From Malawi to Berkeley and Back: How M.DevEng Student Mathews Tisatayane Achieved His Dream of Bringing Sustainable Development to His Hometown

Tisatayane had been a teacher, a nurse, and an unsuccessful social entrepreneur. Now, he’s using development engineering to provide his fellow Malawians clean energy and an opportunity to free themselves from economic hardship.

Three of the 11 members of the Yankho women's co-op (left), the backbone of and inspiration for Umodzi, along with Brian Ndongera (third from right), an advisor to Umodzi, Mathews Tisatayane (second from right), founder and president, and Sean Mandell, co-founder and CEO. (Umodzi photo)
Three of the 11 members of the Yankho women’s co-op (left), the backbone of and inspiration for Umodzi, along with Brian Ndongera (third from right), an advisor to Umodzi, Mathews Tisatayane (second from right), founder and president, and Sean Mandell, co-founder and CEO. (Umodzi photo)

Tisatayane had been a teacher, a nurse, and an unsuccessful social entrepreneur. Now, he’s using development engineering to provide his fellow Malawians clean energy and an opportunity to free themselves from economic hardship.

By Sam Goldman

Growing up, Mathews Tisatayane had few boundaries about where he could go and who he could see. His corner of Malawi, in southeast Africa, was multicultural, and he hung out with people from different tribes, who spoke different languages, and who practiced different religions. He didn’t have electricity or running water, and his family took him shopping for clothes once a year if he was lucky. But “growing up,” he said, “I didn’t feel like I was poor at all.”

As the third child and first-born son of his mother’s 12 children, he held a lot of responsibility and worked on his family’s farm growing tobacco — a major component of the Malawian economy. When he was seven, he used the income he earned to self-enroll in a school about five miles away.

Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane (Courtesy photo)
Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane (Courtesy photo)

Tisatayane, now 50 and finishing his final semester of UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering program, says his family still grows tobacco “out of desperation, out of ‘what else can we do?’”

When he finally did get the chance to go to school, he encountered his first Peace Corps volunteer, which made him think the U.S. had something to offer the world. These ideas lodged in the back of his mind.

Tisatayane finished high school in 1994, but the introduction of college-entrance exams that favored elite kids halted his plans for college. It was already a dark time: His great uncle, who owned his family’s farm and had funded everything in his life, had passed away. He recalled trying to compose himself and asking what he could do in this bleak situation.

If there is one thing that defines Tisatayane, it’s resilience: “When I’m put in a situation, no matter how bad or good it is, I’m always trying to say, ‘How can I do better for myself and the people around me?’”

The mantra has guided him through famine, nursing school, full-time nursing, a deep but unsuccessful foray into social entrepreneurship, all the way to the inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program. During his three semesters at Blum Hall, he parlayed new professional and peer connections to launch Umodzi with Sean Mandell, a recent graduate of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. The company is a reincarnation of Tisatayane’s failed attempt at social entrepreneurship, allowing women-led co-ops in Malawi to raise quail in a 100-percent sustainable, self-contained system.

“I’m almost happy I failed,” he said of his first attempt at sustainable development. “If I didn’t fail, I wouldn’t have come to Berkeley.”

From famine to the San Francisco Department of Public Health

After his great uncle died, Tisatayane found his way to a teacher’s training college, spent two years there, and returned to his village to teach kids — all while continuing as a subsistence farmer providing for 17 people as the elder man of the family.

But more hardship was in store. In 2001, a terrible famine hit Malawi. Tisatayane lost half his body weight and, at one point, while still teaching, went three days without food. The problem, he realized, wasn’t that there was not enough food in the country, but that it was not accessible to poorer people — including those who grew it. “That was the famine that changed my life for good,” he recalled two decades later. “It’s one of the things that pushed me to” apply to UC Berkeley — “to try to do something to relieve my people of that.”

Meanwhile, he had gotten involved in a government program where people planted trees for food. There, he met another Peace Corp volunteer. They married. And that was how Tisatayane made it to the country that, in high school, he started to realize had something to offer the world.

“When I came to the United States, I was totally useless,” he said. In Malawi, he had friends, family, a teaching job. “I had everything there. And then all of a sudden, I’m in a completely different situation.” He was lost. It was like the end of high school all over again.

But that spurred the same thought process: What could he do to help himself and those around him? Tisatayane enrolled in the City College of San Francisco not knowing what he wanted to pursue. But it reminded him of his youth, surrounded by folks speaking different languages, practicing different religions, displaying different personalities. It buoyed him.

While at CCSF, Tisatayane volunteered for six months in the unit serving patients with HIV/AIDS, learning about U.S. patient care. Many of them nearing the end of their lives didn’t have family, and he saw how the nurses became the closest relationships they had. “The passion, the love, and the dedication of the nurses who worked in that care unit,” he said, “inspired me to be like, ‘I think I want to be a nurse and do what these people are doing.’”

He studied intensely and improved his grades while at CCSF but did not get into the nursing program there, which used a lottery system. Persevering, Tisatayane later found a different school, and he became one of the very few men or Black people in the University of San Francisco’s undergrad nursing program, from which he graduated with a bachelor of science in nursing in 2011.

With the mission of helping the homeless suffering in the wealthiest country in the world, over the next five years, he worked at the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Medical Respite & Sobering Center, aiding those who were discharged from the hospital and needing housing or social services as well as those passed out on the street and smelling of alcohol. Despite the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift — and the beginning of a new family here — Tisatayane continued to support his family back home in Malawi.

“If you’re not going to do this, you’re going to regret it on your deathbed.”

Though he had spent years helping those in need in San Francisco, his family in Malawi continued to grow and need support. His sisters and their friends had started a cooperative, Yankho co-op in Kauma Village, and he gave them $5,000 to use however they wanted. Six months later, the group of women had started an informal microfinancing program among themselves; every Sunday, they got together to lend money to whoever needed it most that week.

Tisatayane found that many women, along with their children, were raising chickens and other small birds, but they couldn’t scale their efforts. The cause mirrored that of the famine: Bird-feed ingredients grown in the village were bought up by middlemen, who sold them to businessmen in the city to make the feed, and who then sold it back to the farmers. He wrote up a business plan and showed it to contacts of his wife, who secured him $35,000 in funding. He would bring to his community a self-sustaining bird-raising operation.

The key, he learned, was energy: ubiquitous in the U.S., scarce in his hometown. He studied microgrids — small-scale, self-sufficient energy systems — and reached out to friend and fellow Malawian William Kamkwamba, of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind fame, who put him in touch with someone who got him the solar panels and batteries that Tisatayane would assemble into bird incubators and brooders. The equipment was paid for using the funds Tisatayane had raised.

The incubators could replace a hen lying on her eggs for 21 days — not an easy model to scale — in order to hatch as many eggs as possible. The chicks would then stay in the brooders — warm rooms that mimic their mothers’ feathers. After two weeks, the birds would be ready to be sent to farmers.

Solar panels being installed during Tisatayane's first attempt at sustainable development in Malawi. (Umodzi photo)
Solar panels being installed during Tisatayane’s first attempt at sustainable development in Malawi. (Umodzi photo)

If his community could raise their own chickens all on their own, then they would eat well, which meant better health. They could sell the ones they couldn’t eat for income. And building a system run by women and youth would empower them, too. One of “the most profound moments” in the process, he recalled, was being in the U.S. and receiving a video of incubated chicks hatching at his village — “life coming out of an egg, because of the invention that we made.”

The machines worked well for two months. When they started failing at night, he hired independent solar companies to check them out. The panels, it turned out, had come from different manufacturers, as did the wiring. Either they were put together improperly or the batteries were used too quickly and died. The endeavor was paused indefinitely.

Tisatayane said he felt like “a failed social entrepreneur.” He tried out some online courses on social entrepreneurship, but they didn’t help. Then, he discovered UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, run by Prof. Daniel Kammen. He spent a week on YouTube devouring Kammen’s talks. He wanted more. “How can I be part of people like this,” he asked himself, “because I truly, truly believe that I can do more in Malawi.”

In following the lab online, he came across Berkeley’s new Master of Development Engineering program, the first cohort of which was to start in the fall of 2021. “This is it,” he thought. “If you’re not going to do this, you’re going to regret it on your deathbed.” 

Investors and biodigesters 

Sure enough, he was accepted. He’d wake up at 6 a.m., take BART from his home in southern San Francisco to downtown Berkeley, and hike a mile up through campus to California Memorial Stadium for DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” at 8 a.m. He had started his dream program, a chapter in his life he hadn’t even considered not long before.

Sean Mandell (Courtesy photo)
Sean Mandell (Courtesy photo)

That first-semester M.DevEng course turned out to be pivotal. Tisatayane met Sean Mandell, a student at the Haas School of Business who had been a data scientist for four years at a health-tech start-up. Mandell had had a longtime interest in — but limited involvement with — global development and had come to Berkeley to pursue social entrepreneurship. The two chatted during class breaks. 

“We truly liked each other and respected each other’s views on what needs to happen in terms of development,” said Mandell, who graduated in May.

“Without Sean, my business wouldn’t be what it is,” Tisatayane said on a recent afternoon at a cafe on Euclid Avenue, near Blum Hall, home of the M.DevEng program. He described their blueprint: Solar panels heating multiple hatcheries incubating quail eggs, and biodigesters turning quails’ waste into fertilizer for the birds’ food as well as fuel to supplement the solar electricity. Once up and running, the circular system could address a panoply of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including zero hunger, gender equality, affordable and clean energy, responsible consumption and production, and more. The whole enterprise, which they named Umodzi — “togetherness” in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s main languages — would be run by the women cooperative with whom Tisatayane had collaborated on his first try. The name reflected the unity with which Tisatayne’s community approached everything, from work to celebrations, as he grew up. 

