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Self-powered clinic to bring expanded medical care to Uganda

On-ground partners will provide medical care, solar maintenance in Uganda.
May 7, 2019

ASU researchers pack medical clinic into shipping container with solar power, water treatment for off-grid care at refugee camp

The existing health care center at the Ayilo II Refugee Settlement in the Adjumani district of northern Uganda serves more than 12,000 South Sudanese refugees out of a cement block building and a few tented structures. 

The settlement has wells that pump water to several access points on a rotational basis, but there is no direct water supply to homes or the clinic. Unreliable electricity affects caregivers’ ability to deliver consistent care, especially when performing tests for malaria, a critical health concern in the area.

But this August, stable power, clean water and an increased capacity to deliver care will be delivered to Ayilo II — in the form of a 40-foot shipping container that has been converted by ASU researchers to a self-sustaining medical clinic. 

The rapidly deployable, turnkey, off-grid, solar-powered medical clinic is part of a $2 million, four-part research project funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) Defense University Research-to-Adoption Program.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The medical clinic component of the research tasked ASU Professor Nathan Johnson and his team with creating rapidly deployable medical facilities with the ability to provide stable power and clean water for medical care in disaster relief, humanitarian aid and military operations environments.

“ONR funded the research, engineering, fabrication and testing of this prototype,” Johnson said. “Quality health care service starts with clean water and stable power, and our team was able to leverage our experience in these areas to create a system capable of operating in almost any condition or location.”

The resulting prototype clinic has a 10-kilowatt power system and a water treatment system capable of cleaning about 1,200 gallons an hour.

“We incorporated water tanks with ultraviolet sterilization equipment, solar panels, batteries, inverter systems and a backup generator to ensure the system will be self-reliant in almost any environment,” explained Cody Van Cleve, an engineering doctoral student who is coordinating the project.

The water system was a new design created and manufactured by Industrial Water Innovations specifically for the Uganda medical container. “We’ll be able to fill the 750-gallon tank and provide access to clean water as long as they have an input source.”

The power system has two inverters for 10 kW of total power and 20 kW of peak power. “In North America, 10 kW would power two to four homes,” Van Cleve said. Solar Now, a Uganda-based company that provides sustainable energy solutions, is providing equipment and will install the system at the camp and provide ongoing maintenance. 

The bare-bones container was converted into a functional medical clinic by Corporate Interior Systems (CIS)/DIRTT Environmental Systems.

“We took 21 feet of the container and made a three-room clinic that we will be able to deploy to Africa, ready-to go,” explained Asa Plum, DIRTT champion for CIS Phoenix. “It’s sustainable and adaptable. All you have to do is open the doors and unload the supplies. 

“We designed it for use with the power system on the back side of the clinic, which was built for Africa, not Phoenix, Arizona,” Plum said.

Tarkett and Wholesale Floors LLC donated the flooring materials and installation, and Gensler provided the clinic’s exterior design. 

“Once the prototype was designed and fabricated, the decision about how and where to deploy the clinic was left up to us,” Van Cleve explained.

The ASU team, during a preliminary visit to Uganda, chose to collaborate with Medical Teams International, which was already working with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as the primary care provider at the Ayilo II camp.

“They have the knowledge, staffing and history to use this system to its full potential and can use the additional support and infrastructure,” Van Cleve said.

Medical Teams International, a nonprofit organization, provides medical care and nutrition services around the world, including at more than 50 clinics throughout Uganda. In addition to delivering care services at the clinic at Ayilo II, the organization is providing the medical equipment and supplies for the project, which will ship inside the container when it is deployed this month. 

“This project will save lives in Uganda,” said Joe DiCarlo, Medical Teams International’s global ambassador. “It will increase our capacity to serve people in need. It will act as a draw for new patients and our staff. 

“But the real game changer is that it comes with its own water purification system and solar power,” DiCarlo said. “Water and power are practically nonexistent right now.” Medical providers in settlements often need to provide their own power and water.

A team from ASU will travel to Uganda when the container arrives in August to train workers from Solar Now to operate and troubleshoot the microgrid. Pipeline Worldwide provided funding for logistical and shipping assistance to get the container to Uganda and for an on-ground expert to help with in-country transportation and interpreting during both the preliminary and upcoming training visits.

