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Bioengineering students use research talents to aid disabled Africans

January 08, 2009

Mona Aoufe wants whatever endeavors she pursues in her future career to be as fulfilling as her final major assignment to earn an undergraduate engineering degree at Arizona State University.

She joined about 20 students in the Harrington Department of Bioengineering in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering in senior-year research projects to design and assemble medical devices for disabled villagers in a poverty-stricken south-central region of the African country of Malawi.

"We put a lot of passion into it," Aoufe says. "It wasn't your typical class project. We were working for more than a good grade, we wanted to provide things for people to make their lives better."

Customized wheelchairs, orthopedic braces and therapeutic instruments are among the devices to be delivered to the village of Njewa in early summer of 2009.

It will be the second shipment in the past three years of devices designed and built by ASU engineering students to be brought to Malawians under the supervision of Jan Snyder, a science education program manager in ASU's School of Materials.

For Snyder, it's part of a family project undertaken with his wife, Clarice, that he intends to expand in coming years.

Witnessing deprivation

Snyder first visited Africa as an undergraduate biology student in the 1960s. He was drawn by the continent's plants and animals, but "became equally interested in the people," he says.

That concern intensified years later when one of his three daughters, Jessi Jean, spent a semester in Kenya in 1997 as part of her college studies, and from 2003 to 2005 worked with the Peace Corps in Malawi. During that time, Snyder, his wife and their three other children visited Jessi Jean and lived for six weeks in a village in the Nkhotakota region of central Malawi.

There they witnessed a disadvantaged and even dangerous way of life. "We saw life in the raw and death in the raw," he says.

The family saw firsthand the problems of poor sanitation, the severe lack of health care and resulting health problems. AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and polio still afflict many, and estimates are that 7 percent to 10 percent of the more than 13 million Malawians are physically disabled in some way, Snyder says.

Vincent Pizziconi, an ASU associate professor of bioengineering, learned of Snyder's desire to help the Malawians and suggested Snyder videotape interviews with disabled villagers about their disabilities when he again visited Africa in 2006.

Pizziconi showed the videos in his class and then challenged students with assignments for their senior-year "capstone" research projects to produce devices for those individuals.

"When we saw the people on the videos we began to feel a connection to them," recalls Leila Kabiri, who earned her bioengineering degree in 2008. "It made us want to be successful for them."

Engineering challenges

Kabiri helped design and build a wheelchair for a Mawali woman named Ida, who had been partially paralyzed at age 20 from a condition that was never diagnosed.

She and fellow students had to manufacture the devices not only to fit the conditions of the disabled individuals, but had to construct them with materials that will enable the Malawians to repair or rebuild devices in the future using the limited materials available in their country.

The materials also had to be resilient enough to hold up in the rough terrain and environmental conditions of the region.

Kabiri's project team used bicycle tires for the wheelchair, along with a cushion stuffed with pinto beans coated with a chemical that helps keep the cushion dry in a humid climate.

Monica Lopez helped make an orthotic device for a young Malawian girl with an arm crippled by polio when she was an infant.

She and her project team used Velcro, elastic bands, and spring-loaded components so the device would be sufficiently adjustable and flexible to enable movements necessary for the girl to use it to improve her ability to stretch her arm and grip with her hand.

Like other project teams, Kabiri's and Lopez's teams consulted specialists in medical fields focused on treating the disabled. They also had to test the devices and ensure the instruments adhered to strict design specifications stipulated by government regulatory agencies.

"It was hard, but it was an experience that gave us a real idea of what kinds of challenges you're going face as a bioengineer," says Lopez, who plans to go to medical school.

Selfless acts

It was the opportunity to help an individual in need in a deprived country that made the project special. "It wasn't just something we were doing for ourselves. That made it meaningful," Lopez says.

Says Kabiri, "It just feels great to make something that someone can use to help themselves. I'm so excited to send the wheelchair to Ida and see if she likes it."

Aoufe, who plans to pursue a dual master's degree in business and health care administration, worked with a team that built a customized tricycle for another partially paralyzed Malawi woman, named Elizabeth.

"The project was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had," she says, "because this was a selfless act. All we cared about was making something for Elizabeth."

Sharing technology

Snyder wants to make the medical-device project a first step toward larger goals.

He is talking to educators in Malawi about teaming with ASU to provide the country programs to train its own engineers. He sees opportunities for engineers here to work with Malawians on employing modern technologies to provide the country with better infrastructure and sources of energy.

He hopes to someday to see establishment of a college-level technical school, and a school for Malawian women and girls, who rarely get formal education beyond early elementary grades.

"Education and the sharing of technology can offer the people in African countries opportunities to become economically sustainable," Snyder says. "The solution to their problems has to start with instilling in them the spirit of innovation, imagination and self-sufficiency."

Until recently, the effort had been funded solely by Snyder and his wife. They now have additional financial support through a fledgling nonprofit, Sustainable Resources Ltd., founded by the Snyders and James and Alice Broscheid, who share the Snyders" interest in humanitarian efforts for Africa.

James Broscheid is a project manager with Siemens AG, one of the world's largest engineering and electronics conglomerates. He's now studying at ASU's downtown Phoenix campus for a degree in nonprofit organization management. Alice Broscheid works with a mental health counseling facility.

Snyder would like to see more faculty and students in engineering and ASU schools and colleges find ways to aid the cause through research and course projects.

ASU faculty who mentored students involved in the project include: Kristinn Heinrichs, a specialist in rehabilitation neuroscience and rehabilitation engineering; Richard Filley, director of the engineering school's Global Futures Initiative; Jiping He, a professor of bioengineering and director of the Center for Neural Interface Design; Ranu Jung, an associate professor of bioengineering and co-director of the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems; and Joseph Peles, an adjunct professor in the bioengineering department.

"If we had more people in the ASU community, with their knowledge and abilities, spearheading these efforts, it could have a great impact on the lives of many Africans," he says.

For more information about the Sustainable Resources Ltd. and the Malawi project, see the Web site Sustainable Resources Ltd.