A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)
A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)

Prof. Layla Kwong of the School of Public Health, his capstone advisor, gave him the idea to use biodigesters — mechanical stomachs that convert organic material, like quail poop, into biogas to heat incubating eggs, cook food, or make fertilizer to grow the quails’ food. Tisatayane read up on the process and discovered a biodigester maker already in Malawi. The country also had an incubator maker. “Talking to people, we found out all the systems were already there,” he said.

Eventually, Tisatayane and Mandell registered Umodzi as a public-benefit corporation in the U.S., with a subsidiary company in Malawi and a lawyer in each country, too. Tisatayane is founder and president; Mandell, co-founder and CEO. They went on to raise over $100,000 from individuals interested in supporting their project and even contributed some of their own savings. They bought a 25-kilowatt solar power system with a 60 kilowatt-hour lithium battery system from a Malawian supplier.

But getting a fully functioning enterprise off the ground required even more investment, and that’s where networking through the M.DevEng program came in handy once again. Prof. Alice Agogino, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, introduced Tisatayane to Stephen Isaacs, former president and CEO of Aduro Biotech and a member of the program’s advisory board, who then introduced him to his own friend Bob Reed, former CFO at Sutter Health. Reed immediately took to the idea. “What can I do for you?” he asked Tisatayane.

“I have an idea to change my community, but I know nothing about the money world,” he had replied. 

Reed enthusiastically obliged and became a friend and mentor to Tisatayane, introducing him to another potential investor. Umodzi’s circle of backers grew.

“Here for the indefinite future”

In the spring, Mandell surprised Tisatayane: He had bought a one-way ticket to Malawi, departing the day after his May graduation. “I’m here for the indefinite future,” Mandell told him. 

Tisatayane himself left for the country in June and stayed for two months, his longest trip to Malawi since moving to the U.S. Gut instinct told him to stay for a second month; it allowed him to be with family when his father passed away.

A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)
Solar batteries and an inverter (Sean Mandell photo)

The batteries (lifespan: 10-plus years) and electrical equipment arrived in modular shipping containers and joined the hatcheries and biodigesters in Kauma Village. Solar panels (lifespan: 30 years) were installed, and a borehole was drilled to provide potable water to the birds. While drilling, they decided to install taps for the local community to access the water for free.

Umodzi’s fundraising efforts have netted just enough money to launch; Tisatayane estimated all the investment will be recouped in about a year of operations. As site manager, the pair hired Bernadetta Ndongera, a young woman from the community with experience working with farmers, raising poultry, and growing crops and with a degree in agriculture from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, in the country’s capital. “We didn’t want to bring in a man when both co-founders are men,” Tisatayane said. The Yankho co-op remains Umodzi’s backbone. In fact, it was the women’s cooperative that aspired to raise quail as a ticket to economic freedom and self-sufficiency in the first place. 

As his final semester in the M.DevEng program wound down, Tisatayane bought a one-way ticket to Malawi to be full-time hands-on. Before departing in mid-January, he’ll wrap up his current job as a health nurse at a San Francisco County jail, which he had been juggling alongside his studies, entrepreneurial activities, and parenthood. He expects to split his time between the two countries he calls home, with plans to come back to California later in 2023. 

With only a couple weeks left in the M.DevEng program, Tisatayane was sent a familiar type of video — the first sign that months of hard work, perseverance, and passion were beginning to bear fruit for his community. Umodzi hatched the first quail chicks from an initial batch of 900 — a mere fifth of the number all its incubators will hold. On his screen, he watched in awe as a few of them broke through their shells. 

“My goal is to relieve Malawi of its tobacco industry and replace it with clean energy, and from there, move on to the rest of Africa or the rest of the world, to the extent that we can,” Tisatayane said. “But I can’t clean up Zambia and other neighboring countries until I clean up Malawi, my backyard.”

Congrats, M.DevEng Class of 2022! Members of Inaugural Cohort, Themselves Pioneers in DevEng, Graduate

After 16 months, three semesters, 44 internships, 26 capstone projects, and countless hours in the classroom and out in the field, the inaugural cohort of UC Berkeley’s M.DevEng program walked across the stage of campus’ Sibley Auditorium in the Bechtel Engineering Center on Saturday to receive the country’s — if not the world’s — first master of development engineering degree. The 44-student Class of 2022 — pioneers of the burgeoning discipline that originated at Berkeley — will leave Blum Hall for careers in social impact, technology, and sustainability or to further their educational careers.

The M.DevEng Class of 2022 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The M.DevEng Class of 2022 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program are the first students — possibly in the world — to receive a graduate degree in the field. (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program are the first students — possibly in the world — to receive a graduate degree in the field. (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

After 16 months, three semesters, 44 internships, 26 capstone projects, and countless hours in the classroom and out in the field, the inaugural cohort of UC Berkeley’s M.DevEng program walked across the stage of campus’ Sibley Auditorium in the Bechtel Engineering Center on Saturday to receive the country’s — if not the world’s — first master of development engineering degree. The 44-student Class of 2022 — pioneers of the burgeoning discipline that originated at Berkeley — will leave Blum Hall for careers in social impact, technology, and sustainability or to further their educational careers.

Students and their families, many of whom flew in from around the world, gathered at dusk for an intimate ceremony and reception to celebrate a group hailing from 15 countries and with backgrounds as diverse as education, electrical engineering, finance, and nursing. During their three semesters, the graduates studied a multidisciplinary curriculum focused on design and management of technology, application of emerging technologies, evidence-based assessment techniques, economic development, social problem solving, cross-cultural collaboration, and community engagement. From their first class, they’ve been devising and implementing technological solutions to complex societal challenges in low-resource settings.

Student speaker Mathews Tisatayane (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Student speaker Mathews Tisatayane (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“Regardless of the path each one of us is taking, we all agree the world would be a better place if we all put our efforts together,” said student speaker Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane, who took the stage to raucous cheers from his peers.

He began by asking the room to take a deep, collective breath. That breath, he pointed out, is an interaction of, and made possible by, all sorts of elements, from air molecules to lung cells, tissues to organs. “Although all these cells are different in some ways, by working altogether they maintain life as we know it,” he reminded us.

If togetherness is so vital to making the world work, why, he asked, is modern society so resistant to working together to solve climate change and poverty? We’ve been taught to work as individuals and to think of our divisions as almost natural, he said. “But it’s not. I came to UC Berkeley to find minds who could help me challenge these divisions. And I’m happy to tell you I found them,” he said, gesturing to his erstwhile classmates in the front rows. “They’re right here. Through different interactions with each other, faculty, and capstone projects, we researched and found our differences are what bring us closer.” 

Tisatayane turned to Nelson Mandela for how the cohort could turn its togetherness into action: “‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity. It is an act of justice,’” he quoted. “‘Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade. And it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. … Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. And you can be that generation.’” 

“Let us be great. Let us be that generation that Nelson Mandela was talking about,” Tisatayane added. “Let our greatness blossom together. Let’s go out in the world to do actions to positively impact the planet and the lives of those living in poverty. In togetherness, we believe.”

From left: Malika Sugathapala, Daniel Huang, Curtis Wong, and Eleanor Chin (Photo by Sam Goldman)
From left: Malika Sugathapala, Daniel Huang, Curtis Wong, and Eleanor Chin (Photo by Sam Goldman)

Tisatayane cited his own capstone project as a product of togetherness. It was a reincarnation of an unsuccessful attempt at sustainable development in Malawi, where he was born and raised. He had teamed up with Sean Mandell, a Haas School of Business student he had met in his first DevEng class, to found Umodzi — “togetherness” in Tisatayane’s native language, Chichewa — which allows women-led co-ops in Malawi to raise quail in a 100-percent sustainable, self-contained system. His classmates’ capstone projects included a business for seamstresses in rural Ghana to sell their high-quality wares, a toilet that recycles the nitrogen from urine to use in fertilizer, advancing an initiative to bring arsenic-safe drinking water to rural cities in California, and a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers.

“What you’ve done with your projects is remarkable,” said DevEng and Energy and Resources Group Prof. Dan Kammen in a recorded message to graduates. “You’ve launched this program with your passion and all the projects you’ve done.”

Commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Maya Carrasquillo, the newest member of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, which offers the M.DevEng, gave the commencement address.

“When I learned that this was the first cohort — the first cohort — for the Master of Development Engineering, I felt myself awestricken,” she said.

“You have become the precedent for what this program can and will become: a program marked by educating and equipping changemakers to develop innovative global solutions. What a powerful vision, and each of you embodies that so much,” Carrasquillo said. “It takes a certain kind of individual to step out into unproven, untested grounds. … You’re the ones who dare to do something different, in pursuit of something greater than yourselves. You are the ones not motivated by titles or prestige but by an inner voice that reminds you there has to be more than the way things have always been.”

Carrasquillo offered reflections shared at a book-tour event she attended for former First Lady Michelle Obama’s The Light We Carry: “To treat yourself and others with gladness.” 

“In a world and in a profession where we are constantly striving to do good, it is all too easy to forget to be good,” she said. “And more than just being good — being kind — and even then, it is far too often that we are kind to others and less kind to ourselves. As you all go out to do all the amazing, undoubtedly life-changing things that you have been prepared to do in this world, never forget to greet yourself and others with gladness.” 

Shubham Salunkhe (left) and Sara Almusafri with Prof. Alice Agogino (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Shubham Salunkhe (left) and Sara Almusafri with Prof. Alice Agogino (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Early in the ceremony, the M.DevEng program honored retiring Prof. Alice Agogino for her years of service in developing and guiding Berkeley’s DevEng programs, in which she chairs the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, serves as the Blum Center for Developing Economies’ education director, leads the M.DevEng’s Sustainable Design Innovations concentration, led DevEng seminars, mentored many students, and held innumerable office hours with both enrolled students and prospective ones. Director of DevEng Programs Yael Perez presented Agogino with a scrapbook of photos and messages from the DevEng community, and Kammen highlighted her career of developing opportunities for students, faculty, and others to collaborate across disciplines and focus their STEM work on social impact. “What an honor and pleasure to work with you,” he said.

Bioengineering professor and Blum Center faculty director Dan Fletcher closed out the ceremony by noting how clearly the commencement showcased the tight-knit and supportive community the graduates had formed over their three semesters. Each grad walked across the stage to not just a reading of a self-written, third-person statement detailing their accomplishments, but to the cheers of their fellows. 

Though classes are over, Fletcher said, “the connections among you continue.” He called out how fitting it was to conclude the students’ recognition with the ending of the final student’s statement: “And she loves you all very much.”

Past Big Ideas Winner Blackbook University Brings Together Resources, Opportunities, and Networking for Cal’s Black Student Community

Blackbook University is a digital platform that equips Black students with relevant information, opportunities, and a network to connect with their peers. It was launched to meet the needs of Black students on UC Berkeley’s campus — and to be a model that can be replicated across California, and eventually the nation.

Blackbook University team members at their first event in collaboration with Berkeley's Black Student Union. In a panel discussion, titled "How I Succeeded as a Black Professional," speakers discussed their experiences navigating their careers. (Blackbook University photo)
Blackbook University team members at their first event in collaboration with Berkeley’s Black Student Union. In a panel discussion, titled “How I Succeeded as a Black Professional,” speakers discussed their experiences navigating their careers. (Blackbook University photo)

By Anehita Okojie

In 2018, the USC Race and Equity Center released a report that measured postsecondary access and student success for Black undergraduates at public colleges and universities across the United States. In this report, the University of California, Berkeley received a C in representation equity and a D when it came to completion equity. According to the report, Black students at UC Berkeley are graduating at a rate of 75.4 percent — 15.9 percent less than the overall graduation rate. 

Ibrahim Baldé is a Bay Area native and UC Berkeley alumnus who graduated from the Haas School of Business with a BS in Social Entrepreneurship and Finance in December 2020. The Report led Baldé and a team of peers to question the implications of UC Berkeley’s ranking for Black students and how “community organizers and groups [could] use this to challenge or call out the narrative of UC Berkeley.” Baldé believes that the prestige surrounding UC Berkeley tends to downplay and often erase recognition of the barriers and challenges that underrepresented communities face. He wanted to do something. Blackbook University was the answer. 

Blackbook University is a digital platform that equips Black students with relevant information, opportunities, and a network to connect with their peers. It was launched to meet the needs of Black students on UC Berkeley’s campus — and to be a model that can be replicated across California, and eventually the nation.

In its research, the team discovered the legacy of the African American Student Handbook, which served as a resource guide for Black Students at UC Berkeley in the 1980s and 1990s. This resource guide, dubbed Blackbook, listed Black faculty, advisors, student organizations, alumni, and Black-owned businesses that would support students during their time at UC Berkeley. It was a tool “for the community to streamline networking and belonging the moment that someone [touched] base on this campus,” Baldé says. 

In 1996, Proposition 209 was passed in California, elimating “state and local government affirmative action programs…based on race, sex, color, or national origin.” Once this proposition went into effect, it significantly decreased the number of Black students admitted to Berkeley, as the University of California system could no longer provide outreach, counseling, and tutoring services targeted at individuals based on sex, race, or ethnicity. Baldé notes that the impact of Proposition 209 on UC Berkeley’s campus was that the infrastructure of the Black community started to diminish and “the resource guide was no longer maintained.” 

The Blackbook team came together in 2019 to discuss the importance of the resource guide for students in the past and how they could modernize it to meet the needs of current Cal students. The team included UC Berkeley students Chase Ali-Watkins ’20, Nahom Solomon ’21, Farhiya Ali 23, Nicholas Brathwaite ’20, and Imran Sekalala 22. Kyle Parkman, a 2020 UC Santa Cruz graduate, rounded out the founding team. 

To assess need, the team polled Black students on campus and found that around 90 percent of Black Cal students wanted a platform for Black students built by Black students. Blackbook was founded on three pillars: an accessible mobile application for students, university programming to empower the professional development of students, and storytelling to highlight the success of Black students and professionals. Blackbook University’s mobile platform connects students to events, opportunities, and programs led by on campus organizations. The team is currently in the process of reaching out to Black student leaders on UC Berkeley’s campus to get them onboarded and to begin utilizing the platform to communicate with Black students. 

“We’ve made it so that any Black student can enter the platform and understand exactly what resource or experience is available and optimal for them,” Baldé says. 

Currently, the mobile application is available on the App Store and the Google Play Store for download. Blackbook’s goal is to have 500 active users on the platform by the end of the 2022–23 school year. 

Blackbook University founder Ibrahim Baldé at the 2021 Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day. (Blum Center photo)
Blackbook University founder Ibrahim Baldé at the 2021 Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day. (Blum Center photo)

The 2020–21 Big Ideas Contest gave the Blackbook University team the ability to take Blackbook from an idea to a tangible product. The competition helped the team challenge themselves, offered them access to advisors, and helped them structure the model of Blackbook. One of their advisors was Bill Allison, the current campus technology officer at UC Berkeley. Baldé notes that Allison offered insight on how to “think about and navigate both the development of the platform and the onboarding process for our users in our pilot [and] also at scale.” Big Ideas also allowed them to network with several other entrepreneurs who have built other university-based platforms. The networking opportunities showed the Blackbook team it was on the right track, Baldé says. He also credits Big Ideas workshops and advising sessions with helping Blackbook solidify its approach to building their program. 

Since winning Big Ideas, Blackbook has continued evolving through app development, a pilot program, and continued involvement in the Black community at UC Berkeley. In late 2021, it created a pilot in collaboration with African American Student Development on Berkeley’s campus to work on projects to integrate Blackbook further into the Berkeley ecosystem. This pilot program consisted of five interns who worked on thinking about and tailoring solutions related to the complexities of Blackbook. They pitched different ideas about the trajectory of Blackbook and how to further leverage technology to positively impact the experience of Black students. The team continued to connect with the Blackbook interns over the summer to ensure that their input was being integrated into updates to the Blackbook application and marketing strategies. 

This past summer, the Blackbook team connected with high school Black Student Unions and community colleges to continue their outreach and upliftment of the Black community across the Bay Area. It hopes increased contact with high school and community college students will allow the platform to create meaningful connections with these students and communities before they arrive at a four-year institution. 

“We are working to make the Blackbook platform accessible beyond the UC Berkeley campus,” Baldé says. “Our goal is to build a Blackbook presence on every campus in the US, starting with major campuses and the UC system. We see university recruiting as a huge aspect of the growth of our model moving forward — we intend to position Blackbook as the access point for companies and organizations to hire Black talent.”

GPP’s Peer Advisors on Tackling Poverty While Building Community in their Minor

Global Poverty & Practice peer advisors use the experience they’ve gained in completing most of the minor to counsel their newer peers. Learn how four of them found and added to the GPP community and pursued tangible social impact in their summer practice experiences.

Bhat with a community health worker she interviewed in Karnataka. (Samhita Bhat photo)
Bhat with a community health worker she interviewed in Karnataka. (Samhita Bhat photo)

The Global Poverty and Practice minor was the reason Grace Elam ended up at Berkeley in the first place. The university was “way too close to home” for the San Franciscan, and she felt skeptical that Berkeley’s reputation for real-world change had continued to live up to the 1960s’ Free Speech Movement. After receiving an admissions letter, she snuck over to Cal Day to scope things out. She only remembers attending one event: a GPP alumni panel that “shared their experiences building a schoolhouse in Ghana and working in carceral reform in California.” She knew where she wanted to go for college.

Grace Elam photo
Grace Elam photo

The fourth-year, who’s majoring in rhetoric and minoring in both GPP and public policy, has spent the past two summers working full-time in the legal office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest region, and continues working there part time. Much of her work focuses on the EPA’s engagement with other governments, including those of Navajo Nation, Guam, and California, as well as tracking civil rights compliance of grant recipients, processing the public’s requests for agency records, tracking citizens’ environmental lawsuits, researching the history and cultural practices of Native nations, and looking into the community impacts of polluters. 

Through “tricks of timing and my own desire to make the most of GPP’s foundational praxis,” the EPA job became her GPP practice experience, the hands-on component of the minor where students apply in the field what they learn in the classroom. Elam is also one of seven GPP peer advisors who use the experience they’ve gained in completing most of the minor to counsel their newer peers.

“I found that GPP was the most welcoming community I had come across at Cal,” said fellow peer advisor Samyukta Shrivatsa. “From the staff to the faculty and students, I owed so many of my best experiences to the encouragement and warmth extended by them. Finding meaning in one’s college experience can be a lonely journey, and I wanted to pass on the support I received to other similarly lost students!”

“Expanding how I look at the world”

Mahima Sinha’s passion lies in increasing access to healthcare in communities. It drove the fourth-year, pre-medical track public health student to take GPP 115, “Challenges and Hopes,” in the first place. What stuck out to her was how the program could be tailored to students’ personal experiences, combined theoretical frameworks with real-world action, and promoted reflection on learnings and experiences. “I learned to think critically about poverty and inequality in a way that I had never thought of before,” Sinha said.

 Mahima Sinha photo
Mahima Sinha photo

But it was the program’s community that also drew her in. “I loved how supportive everyone was of each other and how inclusive it felt.”

Sinha has stayed close to home with her practice experience, which can take students around the world. She continues to work remotely with Transitions Clinic Network, a San Francisco–based nonprofit providing healthcare services to those transitioning out of incarceration, doing data analysis of patient demographics, designing a manual for the TCN’s healthcare hotline, writing articles for San Quentin Prison’s social justice–oriented news site, and interviewing TCN’s community health workers — folks who have been incarcerated whom TCN hires to “create a supportive healthcare experience for patients and support their autonomy,” Sinha says.

“I have been able to learn so much about the effects of mass incarceration and how that impacts health specifically,” she said. “It has been challenging because I have never worked with the reentry population before and I am learning a lot as I go, such as the proper language to use, the harmful stigmas associated with incarceration, and the increasing need for reentry services in the United States.”

Expanding her perspective has been a key element of her overall GPP experience, which is open to all majors, allowing for a wide array of outlooks and frames of reference.

“This has really expanded how I look at the world and analyze what I see in the news,” Sinha says. “The minor has also offered me a lot of insight into how I can incorporate these frameworks into my future career, regardless of what I end up doing.”

“A lot of ownership for this project”

Also a fourth year, Samhita Bhat studies public health and molecular and cell biology. 

Over this past summer, she worked at Public Health Research Institute of India (PHRII), a nonprofit in the southern city of Mysore that researches women’s reproductive health, runs education and screening programs, and offers health services. As her practice experience, Bhat evaluated the impact of PHRII’s cervical cancer screening program through interviews with local community health workers, who were often overburdened managing the health of thousands of rural community members. She brought with her fluency in Kannada and, “as the daughter of immigrants from the state of Karnataka, a lot of personal knowledge and deep-rooted connection to the poverty that community members experience there.”

Her internship work resulted in a research abstract she presented at a conference and will be published soon in Annals of Epidemiology. “I felt a lot of ownership for this project as I was able to conduct interviews on my own,” Bhat said.

What’s helped cement her interest in continuing to work with healthcare-oriented grassroots organizations, she says, has been a curriculum that’s allowed her to better confront her own privilege and recognizing “the harm that my own actions may have in conducting poverty alleviation and how to mitigate that.”

“GPP has been a really special and unique part of my Berkeley experience, and I felt like I found a really strong community within my GPP classes and cohort,” Bhat said. Being a peer advisor, she added, allows her to transmit that experience to others while connecting with peers who have similar interests to hers. “I love hearing about the various passions and experiences that such a diverse group of students have within the minor.”

“Challenging these systems in my professional and personal life” 

“I was very aware of the privilege that an education at Cal gives me,” recalled Samyukta Shrivatsa, a senior studying environmental engineering science, “and was interested in understanding the education system I grew up with, the role education has to play in social and economic mobility, and how we can better serve students who go through the system.”

Samyukta Shrivatsa photo
Samyukta Shrivatsa photo

Shrivatsa came to the US from Bangalore. “Navigating college as an autistic student during COVID-19 was very challenging.” But it brought with it an awareness “of the complexities of privilege and power omnipresent in my life” and the desire to find a way to leave the world better off than how she’s found it. GPP 115 convinced her that “engaging in meaningful activities of solidarity” was where she wanted to be.

To these ends, she returned to Bangalore this past summer with Parikrma Humanity Foundation, which provides a holistic education to students from marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds. She had been intrigued by the way the school supported its students emotionally, medically, and financially since meeting some of those students in high school.

“I realized very quickly that my role as a temporary volunteer was miniscule, and that I had to think carefully about what kind of work I could do that would be most helpful to teachers with decades of experience,” she said. Shrivatsa observed the love with which the teachers approached their students’ difficulties. Her own days varied widely: playing football with students one day, talking K-dramas another day, introducing them to parliamentary debate yet another day, and all the while hearing out their backstories, hopes, and dreams.

For Shrivatsa, the practice experience and her classes have been a source not only of extensive knowledge, a realization of how much she doesn’t know, and how to be critical of “the systems and rhetoric surrounding issues of poverty and development,” but has given her the tools to “challenge these systems in my professional and personal life.” 

“Celebrating the importance of their work and passion” 

“I’ve landed in a front-row seat for US federal environmental governance, which is fascinating to watch, and extremely complex to be a part of,” said Elam of her EPA job. Some of the public’s preconceptions about the federal government, she found, aren’t far off, like dense bureaucracy and “high-level political indifference” slowing the pace of the government’s justice work. But that front-row seat also hit home that the EPA and its sibling agencies are made up of people at every level, who do good work and bad, “occupying different roles and having different impacts, and most importantly, responding to different pressures as ordained by their roles.”

In her second year, in an unrelated campus organization, she got to know a peer advisor, who became a mentor not only in GPP but for her whole Berkeley experience and work in social change. “I missed her when she graduated, and thought of her immediately when last spring I received an email from the GPP minor suggesting I apply to be a peer advisor,” she said. “Partly in her honor, and partly because I was flattered by the anonymous nomination, I did so and applied, and now I’m here!”

During advising sessions, Elam continues to draw inspiration from the peers with “their passion, drive, and ideas for their own GPP trajectories.”

“I believe in those students, and I want to celebrate the importance of their work and passion, and to set them up as well as I can  to have their desired impact on the world and their issue of choice,” she added. “I’ve found that I leave every advising appointment I have with a smile.”

DevEng Professors Publish “Introduction to Development Engineering,” the Field’s First Textbook

So in true development engineering fashion, Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon, part of the professional faculty at Haas School of Business, teamed up to publish Introduction to Development Engineering: A Frame with Applications from the Field — the discipline’s first textbook. It was published by Springer as an open access title on Sept. 9.

Cover by Springer

UC Berkeley helped pioneer the field of development engineering more than a decade ago. Yet for many years, the professors teaching Berkeley’s foundational class, DevEng C200 (“Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies”), didn’t have a textbook for their students. The discipline — which integrates engineering with economics, business, natural resource management, and the social sciences — focuses on technological interventions that can address the needs of low-income communities, at scale.

When the field of development engineering was first getting started, “we had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find case studies for the students to understand and debate,” explained Prof. Ashok Gadgil, Rudd Family Foundation Distinguished Chair of Safe Water & Sanitation and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

So in true development engineering fashion, Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon, part of the professional faculty at Haas School of Business, teamed up to publish Introduction to Development Engineering: A Framework with Applications from the Field — the discipline’s first textbook. It was published by Springer as an open access title on Sept. 9.

“We want to make this a topic of academic research because, whether it’s business or engineering or economics, everybody is too fractured intellectually and looks up their own stovepipe and doesn’t solve the problem,” Gadgil said. “They just go deeper and deeper and get narrower and narrower in viewpoint.” 

“The big picture question,” he continued, “is how are we going to meet the U.N. sustainable development goals and still not blow our planet’s carbon budget?”

Ashok Gadgil
Temina Madon

The textbook is available online at no cost and in its first few weeks was downloaded from publisher Springer’s website more than 30,000 times. The Development Impact Lab, a USAID-backed initiative co-led by the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) and the Blum Center for Developing Economies, supported the expenses of creating the book, which included honoraria for contributing authors and other costs associated with open-access publishing.

Introduction to Development Engineering isn’t Berkeley’s only effort to formalize the field of DevEng. Gadgil, Madon, and Paul Gertler, an economics professor at Haas and the School of Public Health, launched Development Engineering, an open access research journal, in 2015. 

“We are going to launch this journal and it’s going to be open access,” Gadgil recalled telling the chairman of Elsevier — the world’s largest, and one of the most expensive, research-journal publishers — at a reception for a prize Gadgil had won. “Because otherwise the journal isn’t going to be useful for people and for the institutions in the countries where poverty is widespread.” To Gadgil’s surprise, the company wanted to get into open access publishing and was willing to take a loss for the first five years of the journal to ensure that DevEng could establish itself as a discipline.

That open access belief carried over to the book. 

After Springer expressed interest, Gadgil and Madon talked to EECS Professor Emeritus Eric Brewer, Haas’ Prof. Catherine Wolfram, economics Prof. Edward Miguel, and CEGA, among others, and knuckled down on the book “well before COVID” — as early as the beginning of 2019, Gadgil reckons. Some three and a half years later, anyone can download a free copy or purchase a hard copy from Springer’s website.

Whether or not other colleges’ efforts in this area use the term “development engineering,” there is no longer a need to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” for teaching materials.

Clocking in at 650 pages, the textbook features 19 DevEng projects that graduate students can use as case studies, ranging from fintech for rural markets in Sub-Saharan Africa to stopping arsenic poisoning in India to protecting electoral integrity in emerging democracies. The DevEng practitioners who authored a set of invited chapters have included open-ended discussion questions for students to consider the pros and cons of a project and debate other decisions that could have been made. None of the questions have simple answers, Gadgil said: “It’s still an evolving field.”

Yet rather than just presenting “a bunch of projects put together and stapled into a book,” Gadgil, Madon, and co-editors led the development of four framework chapters at the beginning to provide the intellectual history, ethical challenges, and philosophical underpinnings of development engineering. This is important, Gadgil noted, given the history of white-collar and often-white researchers and engineers going into poorer areas without the context or cultural fluency to ask the right questions, include the right people, or solve the right problems. An instructor can start with those four framework chapters and then select any subsequent projects from which they would like to teach. 

“Top-tier universities across the U.S. and across the world have courses that recognize that engineering is not just about solving existing problems of big industry,” Gadgil said. “They recognize that it must also be about solving pressing problems of society.”

Diverse in Discipline and Distance, United in Ambition: Meet the New M.DevEng Cohort!

Integrating her background with her education, Andono aims to center the environment when creating architecture, from its design process, construction, and operation, to create lasting, sustainable change.

The students of the cohort come from various backgrounds and disciplines, yet find commonality in wanting to use their education to innovate and create change in low-resource areas across the world. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

By Alisha Dalvi

When the pandemic forced Kristi Andono to move back home to Jakarta from Los Angeles during her undergraduate education, she was able to turn adversity into opportunity and take on a brand new role — the head of the Corporate Social Responsibility team for the Indonesian Energy Corporation. As she balanced taking classes online to fulfill her real estate and architecture degree, she was simultaneously designing shelters for victims of gender-based violence in remote villages, renovations for disintegrating orphanages, and infrastructure for water accessibility. “Growing up in Indonesia has exposed me to degrading environmental conditions and its constant battle with economic growth, where one has to be sacrificed for the other,” Andono said. Integrating her background with her education, Andono aims to center the environment when creating architecture, from its design process, construction, and operation, to create lasting, sustainable change.

From left to right, Esther Mburu, Diane Kabanyana, Martin Ssemulugo, Anjali Ravunniarath, and Charity Fang stand together in an ice breaker activity during orientation where they learn the numerous countries their peers are from. (Photo by Chetan Chowdhry)

Looking to equip herself with new skills to become a holistic changemaker, Andono applied and was accepted to UC Berkeley’s Master of Developmental Engineering program, housed at the Blum Center. This three-semester professional degree is a new program that attracts students across various fields, from business to engineering to economics, to develop technological advancements that address the needs of low-resource communities across the world.

Andono and 32 other students in the new cohort — the program’s second ever — attended the masked-up M.DevEng orientation on August 23. Through an interactive presentation, students gained insight into UC Berkeley as well as the program specifically. Afterward, students had the chance to mingle and meet for the first time, get to know M.DevEng staff, and go on a tour of Blum Hall — their new home for the next 15 months. This cohort is only the second in history, making them pioneers in the discipline and a fundamental group to shape the future of the program and the field.

Blum Center Faculty Director Dan Fletcher welcomes the new cohort during orientation in a speech that highlights UC Berkeley as a place of initiative, support, and creativity. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

“The M.DevEng program is the shining star of educational activities at the Blum Center,” said Dan Fletcher, the center’s faculty director. “It is about finding creative people with initiative, who support each other, bringing them together, and tackling real problems.” Students of the new cohort will take three semesters of development engineering classes as well as elective classes focused on their concentration area, along with one summer internship in between. But the development engineering classes don’t follow one discipline; rather they center around “research and practice that combines the principle of engineering with economics, entrepreneurship, design, business, and policy,” said Yael Perez, the director of Development Engineering programs.

Director of DevEng programs Yael Perez shows the new cohort the new room dedicated to the M.DevEng program, located at the Blum Center. Students can look forward to a space to collaborate and use the new coffee machine! (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

That multidisciplinary element is essential to the program. During the orientation presentation, students were asked one word to describe developmental engineering. “Interdisciplinary” was the most common, appearing the largest on the computer-generated word cloud. The integrative approach of the program is especially important for Ash Seth, a product designer from Dubai who pursued a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree at Stanford University and who values the intersection of technology and social impact. As a designer herself, she has prototyped and tested affordable greenhouses for hundreds of smallholder farmers in India. But, as a strategist for an urban design nonprofit, Seth also understands the significance of dialogue across numerous disciplines, from scientists to policy specialists.

Diane Kabanyana, a business and economics major from Rwanda, is not only excited to learn from her peers through their previous academic endeavors, but from the various countries and backgrounds they come from as well. “I’ve only been here a week, but Berkeley is so diverse!” Kabanyana said. “I live at International House and it seems like every country is represented.”

The new M.DevEng cohort itself is composed of students from over 10 different countries. But being an international student is certainly not a prerequisite. Rachel Dersch is an energy engineer from Michigan. While Dersch has developed solar power projects in Peru and Tanzania, both still up and running today, she also found the need for energy consumption reduction in her own community. By spearheading pilot programs and technology demonstrations, Dersch has been able to work to reduce energy waste in Michigan. When looking to further her education in humanitarian engineering, Dersch found that development engineering is not just a new curriculum, but a new concept in colleges all together. The M.DevEng stuck out as one of the few existing programs that was truly targeted at creating impact in low-income communities. And it didn’t hurt that it’s offered at the top public university in the nation.

On a bright and pleasant day, the new cohort is taken on a tour of the Blum Center during orientation. The new Berkeley residents continuously mention the beautiful weather the Bay seems to have! (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

Yet for all the diversity in the cohort’s educational and cultural backgrounds, one statement seemed to unite them all: “The food in Berkeley is so good!”

With students already raving about Boichik Bagels, just a few blocks away from campus, and local coffee shops, the new cohort seems to know where to fuel up before tackling projects which will make a meaningful and measurable impact on low-resource communities across the world.

After Two Years Without In-Person Gatherings, the Global Poverty and Practice Class of 2022 Celebrates at an Iconic Graduation Ceremony

As the Campanile rang twice, indicating 2 p.m., students wearing blue and gold stoles over their formal attire found their seats below the iconic clock tower.

The GPP Class of 2022 poses in front of the iconic Campanile after an exciting graduation ceremony commemorating their accomplishments.
The GPP Class of 2022 poses in front of the iconic Campanile after an exciting graduation ceremony commemorating their accomplishments. (All photos courtesy of the Blum Center)

As the Campanile rang twice, indicating 2 p.m., students wearing blue and gold stoles over their formal attire found their seats below the iconic clock tower. It was a beautiful, warm day, with the sun shining down to highlight the sight of smiling faces and students mingling. After months of remote sessions, followed by masked-up classes, the 70 graduates of the Global Poverty and Practice minor finally got to experience a physical sense of community. Being the first in-person GPP graduation ceremony in three years, it was only appropriate to have it at the most quintessential UC Berkeley location. “After so much time having passed since we had a graduation, we returned to the heart of the campus,” recalls Chetan Chowdhry, director of student programs at the Blum Center for Developing Economies and GPP’s lead advisor.

Abigail Lomibao, a Cognitive Science major, delivers her spoken-word poem in front of her peers at the graduation ceremony.
Abigail Lomibao, a Cognitive Science major, delivers her spoken-word poem in front of her peers at the graduation ceremony.

The Global Poverty and Practice minor is an interdisciplinary program that provides students with theoretical frameworks, methods, and practical skills necessary to engage with global poverty and inequality in effective ways. This valuable program certainly deserved an exciting ceremony. Alice Agogino, education director of Blum Center, the home of GPP, welcomed attendees, followed by a speech by Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor and Vice Chancellor for Research, Kathy Yelick. A special part of this year’s ceremony, though, was honoring Richard Blum, founder of the Blum Center, who passed away earlier this year. Agogino, Yelick, and Annette Blum, daughter of Richard Blum, recognized Blum and his family for his contributions and dedication to the center. Following these emotional parting words were two student speeches, both impactful and touching — a clear sign that the community cultivated within the minor is unlike any other.

“One of the things I always loved about being in GPP — we could always count on each other to care,” said one of the speakers, Madison Luzar, a molecular environmental biology major. “We knew that, at the very least, we could rely on each other to work together to try to overcome these obstacles and not just give up on the world.” 

Abigail Lomibao, the other student speaker, delivered a spoken word speech, poetically recounting how GPP students and faculty shaped her experience at Cal. The ceremony, too, strengthened relationships built within the minor; as each student walked down the Campanile Esplanade to receive their certificate, they read a statement for the following student. Rounding off the ceremony was a keynote speech from 2011 alumna Natalyn Daniels reflecting on the minor as a formative experience that shaped her commitment to activism and advocacy. “This campus and the world are lucky to have felt your presence and impact!” Daniels told the graduating class.

Madison Luzar, a Molecular Environmental Biology major, waves to the audience after delivering a powerful and emotional speech.
Madison Luzar, a Molecular Environmental Biology major, waves to the audience after delivering a powerful and emotional speech.

Students from all backgrounds and fields participate in this program; this year’s graduating class spanned 30 majors, ranging from architecture to public health to environmental economics. While there are only a few required classes, the program revolves around a student-arranged practice experience, where students connect poverty theories learned in class to tangible experiences by working extensively with organizations addressing poverty. “The practice experience is what many students find significant to them,” Chowdhry says. “It’s why the program even has its own graduation.”

But prior to fulfilling one’s practice, students must take two mandatory classes: GPP 115 and then GPP 105. In the former, students examine and critique popular ideas of poverty alleviation in the 21st century. By understanding 20th century development, students grasp the institutional framework of poverty ideas and practices. GPP 105 specifically prepares students to undertake their practice experience by learning the ethics of global service as well as methodological frameworks to work with organizations.

Victoria Osanyinpeju, a Conservation and Resource major, stands with Education Director Alice Agogino (left), and Annette Blum, daughter of Richard Blum (right) after receiving her diploma.
Victoria Osanyinpeju, a Conservation and Resource Studies major, stands with Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino (left), and Annette Blum (right), daughter of Richard Blum after receiving her diploma.

To formulate a practice experience, or PE, students are guided by their own interest and curiosities to identify a facet of poverty alleviation — from healthcare accessibility to food security to economic justice — that they want to focus on. With the assistance of the Blum Center’s network of connections, they then locate an organization, such as an NGO, a government agency, or a social movement which can foster hands-on community work. PEs can be arranged domestically or internationally and must be done for at least 240 hours over six weeks, although most students engage in their PEs much longer than this minimum. Graduates in the class of 2022 completed their PEs across the world, focusing on a variety of disciplines. Rhea Manoharan, a data science major, completed her practice experience in Moorea, French Polynesia working as an invasive species and pesticide management researcher with the French Polynesian government. Using data science and field research, she advised on environmental policy to find the safest and most equitable pesticide practices. Eniola Owoyele, an integrative biology major, worked on a USAID-funded research project focused on postpartum hemorrhage management and respectful maternity care for the Fitovinany and Atsinanana regions of Madagascar.