“On-ground partners are a critical part of sustaining long-term project success,” Van Cleve said. “Medical Teams will staff and operate this clinic space after it is commissioned, and Solar Now, in addition to providing equipment, will help install and maintain the power system to ensure it continues to function optimally long after our departure.”

According to Whitney Tallarico, agility architect for ONR, the Defense University Research-to-Adoption program was created to connect academic researchers with industry and private-sector partners to align with the national defense strategy and leverage that knowledge going forward.

“As these challenges go out into the real world, they are important to not just our national security, but to global security,” Tallarico said. “We’re finding thought and tech leaders across industry and academia to parse out possibilities for the future.” 

Containerized clinics such as the ASU prototype will ultimately equip medical service providers, whether in refugee camps or disaster zones, with self-sufficient medical facilities in any area that can be reached by truck, rail or ship.

“If you’d asked me as a freshman what work I would be doing today, I couldn’t have told you,” Van Cleve said. “Now, I look at the research and the products we’ve developed and I’m honored to work on projects that will make a difference in people’s lives.”

Top photo: A look inside the portable medical clinic that is custom-outfitted inside a shipping container. Photo by Asa Plum/Corporate Interior Systems

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Veteran alumnus engages new generation of activists at helm of nonprofit LUCHA

School of Transborder Studies alumnus Tomas Robles is helping young activists find their voice in Arizona

May 7, 2019

In 2010, Tomas Robles found himself in Phoenix with an accounting job he didn’t love and what felt like a troubling political tide he was powerless to impact.

It had been almost a decade since, at 19, the 9/11 attacks prompted him to leave his freshman year at Arizona State University to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Tomas Robles graduated with a bachelor's degree from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Transborder Studies in 2011. Tomas Robles graduated with a bachelor's degree from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Transborder Studies in 2011. Download Full Image

For Robles, the decision was a visceral reaction that he said changed his life’s trajectory entirely. After five years of military service, returning home to Arizona triggered a similar response.

“There was a lot of fear over the economy, but also a lot of scapegoating, especially toward immigrants,” he said. “Then Gov. Jan Brewer passed SB1070In 2010, Arizona passed a controversial piece of legislature known by its shorthand SB1070 that was seen by many as anti-immigrant. , and it sent that bolt of lightning through my body all over again.”

The son of Mexican immigrants, Robles was born in Tucson and grew up in Phoenix. The new policies stood to affect his own community. And they left him wanting to effect change in ways that didn’t seem possible with the accounting degree he’d earned after the military.

The feeling drove his return to ASU, where the School of Transborder Studies at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences checked many of the boxes he envisioned.

“I wanted to join a program that offered education about our history in the way I needed it, while also enabling me to organize in my community by meeting people with the same passion for social justice,” he said.

Robles graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chicana/o and Latina/o studies in 2011 and continued to work in local advocacy projects before landing at LUCHA An acronym for the organization's full name, Living United for Change in Arizona, LUCHA is also a nod to Mexico's professional wrestling world known as lucha libre. Fighters, or luchadores, wear colorful masks and costumes during matches.AZ, then a budding network also founded in the wake of SB1070.

Since taking the helm as executive director in 2013, Robles has transformed the organization into a multifaceted advocacy vehicle led by local youth tackling issues around immigration, incarceration and voter access.

Now co-directing the group with fellow ASU alumna Alejandra Gomez, he’s helping a new generation realize their own potential to make an impact.

Today, LUCHA boasts an office in Phoenix and Tucson, 26 employees and some 2,600 dues-paying members whose donations allow them to help decide the public policy stances of the organization and access to immigration support services. Robles estimated they have also registered close to 100,000 new Arizona voters.  

Simply put, he said the group rallies around the causes important to communities sometimes cast into the shadows.

“LUCHA seeks to change the state of Arizona to a place that is more accessible to working families,” he said. “That includes young people, single women, immigrants and people of color — we want to create a state that we feel better represents all of us.”

He answered a few questions about his ASU journey, his time after graduation and how young activists can impact public policy now.

Question: What brought you to LUCHA?

