Wisconsin Idea Fellowship awarded for Tanzania- and Uganda-partnered engineering project

Undergraduate students Akshith Mandepally, left, and Cara Stanker, right (Photo courtesy of the Morgridge Center for Public Service)

Wisconsin Idea Fellowships are awarded each year to outstanding undergraduate projects, designed with the assistance of a UW-Madison faculty or staff member, which seek to address issues identified by community partners both at home and abroad. This year, one of nine fellowships was awarded to undergraduate engineering students Akshith Mandepally and Cara Stanker, Associate Professor Ryan McAdams, MD, and community partners at Kiwoko Hospital in Luwero, Uganda. Together, this group seeks to develop an affordable, effective, and durable solar-powered air filtration device for household use in Uganda and Tanzania.

Dr. Ryan McAdams (Photo courtesy of UW Health)

The African Studies Program sat down with Dr. McAdams last week to talk about the project – why it matters, how it came about, and what obstacles it might face along the way.

Because of how air pollution manifests in the United States, he noted, one might assume that the worst burden always falls to residents of urban areas. The reality is, though, that many rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa currently lack access to modern heating and electrification technologies and are forced to burn biomass fuels such as wood, charcoal, or agricultural waste within their homes as a substitute. As a result, particulate matter from smoke, ash, and dust consistently pollutes the air in which families eat their meals, play with their children, and sleep. This constant exposure poses a severe threat to vital body systems and can result in heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory problems.

“Diseases caused by pollution resulted in an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015, and household air pollution was responsible for a third of all pollution-related deaths,” McAdams said. “In the most severely affected countries, though, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four. This is especially important when you’re looking at vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly.”

Top-down improvement of energy capacity is certainly possible. Data provided by the International Energy Agency indicates that electricity access has been improving steadily across the continent for decades. The goal of this particular project, though, is to address the negative health and social externalities that exist in the meantime for communities in which biomass fuel might still be a necessity. In this context, McAdams says, community partners become essential to the success of the project, as they are well aware of both what unique problems specific areas are facing and potential solutions to mitigate those problems.

“You need to find people on the ground that you can learn and listen from. You want the community you are working with to have input to determination of the problem at hand, and you need to build a respectful, collaborative relationship with them in order to effectively and efficiently meet their needs,” he said.

He also stressed the potential value that undergraduate students like Akshith and Cara can bring these kinds of projects.

“The problem is,” he said, “Students often don’t know how they can help and don’t feel that they have the right qualifications to get involved.”

In his experience, even undergraduate students really do have a lot to offer both in terms of their research abilities, critical thinking skills, and their passion, drive, and excitement to help people. Even more importantly, though, they are also the future of whatever field they may choose to pursue. This makes it essential for UW-Madison faculty and staff to give their students the opportunity to have positive, beneficial, hands-on experiences in their areas of interest while they are still in school, allowing them to learn from their mistakes in a safe and welcoming environment. The Wisconsin Idea Fellowship is just one example of how the university helps make these opportunities possible.

McAdams acknowledges that developing and expanding this particular project will not be an easy process. Significant financial and logistical challenges lie ahead, not to mention the continued work that will be needed to both make sure that the project is effectively and continuously producing better health outcomes after it is implemented. He remains optimistic about the future, though, and argues that the potential obstacles to these kinds of projects should never stop people from starting them.

“You don’t have to have every answer when you start a journey like this,” he said. “Just know the general direction, the goal, and keep trying to move towards that. You can navigate hurdles as you bump into them. The most important thing is to just get started, to get your foot in the door.”

Published by Rebecca Hanks.