Following their practice experience, students take a course in which they reflect on their PE and learn to utilize the knowledge beyond the confinements of the curriculum. Students identify lessons which can be applied to public discourse and civic engagement by exploring the tensions between power versus privilege, tourism versus travel, and community service versus engagement.

 Friends and colleagues, Careena El-Khatib (left) and Celine Wheritt (right), smile for a picture in their seats as they wait for the ceremony to begin.
Friends and colleagues, Careena El-Khatib (left) and Celine Wheritt (right), smile for a picture in their seats as they wait for the ceremony to begin.

Completing the practice experience did not come easy for the class of 2022, though. With many having practice experience opportunities lined up, only to be canceled due to the pandemic, they were forced to adapt to abnormal circumstances. While some were able to pivot and arrange for their PEs to be done remotely, others did not have that option. For example, while many students originally had work arranged within the healthcare sector, addressing COVID-19 dominated the interest of those organizations. These organizations could no longer manage hosting students, as their priorities completely shifted. The GPP program, too, worked to be as flexible as possible to ensure students were able to complete the minor. In the summer of 2020, students were able to do slightly fewer hours or work remotely if needed. For students who weren’t able to do the full amount of time, they were given the opportunity to do an optional summer study, which allowed them to address the problem they had originally wanted to study in their PE by conducting research around a question they came up with themself.

Chetan Chowdhry, the Director of Student Programs, congratulates students at the 2022 GPP graduation ceremony.
Chetan Chowdhry, the Director of Student Programs, congratulates students at the 2022 GPP graduation ceremony.

The class guided them through exercises and methods to help them explore an area of interest centered around group disparity. Questions ranged from, “How might we decolonize and increase Indigenous sovereignty in environmental science and environmentalism?” to pandemic-related questions such as “How might we harness the catalyzing power of COVID-19 to radically reconstruct our social welfare policies and programs?” Students used these questions as a jumping off point for their topic of study, then identified and interviewed community members to obtain various perspectives and complete their practice experience in this unique manner.

Despite adversity making completing the minor much more difficult, students remained dedicated to the cause.

“Students were willing to take this opportunity as a way to learn. That is one of the things I greatly appreciate about the minor — students are coming into this program seeking to learn,” says Chowdhry. “In the face of such challenges, everything falling apart, it could’ve been really easy for a student to no longer want to take on this minor. But these students did whatever it took to complete it.”

And this years’ Big Ideas Grand Prize Award Goes To…

In its annual Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration on May 4, judges of the UC-wide Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest awarded the 2022 Grand Prize to the “SMART Cookies” project from UC Irvine, a community-based solution to iron-deficiency anemia. The Grand Prize award winner takes home $10,000 on top of any earlier awards earned in the past year.

Fourth-year UC Irvine medical student Daniel Haik of SMART Cookies, the 2022 Big Ideas Grand Prize winner.

BERKELEY, May 6, 2022 – In its annual Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration on May 4, judges of the UC-wide Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest awarded the 2022 Grand Prize to the “SMART Cookies” project from UC Irvine, a community-based solution to iron-deficiency anemia. The Grand Prize award winner takes home $10,000 on top of any earlier awards earned in the past year.

SMART Cookies is the brainchild of UCI fourth-year medical student Daniel Haik and Ghanaian partners from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Dr. Marina Aferiba Tandoh and Abigail Owusuaa Appiah. Through this collaboration, their team has developed “a bioavailable, plant-based, iron-supplemented biscuit” made from turkey berries, a tropical fruit packed with iron, antioxidants, and vitamins A and C. In a randomized, controlled trial at a school in Ahafo, Ghana, the fortified biscuits were found to be far more effective than a UNICEF initiative similarly aimed at lessening iron-deficiency anemia in adolescent girls. 

“Working with Big Ideas introduced our team to a vast network of experts in international development economics and clinical trial design in the earlier stages of our growth,” said Haik. “Their support will enable our team to begin a nationwide distribution of SMART cookies, which is a dream come true.”

The Madojo team, (L-R) Daniel Huang, Victor Okoro and Joshua Iokua Albano, winners of the Binance-LIFT “Blockchain for Social Good” Grand Prize. (Credit: Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering)

The other big winner of the night was the Madojo team, inventors of a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers. They won the inaugural Binance CharityLIFT Initiative Award. Binance Charity and the Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT) have partnered with Big Ideas to nurture students and young social entrepreneurs working on Fintech and Blockchain solutions that promote legitimacy, humanitarian relief, financial health, gamification solutions, and workforce development, among many others. The Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT), established with generous support from Ripple Impact and Binance Charity, is a research partnership led by IBSI aiming at unlocking the potential of digital financial technologies to benefit underserved populations around the world. LIFT has three major thrusts: research, experiential learning, and community building. 

“This is only the beginning for Madojo,” said Victor Inya Okoro, a Master in Development Engineering student on the all-MDevEng Madojo team. “We plan to use the network we built during the program to continue to iterate on our idea, and the funding will help us get started in the right direction.”

Other Grand Prize finalist teams included UC San Diego’s Algeon Materials, creating biodegradable and sustainable bioplastics from kelp to replace traditional petroleum-based packaging; the Foot Powered Cooler from UC Davis, a low-cost, energy-efficient cooling system designed to reduce post-harvest food losses at marketplaces in Uganda; and Carbon Pricing DAOs from UC Berkeley, a decentralized autonomous organization tool that enables the most accurate and scientifically rigorous pricing of carbon.

Of nearly 200 Big Ideas applications received last fall — from 700 grad and undergrad students representing every University of California campus and more than 70 disciplines — 16 finalists were selected in February, across the Social Impact Tracks of Global Health, Food and Agriculture, Financial Inclusion, Energy and Resources, Education and Literacy, Cities and Communities, Data and AI, and Art and Social Change.

Pitch Day judges, Rhonda Schrader (center), Francis Gonzales (left), and Rick Rasmussen (right).

“The multidisciplinary focus was incredible — all of the finalists harnessed the power of their teammates to provide powerful solutions,” said Rhonda Shrader, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship and NSF I-Corp program at Berkeley Haas School of Business and one of three Grand Prize judges. “So inspiring to see the energy, imagination and connectivity across all of the UCs — we’re stronger together.”

Founded in 2006 at UC Berkeley, and managed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies,  Big Ideas has grown from an annual contest at Berkeley to an innovation ecosystem that serves students at all 10 campuses across the University of California, with year-round programming including industry and alumni speakers and mentors, toolkits, and courses and workshops on innovation and social entrepreneurship. Over its history, Big Ideas has supported over 3,000 innovations, involving more than 9,000 students, and awarded $3M in funding to 500 winning projects that have gone on to secure approximately $1B in additional funding. 

Dan Fletcher named Blum Center Faculty Director

Daniel Fletcher, Blum Center Associate Director of Research, CellScope inventor, and Berkeley bioengineering faculty since 2002, has been named the new Faculty Director for the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. The position will start on July 1.

Daniel Fletcher, Blum Center Associate Director of Research, CellScope inventor, and Berkeley bioengineering faculty since 2002, has been named the new Faculty Director for the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. The position will start on July 1.

Since 2018, Dan has served as Associate Director of the Blum Center, leading an expansive research portfolio and supporting the Big Ideas program, the premier social impact ecosystem for students at UC Berkeley. Dan is also the Founder and Director of the Health Tech CoLab, a new multidisciplinary collaboration space in Blum Hall working to increase access to healthcare by accelerating the development of health technologies. The CoLab is the “first pillar” of the College of Engineering’s “Engineering Better Health” Initiative, for which he serves as special advisor to the college.

Dan is the Chatterjee Professor of Bioengineering and Biophysics and a faculty member of the Bioengineering Department, an affiliated faculty of the Molecular and Cell Biology Department, and a Visiting Investigator of the Gladstone Institutes at UCSF. He is also a Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator, Faculty Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, member of QB3 Berkeley, and Co-director of the Physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory. 

He and his research laboratory develop new technologies to study the role of mechanics in biology and detect diseases in low-resource settings. Their cell biological work is identifying how molecular-scale forces drive spatial organization and movement of immune cells and pathogens, and their diagnostic work is introducing new mobile tools to fight infectious diseases with collaborators around the world. 

He received a DPhil from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, a PhD from Stanford University, where he was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and a BS from Princeton University. His research has received an NSF CAREER Award, a National Inventors Hall of Fame Collegiate Award, and was designated “Best of What’s New” by Popular Science magazine, among other awards. He has been a Miller Professor, a Bakar Fellow, a Hellman Fellow, and served as a White House Fellow during the Obama administration.

“My work at the Blum Center is inspired by the Center’s mission to spur innovation, scholarship, and entrepreneurship to improve lives,” said Fletcher, “I am honored and eager to take on the challenges of directing the Center’s efforts to further expand our impact.”

Pickering Lab to Increase Clean Water Access with $1.9M Award

Development Engineering Prof. Amy Pickering, Blum Center Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice at UC Berkeley, and Dr. Katya Cherukumilli, a postdoctoral scholar in Pickering’s lab, have won a $1.9 million award to increase access to clean and safe water in low-income urban communities around the world. The Open Philanthropy grant will go toward scaling up and deploying the Venturi, the in-line (passive) chlorinator device that was originally designed by local engineers in Bangladesh, Kenya, and the U.S.

Amy talks with an entrepreneur in Kenya selling water disinfected by the chlorine doser she developed in collaboration with an international team of engineering students

Development Engineering Prof. Amy Pickering, Blum Center Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice at UC Berkeley, and Dr. Katya Cherukumilli, a postdoctoral scholar in Pickering’s lab, have won a $1.9 million award to increase access to clean and safe water in low-income urban communities around the world. The Open Philanthropy grant will go toward scaling up and deploying the Venturi, the in-line (passive) chlorinator device that was originally designed by local engineers in Bangladesh, Kenya, and the U.S.

Pickering, Cherukumilli, and their team will collaborate with field-implementation partners CARE and Davis and Shirtliff in Kenya, as well as Prof. Jenna Davis at Stanford University, to test the device in new settings including healthcare facilities and schools. The team has also been working with product design and engineering graduate students on campus to “assess the performance of the Venturi using liquid chlorine produced via electrochlorination and to lay the groundwork for using passive chlorinators at handpumps in the future,” says Cherukumilli.

The chlorine doser installed at a water kiosk in peri-urban Kenya

Water can get contaminated on its way through inadequate piping, sewage, and drainage systems — an issue exacerbated by growing populations and increased reliance on intermittent water supplies. The Venturi works at the spot where people collect water, such as taps, and automatically adds a precise dose of liquid chlorine to the water that disinfects it while remaining undetectable to users — all without requiring electricity, moving parts, or frequent input on the part of users. 

The possibilities are huge. The Joint Monitoring Program has estimated that over 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water, including a quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities. The consequences can be staggering, including 300,000 or so children who die before the age of five each year due to diarrheal disease. Not only is the Venturi easy to operate and maintain, but diluted bleach needed to make the liquid chlorine is easily found in low-resource settings, and each unit of the device is expected to cost only $35 at scale. The team’s field testing has already shown that this approach to water purification could reduce child diarrhea cases by about 23 percent.

“We are excited about setting up manufacturing of the Venturi in Kenya and working with our partners on viable implementation models for increasing access to safe water in schools and health care facilities,” says Pickering.

Join Health Tech CoLab at Speaker Series

Makesh Ramalingam of HCL Technologies explains the process of bringing devices to market and the unique challenges posed by individual countries’ regulatory standards at the latest talk in the Health Tech CoLab spring speaker series. The event will be held in person in Blum Hall 120 and streamed live online. Click for more details.

Makesh Ramalingam of HCL Technologies explains the process of bringing devices to market and the unique challenges posed by individual countries’ regulatory standards at the latest talk in the Health Tech CoLab spring speaker series. The event will be held in person in Blum Hall 120 and streamed live online. RSVP here for agenda and Zoom details.

63rd Readiness Division hosts first NSIN Bootcamp

The 63rd Readiness Division kicked off the unit’s first National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) Bootcamp, hosted virtually in February 2022, to discuss improving services pertaining to Personnel, Readiness, Sustainment and Training. The workshop was led by two instructors from UC Berkeley in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit.

U.S. Army: The 63rd Readiness Division kicked off the unit’s first National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) Bootcamp, hosted virtually in February 2022, to discuss improving services pertaining to Personnel, Readiness, Sustainment and Training. The workshop was led by two instructors from UC Berkeley in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit.

“NSIN Bootcamp is practice-first, and our experience with applying the methodology to diverse problems as facilitators is the key driver of our relationship to our Bootcamp partners,” said Vivek Rao, one of the two NSIN Bootcamp instructors and a lecturer and researcher at the Haas School of Business and the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley. “To this point we have run Bootcamps with 27 organizations across the DoD, so we have a lot of experience working with diverse challenges and diverse mission partners.”

Read more:
https://www.army.mil/article/255133/63rd_readiness_division_hosts_first_nsin_bootcamp

How Indigenous burning shaped the Klamath’s forests for a millennia

Combining scientific data with Indigenous oral histories and ecological knowledge, research by Blum Center Associate Director for Sustainable Development Matthew Potts shows how cultural burning practices of Native people of the Klamath Mountains helped shape the region’s forests for at least a millennia prior to European colonization.

Dense stands of Douglas fir trees surround South Twin Lake in California. (Photo by Clarke Knight, summer 2018)

Combining scientific data with Indigenous oral histories and ecological knowledge, research by Blum Center Associate Director for Sustainable Development Matthew Potts shows how cultural burning practices of Native people of the Klamath Mountains helped shape the region’s forests for at least a millennia prior to European colonization.

Berkeley Alumnae Tackle Language Gaps in Wildfire Emergency Communication

In the Fall of 2019, Abby Yue Gao’s first semester in UC Berkeley’s Master of Architecture program, her classes had to repeatedly pause due to another severe California wildfire season. Berkeley was spared the flames, but still suffered power shut offs and dreadful air quality thanks to that year’s worst blaze, Sonoma County’s Kincade Fire. Tens of thousands had to flee their homes; hundreds of thousands faced blackouts. A quarter of the county’s population speaks a language other than English at home — a major hurdle during disasters, when critical information from first responders goes out primarily in English.

The WEmap team — Abby Yue Gao, Virginia Wong, and Yuquan Zhou — meet with Berkeley advisors Vivek Rao, Sukh Singh, and Thomas Azwell. (Abby Yue Gao image)

In the Fall of 2019, Abby Yue Gao’s first semester in UC Berkeley’s Master of Architecture program, her classes had to repeatedly pause due to another severe California wildfire season. Berkeley was spared the flames, but still suffered power shut offs and dreadful air quality thanks to that year’s worst blaze, Sonoma County’s Kincade Fire. Tens of thousands had to flee their homes; hundreds of thousands faced blackouts. A quarter of the county’s population speaks a language other than English at home — a major hurdle during disasters, when critical information from first responders goes out primarily in English.

The following spring, Gao enrolled in a Development Engineering course, “Innovation in Disaster Response,” taught by Vivek Rao, a lecturer at Haas School of Business and a researcher in mechanical engineering, and Rachel Dzombak, a former lecturer and researcher at Berkeley and now a full-time researcher and adjunct faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. Gao was interested in designing a digital product to solve a real-world problem, and the class pushed students to think about the best way to use technology in a disaster situation. 

After research, stakeholder interviews, prototyping, and more, Gao and her teammates, including then–Master of Landscape Architecture student Virginia Wong, created EvacMap, a prototype app for getting out up-to-date evacuation information during wildfires. A little over a year later, EvacMap became WEmap, a research project examining language-based needs in the dissemination of wildfire emergency information. It’s informing the way some of Marin County’s residents with limited English proficiency receive emergency information and resources.

“Sometimes when they receive the alerts or search for information about an emergency,” Gao said, “they might face different problems than native-English speakers.”

“They had very strong user insights,” said Urvashi Agrawal, head of experience for Genasys, the parent company of Zonehaven, a platform that facilitates communication between first responders and communities during emergencies. It’s also the platform on which WEmap prototyped its ideas. Agrawal said Zonehaven is now looking at how the WEmap team’s recommendations and other ideas spawned by them can be incorporated into the platform.

Developing ‘social–technical fluency’

“Innovation in Disaster Response” grew out of Dzombak and Rao’s interest in the skill sets needed to solve messy complex problems, including in humanitarian assistance and disaster response: framing and solving those complex problems, experimenting with emerging technology, taking a systems mindset and approach to solving problems, and working in interdisciplinary teams. It was a Development Engineering class, and only half the students came from engineering and computer science. The class was gender-balanced and welcomed undergrads.

A key aspect of the class — and of all DevEng curriculum, said Dzombak —  is “giving students agency so they feel like they can step into these hard problem spaces and make a difference.” That means taking a community-centered approach and understanding who’s already living and working in a community or problem space. 

“How do I find leverage points?” asked Dzombak. “How do I start to drive change at those leverage points in a way that is culturally appropriate, that aligns with the humans who are embedded in the system, that acknowledges the power dynamics of the system? And also, what role can technology play to change circumstances?” 

One can’t just be a hard-core technologist, but have what she and Rao call social–technical fluency. Students went deep in unpacking disaster-related problems in order to build the right solution — not build a solution in hopes of finding the right problem.

“Innovation in Disaster Response” has since grown into “Innovation in Disaster Response, Recovery and Resilience” (IDR3), thanks to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), a program office under the U.S. undersecretary of defense for research and engineering that connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems. Now, student groups team up with Department of Defense partners involved in, well, DR3. 

“Not only are you giving students a real-world problem for which they can make a tangible difference, but you’re also showing real-world entities and government entities that they can come to an academic institution like Berkeley and find plausible solutions to issues they’re facing,” said Kaitie Penry, NSIN’s program director at Berkeley, which is housed at the Blum Center. 

Gao and Wong “were really passionate but not sure of their place in an engineering class,” recalled Dzombak, who was a key developer of UC Berkeley’s Development Engineering curriculum and who still teaches virtually at Haas’ Executive MBA program. “But they quickly realized that their willingness to engage was way more important than whatever background they had.” 

The class had hardly ended and they were already looking for how to take their project forward, Dzombak said. “They cared so much about the outcomes. They cared so much about the work they had put into it.” 

Going to the next level

Last year, Gao and Wong brought in another 2021 Cal graduate, Yuquan Zhou, who did her master’s in city planning and whose concentration in environmental planning and healthy cities made her a perfect fit. They were also introduced to Sukh Singh, a researcher at Berkeley’s SCET and co-founder of Fire Foundry, and Thomas Azwell, a Berkeley environmental scientist who runs the Disaster Lab, which is currently focused on wildfire technology. Singh and Azwell had roots in the Marin fire scene and put the trio in touch with fire personnel and Marin County officials. 

Wong, meanwhile, discovered a design challenge put out by San Jose social enterprise Wonder Labs: “Reimagining 2025: Living with Fire,” which sought to “enable student-led teams to closely engage with communities in processes of reimagining inclusive, just, and sustainable pathways to living with fire.” Azwell and Singh assisted in their entry proposal, and Rao served as faculty advisor. “One of the reasons I believe in project-based learning is the potential for real-world impact,” Rao said. “I was thrilled that Abby and the team sought out the Wonder Labs competition, and we were excited to leverage the Blum Center’s innovation ecosystem to support them.” 