Answer: I came to LUCHA from an organizing position at the Cesar Chavez Foundation in Phoenix after graduation. It was a dream and an honor to work for the foundation that Chavez himself helped build, but the bureaucracy did not allow me the freedom to create new programs or the means to effect change as quickly as I’d hoped.

While LUCHA didn’t have the same name recognition, budget or staff, we did have the ability to dream big and build an organization within the framework of the issues we are facing right now.

My first assignment here was actually what landed me the job. LUCHA’s director at the time asked me to write a campaign plan to win a budget override proposal for Phoenix schools, which usually means property taxes are raised in the local community and the extra money goes directly to the schools. We were expected to lose that campaign, but with the plan I wrote, we ended up winning by just 87 votes. That led to $21 million additional funds going to all nine high schools in the Phoenix Union district.

Q: A lot of LUCHA’s initiatives today are led by high school and college activists. How does that affect the organization?

A: It's totally by design. We believe that youth create, lead and accomplish movements. If we train and engage with high school students, they will in turn have the passion, education, expertise and energy to go out and help change the state. In any given day, you'll see between 10 and 20 students here taking political education classes, creating art for a demonstration or just spending time after school in a place where they feel welcome and comfortable among their peers. Almost every single employee that works for LUCHA today started as a volunteer, so many stay on and continue to develop.

Q: How would you describe your Sun Devil story?

A: Without the School of Transborder Studies, I'd probably still be looking at accounting spreadsheets and looking outside the window wishing I was somewhere else. I think my experience is a perfect example of how finding the right school at ASU can make you feel empowered to impact whatever you think is important in the world.

Because of its size, the school had this sense of family and togetherness that felt very genuine. It also helped me personally that the director at the time was Carlos Velez-Ibanez, who is also a former Marine. We really connected not just about both growing up in the Southwest as Mexican Americans, but also on the experience of joining the military and coming back.

I think those aspects really solidified my passion and helped me see different ways to effect change in my community. 

Q: Are there any other professors that stick out in your mind?

A: So many. Classes taught by Edward Escobar about the history of labor and political movements in the U.S. really impacted me, while Marivel Danielson helped showcase advocacy through a woman of color's perspective. That was the first place I got to be privy to that viewpoint, and I think it’s hugely important when participating in social movements because you have to be able to open your eyes to a lot of different struggles.

Eileen McConnell spoke to the stat and math nerd in me, and Lisa Magana was the first one to discover the work that I was doing outside of the classroom to register voters in south Phoenix and educate people about SB1070. I was doing 60-hour weeks in addition to going to school, and at 28, I was an older student who was a little disconnected from other students. She saw an interview about my work and began talking about it at the school, which really helped me feel more involved.

Q: What advice would you give to new students or what do you wish you had known?

A: Take as many different courses as possible, even if they don’t fit with your major, because that’s how you discover what you love. I took my first course in the School of Transborder Studies when I was a mechanical engineering major and it changed everything.

Secondly, don't take a loan unless you really have to, because you'll need to pay that money back, with interest. Thirdly, get involved and take advantage of your ASU network. College is immensely valuable on its own, but there is nothing more valuable than the people you meet while you're there. So go to as many functions and meet as many people as you can. Get out and engage in different organizations. That will go a long way once you start your career.

Finally, chase a passion, not a paycheck. This is such a cliche, but it really is true. You'll never feel like you’re working a day in your life if what you do and what you love are the same thing.

Q: What are some of your most important milestones since graduation, both personally and for LUCHA?

A: I go back to the young people we are lucky to help here. We have a communications director who is a DACAIntroduced in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program granted temporary protection to some undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children. student. We have another student who started as an intern and is now an organizing director.  

Not only are these young people still with the organization after internships and volunteering, they have prominent roles and are the ones who will take over once co-executive director Alejandra Gomez and I step away.

We try to have this space feel like family, similar to the School of Transborder Studies actually, so that everyone feels welcome. Growing up, I didn't know about any organization like this and frankly, I don’t think anything existed. These young people are so much further ahead because they have these places.

There is no greater sense of accomplishment for me than seeing them grow and become leaders of their communities, because you know you had a part in their finding that voice. They are the reason this organization is so successful. I really don't know if there's a replacement for that feeling.

Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences