COVID-19 and Unprecedented Innovation at the Blum Center

At the Blum Center, 2020 was a year of unprecedented adaptation and innovation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and Unprecedented Innovation at the Blum Center
S. Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director, Blum Center 

By Shankar Sastry

 At the Blum Center, 2020 was a year of unprecedented adaptation and innovation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all centers and schools, we shifted to online teaching, advising, and working — as well as to racing to come up with solutions for mitigating the spread of the virus at home and abroad. The United Nations Development Programme estimated the socioeconomic fallout from COVID-19 for poor countries could take years to recover from, with income losses expected to exceed $220 billion and nearly half of all jobs in Africa lost. The March 2020 report states: “With an estimated 55 percent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights, and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition. Underresourced hospitals and fragile health systems are likely to be overwhelmed. This may be further exacerbated by a spike in cases, as up to 75 percent of people in the least developed countries lack access to soap and water.” This means we must double our efforts in terms of funding, collaboration, and new life-saving technologies and programs. At the Blum Center and around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses to meet this challenge and help developing and developed countries alike. The first target of a new AI research consortium, the C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute (of which I am co-director), addressed the application of machine learning to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Blum Center Research Director Dan Fletcher has worked around the clock to adapt the fluorescence microscopy function of his lab’s mobile phone microscope, the CellScope, to assist in rapid testing. Dan and his colleagues are collaborating with virology expert Melanie Ott of the Gladstone Institutes and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, among others, to provide the rapid remote detection portion of the team’s CRISPR-based COVID-19 RNA detection method. Their goal is to provide test results in less than 15 minutes. Meanwhile, a coalition of UC Berkeley engineers led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell, a member of our Graduate Group in Development Engineering, has been working to turn sleep apnea machines into ventilators for use in under-resourced hospitals and clinics. And Development and Mechanical Engineering student Paige Balcom prolonged her stay in Uganda, where there are 55 ICU beds with oxygen for a population of nearly 43 million people, using Big Ideas funding for her social enterprise Takataka Plastics to manufacture face shields for local medics. As we ready to launch the UC Berkeley Master in Development Engineering (see details about this from Alice Agogino in the following pages), we will continue the Blum Center commitment to educate changemakers and foster innovative solutions to global problems. The year 2020 has given us unprecedented challenges. We aim to meet as many of them as possible. Fiat Lux!

Warm Visit Week Welcome for Admitted M.DevEng Students

In early April, the first cohort of accepted students in the Blum Center’s inaugural Masters of Development Engineering program (M.DevEng) heard from award-winning faculty, social entrepreneurs, and student researchers and innovators, and also toured labs, Blum Hall, and iconic Berkeley landmarks – all virtually – in anticipation of reuniting in person on campus this fall.

Warm Visit Week Welcome for Admitted M.DevEng Students
Visit Week on OhYay session with faculty and admitted M.DevEng students

By Jason Liu 

In early April, the first cohort of accepted students in the Blum Center’s inaugural Masters of Development Engineering program (M.DevEng) heard from award-winning faculty, social entrepreneurs, and student researchers and innovators, and also toured labs, Blum Hall, and iconic Berkeley landmarks – all virtually – in anticipation of reuniting in person on campus this fall.

Visit Week included more than 30 events pulled largely from the ongoing spring schedule of classes and events, plus program introductions, colloquia, open office hours, and informal opportunities to meet and socialize.

The kickoff event introduced faculty leads of M.DevEng concentration areas. Blum Center Education Director and Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering Alice Agogino – who founded the Development Engineering field at Berkeley in 2014 – spoke on Sustainable Design Innovations. Blum Center Faculty Director and Thomas Siebel Professor of Computer Science S. Shankar Sastry represented AI/Data Analytics for Social Impact. Blum Research Director and Purendu Chatterjee Chair in Engineering Biological Systems Dan Fletcher introduced the Healthcare concentration, and Vice Chair of the DevEng Graduate Group and S.J. Hall Chair in Forest Economics Matthew Potts addressed the Energy, Water, and Environment concentration.

“We’d like you to let your imagination run about how you can use AI to think about ways of changing the world and to pay attention to social concerns,” Sastry said to the admitted students.

On Monday, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ashok Gadgil welcomed accepted students Zooming in from as far away as Indonesia and Nigeria to his CE209 class on Design for Sustainable Communities. Celebrated for the invention of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove, Gadgil’s lab focuses on development engineering projects to alleviate poverty and human suffering. Guest lecturer Susan Amrose, a former doctoral student at the Gadgil Lab, discussed electrocoagulation techniques to remove arsenic from groundwater in low-resource settings, from Bangladesh to California’s Central Valley. 

On Tuesday, Professor of Nuclear Engineering Dan Kammen lectured on the intersection of religion, faith, and climate justice as part of his ERG160 Climate Justice course, diving into the themes of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ and work by faith-based communities. An internationally known expert on climate policy, Kammen was lead author of the IPCC’s Climate Change report in 2007, which was recognized with a Nobel Prize that same year.

The new cohort joined Professor Agogino and Research Fellow and InFEWS Program Coordinator Yael Perez at their DevEng210 class on Wednesday, where seminar students presented case studies. Sam Miles showcased his OffGridBox, a shipping container retrofitted to provide off-grid energy and clean water, and Adrian Hinkle discussed how to use wastewater to detect COVID-19 hotspots. Visiting Professor of Development Economic Policy and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Louise Fox, also a former chief economist at USAID, sat in on the session and offered feedback to the students. 

Launching this fall, Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering is a new program focused on integrated approaches to address high-impact problems in low-income areas around the world. Headquartered in the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the program combines depth and breadth to equip students with the tools they need to pair technical interventions with societal, cultural, and ecological dimensions. 

“These students are phenomenal,” said Agogino. “It was such a pleasure to see all the things they’ve already done not just academically but also in the field. They’ll be a cohort of change-makers.”

Scroll to top

Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship