of the Kalahari desert and about a third of my students were bushmen," she says. "They'd take me out to the bush and show me which plants you could eat and which ones have water in them if you're stuck out in the bush."

Upon returning to the U.S, Smith was sold on designing to meet the needs of developing countries, and headed back to MIT to refine her skills. "And I've been there for ten years," she sighs. An Unusual Role for an Engineer

Following receipt of her master's in ME, Smith carved a comfortable niche for herself in a gray area somewhere between the roles of graduate student and professor.

In addition to the design for developing countries course, Smith piloted a course last fall seeking to revive African Technologies Forum, a magazine that has been defunct for five years. Students research, write, and edit the articles, as well as doing the design and obtaining advertisers. The class culminates with the publication of a new issue.

A Lab in a Sock
As a design engineer, Smith's latest creation is an incubator that takes advantage of a phase-change material to make simple medical and scientific tests possible in the world's most remote regions. What's remarkable is that the incubator - which can be used to help test for microorganisms in water supplies, and to help identify the appropriate antibiotics for treating bacterial infections - does not require electricity.

Smith's inspiration for the device sprang from the experience of one of her undergraduate students who also traveled to Africa and found herself incubating water samples by filling test tubes and placing them in her socks.

"I thought, 'I can do better than a pair of socks,'" said Smith.

Modern portable incubators, used to keep biological samples at a constant elevated temperature for extended periods, cost about $600 and run on batteries or electricity. Smith expects hers to cost about $200.

The device makes use of the fact that a substance changing from a liquid to a solid remains at a constant temperature. After poring over an 855-page chemical supply catalogue to find an inexpensive, non-toxic material with the right melting point, she ordered a dozen samples for testing before settling on one. Other than to say it is a wax-like chemical compound, she is not ready to divulge the makeup of the material.

To use the incubator, the compound, contained within a sealed aluminum cylinder, is heated until it melts at 111 degrees F. In the absence of electricity, fire can be used to heat the compound. The cylinder is then placed in an insulated box along with biological samples. As the compound returns to a solid state, it maintains a constant temperature inside the box for about 24 hours, long enough to show bacterial growth.

For this design, Smith won the B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors competition last September. More recently she was named the recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Program's sixth annual $30,000 Student Prize for inventiveness.

Speaking of the reason Smith was selected to receive this prestigious and significant award, Lester Thurow, chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Awards Board said, "While technology is often seen as increasing the 'digital divide,' technology is also needed to decrease that divide. Amy Smith is the perfect example of an inventor-innovator who's using technology to close that gap."

Unwilling to rest on her laurels, Smith sees endless potential for the ongoing simplification of modern lab equipment, and is now contemplating the development of a device that will use a wind-up mechanism instead of an electric motor to shake blood or serum samples, and she also envisions creating a simple clamp that will assist nurses when setting drip rates on intravenous bags.

"Little Pieces"
The primary impetus for Smith's designs is her conviction that "there are a lot of problems in the world and you can do something about them, and so you should...If you look carefully you see that there are little pieces that aren't going to solve the whole problem, but they might solve a small part of it," she says.

This philosophy led her to contemplate what she as a mechanical engineer can do to help alleviate the staggering AIDS epidemic in Africa. After learning that the chances of HIV transmission are increased by as much as 10 times by the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), Smith saw an opportunity.

"If you had widespread treatment for these STDs it would help at least slow down the progression of AIDS," she says.

Toward this end, Smith hopes to begin working on a device used to shake a patient's serum sample. Currently, this type of machine, used in the diagnosis of syphilis and other diseases, is difficult to bring to remote clinics because, like incubators, they are expensive, electrically powered machines. Smith envisions a low-tech version that would be just as consistent but would be powered by a wind-up mechanism.

"It's important to have consistency," she says, "It's not important to have a $600, adjustable-speed rotary shaker."

Smith's idea for a quick-setting intravenous drip-rate clamp, would also be of particular interest to remote clinics, as they may find themselves with too few nurses during times of crisis such a cholera outbreak. With visual feedback, rather than taking 20 or 30 seconds to adjust intravenous fluid flow, nurses could set the correct flow instantly, saving precious time for patients and caretakers alike.

A Fresh Angle
As with many inventors, Smith's success is due largely to the fresh angle from which she approaches problems. Her designs aren't radically new; rather they are redesigns from a common-sense perspective.

"What happens is that people who are equipping third-world clinics say, 'We have to get a generator and somehow get electricity for this clinic because incubators all take electricity,' rather than thinking, 'How could we redesign this incubator so that the fact that we have no electricity doesn't matter?'" says Smith. "That's my mindset."

Smith has already created a business plan for her unofficial company, Amtek - for Appropriate Medical Technologies - through which she hopes to produce and distribute her designs.

The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT award, coupled with the fact that she took one of ten winning spots in MIT's $1,000 contest - a preliminary round for MIT's $50,000 contest, an annual event that promotes entrepreneurship among the MIT community - is helping to provide the seed money for her company.

In fact, Smith is contemplating leaving school and pursuing Amtek full-time. "I already have a couple of degrees," she says, "I don't need more, and I think this company is exactly what I want to be doing with my engineering."

Brandon D. Chase is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer.

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Botswana; Special Interests - Engineering; Special Interests - Inventing



By samuel reed (cache-da08.proxy.aol.com - on Sunday, January 18, 2004 - 10:15 am: Edit Post

I think I served as a volunteer with Amy in Botswana (1988-2001). I am trying to make contact with her and Thomas Williams. Any leeds would be appreciated.

Thank you

Samuel Reed,

RPCV Botswana 1988-2001

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.