WEmap didn’t win, “but we really appreciated their idea, in particular their community-partnership approach with the Fire Safe program in Marin County,” said Wonder Labs co-founder Shefali Juneja Lakhina. Wonder Labs wanted to see WEmap come to life and find immediate traction in industry. As advisor to Zonehaven, Lakhina knew the company was expanding into Marin County, so she worked with Zonehaven to create a summer project for Gao, Wong, and Zhou. Wonder Labs eventually expanded its 2021 Design Challenge cohort to provide funding support and mentorship to the WEmap project team. 

“The project just made so much sense to bring Zonehaven in and not create yet another application. It was a very natural fit,” said CEO Charlie Crocker. “We’re always looking for how to innovate in this space and we found that with this project.”

Bridging the language gap

Using census and Wildland Urban Interface data, Gao, Wong, and Zhou found that households with limited English were more concentrated in Marin County’s more fire-prone areas. To hear directly from some of these residents, they homed in on Spanish-speaking San Rafael residents with limited English proficiency and — with the help of Marimar Ochoa, Marin County’s public information specialist, and Sofia Martinez, the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion analyst — they talked to folks at a Spanish-speaking community center, handed out surveys in Spanish, and sent out surveys on Reddit and Facebook groups. The team wanted to understand how these residents received emergency information, obstacles to receiving it, and how they feel and what they do once they have it. 

One of WEmap’s community partners, Marin County public information specialist Marimar Ochoa, helped with outreach to Spanish-speaking residents of San Rafael. (Abby Yue Gao photo)

“The biggest takeaway is that English proficiency is highly correlated with how people react and respond to emergency alerts,” they wrote. Simply translating an alert into another language isn’t always enough to deliver the vital information or prompt the desired action. 

Out of these realizations came recommendations for Zonehaven to incorporate into their platform: understanding residents’ language preferences within the evacuation zones that Zonehaven divides communities into, and making emergency information available in those zones’ preferred languages. They also recommended including actionable resources in emergency alerts, providing a form for residents to sign up for non-emergency assistance in their preferred language, and providing opportunities for community volunteers to translate pressing information and become key nodes between emergency personnel and residents who are on the information-pipeline fringes. 

One of the most interesting findings of the WEmap survey, Azwell said, was “most people rely on a friend or family member for critical information — who probably relies on another friend or family member, who relies on another one.” Working with the most connected individuals in communities, Singh pointed out, is why Marin County’s eligible Latinx residents are closing in on a 100-percent vaccination rate. Putting translation into community members’ hands adds nuance and cultural fluency that might be lost in a Google Translate version. 

Abby Yue Gao presented WEmap’s findings and recommendations last August to Zonehaven, a platform that facilitates communication between first responders and communities during emergencies. Gao and her partners collaborated with the company on their project. (Abby Yue Gao image)

“I think the project has been a good example of true convergence research that applied disciplinary expertise to real-world problems by enabling an industry partner, Zonehaven, to improve their offerings and bringing in community experiences, perspectives, and insights,” Lakhina said. “And I think the timing of the project and the partnerships that it’s built on are truly a lasting contribution, both in terms of developing industry best practices as well as developing community capacities to respond to more just and inclusive evacuation planning.”

Rao celebrated the team’s journey, moving from the class in Spring 2020 to presenting their final work in front of Marin County civic leaders in August 2021. “Here is a team that took a very early stage concept from our course, used research data they collected to reframe the opportunity multiple times, and partnered with a dynamic startup to take their project to the next level and address an overlooked community need. They used the tools of design to execute at a high level and bring in key government stakeholders. This is the work we love to do at the Blum Center, and I’m so thrilled for what the team has accomplished.”

‘Creating a conversation’ 

WEmap and its partnerships and collaborations, Lakhina added, have established a robust methodology and foundation for developing these kinds of insights, which can be used to tackle other gaps in community-driven and inclusive disaster response, such as for those with disabilities and in places with poor internet.

“This is not something that we want to encourage students or research teams to sit in their labs and develop, but to get out there, work with industry partners, and co-develop with communities,” Lakhina said. “I think that is the single largest learning from this project.”

“This project really helps create a conversation within the disaster-response area that equity and cultural consideration are also worth focusing on, rather than just understanding the severity of fire and where the fire personnel are,” said Wong. “For us, it’s a new way of thinking about a problem, and I think we achieve it: trying to create a conversation in this industry.”

Richard Blum, Blum Center founder, benefactor, and friend of the university, passes away

The University of California, Berkeley, mourns the loss of Richard C. Blum, alumnus, business leader, philanthropist, UC Board of Regents President Emeritus, Berkeley Medal recipient, and founder of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. As a UC Berkeley alum, Richard Blum combined a fierce love for his alma mater with an equally fierce passion for addressing global poverty with the establishment of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, a multidisciplinary research center addressing urgent global challenges of poverty and inequity through education and technology. The Center was built on and continues to live out this vision and dedication.

Laura Tyson, Chair of the Blum Center Board of Trustees and S. Shankar Sastry, Blum Center Director, issued this statement on the passing of our beloved Richard Blum:

The University of California, Berkeley, mourns the loss of Richard C. Blum, alumnus, business leader, philanthropist, UC Board of Regents President Emeritus, Berkeley Medal recipient, and founder of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. Richard died on February 27 at his home in San Francisco.

As a UC Berkeley alum, Richard Blum combined a fierce love for his alma mater with an equally fierce passion for addressing global poverty with the establishment of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, a multidisciplinary research center addressing urgent global challenges of poverty and inequity through education and technology. The Center was built on and continues to live out this vision and dedication. He will be missed tremendously, and all of us offer our sincere condolences to his family – particularly to his wife Dianne and daughters Annette, Heidi, and Eileen, who together with Richard have been great champions of the University and the Center. 

Richard Blum graduated from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business (BS ’58, MBA ’59), becoming a successful investment banker and founder and chairman of the private equity firm Blum Capital Partners. As a financier and philanthropist, he served on the boards of many companies and organizations, sharing his business acumen and his generosity.

Left to right, Shankar Sastry, Richard Blum, George Shultz at the 2010 Grand Opening of Blum Hall.

His life was transformed by extensive travels and mountaineering in the Himalayas starting in the 1960s, which inspired his commitment to improve lives in the impoverished region. He established the American Himalayan Foundation in 1980 to build hospitals and schools, to combat the trafficking of girls, to combat poverty and to support culture, art and the environment in Tibet and Nepal. In this work, he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the two became lifelong friends. 

In 2006, a gift from Blum launched the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Describing his vision, Blum said in an interview at the time, “A lot of people don’t help with poverty around the world because they don’t know about it, they don’t feel it in their bones. With the center, we’re going to… inspire students here on campus to learn about the developing world, take courses, have an interest in the field – and hopefully, it will bring about an awareness that may lead them to develop careers working to make life better in different countries.”

The Center’s Global Poverty and Practice program, which has graduated almost 1,000 students, with practicums in more than 70 countries, is now one of the most popular minors on the Berkeley campus. From this beginning, the Blum Center has launched the new field of Development Engineering, expanding academic offerings to a Masters program and a Designated Emphasis for the Ph.D. program in Development Engineering. Also under Blum’s wing is the UC-wide Big Ideas Contest.

Research programs at the Center range from designing the Berkeley-Darfur Stove to reduce risks for women gathering firewood, to testing remote wireless technology in a village in New Guinea, to diagnosing tropical diseases – and other maladies common in low-resource settings – with accessible mobile phone technology.

The Center has since expanded to all the campuses of the University of California and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with each campus having its own special focus. Our federation of Blum Centers has a shared commitment to bringing development and prosperity across the globe.

In 2007, groundbreaking began for Blum Hall, a bold new reconstruction of the Naval Architecture Building and construction of a dazzling new adjacent building to house the Center, tying all together in a new front door for the campus. Nobel Prize winner and Former Vice President Al Gore addressed the crowd, saying, The faculty and students at the Blum Center can change the world – their efforts can have a truly significant impact on global poverty for years to come.” 

With construction completed in 2010, Former Secretary of State George Schultz and member of the Blum Center’s Board of Trustees gave the inaugural address, giving tribute to a center combining a spirit of can-do technology innovation with an understanding of America’s place in the world. Also in 2009, Richard Blum was awarded the Berkeley Medal, the university’s highest honor, with the 14th Dalai Lama in attendance.

Blum served on the boards of many distinguished organizations including the Wilderness Society, the Brookings Institution, the National Democratic Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the National Geographic Society. He was a trustee of the Carter Center in Atlanta. Both Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama are honorary members of the Blum Center Board of Trustees.

Fellow Blum Trustee Arun Sarin, former CEO of Vodafone Group, says Richard Blum was “a big man in every sense of the word, and he will be missed in a big way. He was a successful businessman, generous philanthropist, and a global diplomat at his core. His ability to attract people of differing views to serve a common cause was extraordinary – the sign of a great leader.” 

Richard dedicated his life to programs to combat poverty through compassion, innovation, research and education. We, along with the outstanding professional staff at the Blum Center, are honored to continue his mission and to honor his legacy. 

2022 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists Announced!

Of the nearly 200 pre-proposal applications that were received in November from students across every campus of the UC system, sixteen projects were selected from a diverse portfolio of innovations spanning a variety of social impact tracks, including global health, food and agriculture, financial inclusion, energy and resources, education and literacy, cities and communities, data and AI, and art and social change. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC San Diego, and UC San Francisco all have projects in the finals. Half of the team leads for the finalist projects identify as female. A quarter of the projects are led by undergrads.

Biscuits fortified by turkey berries were distributed to students at a school in Ahafo, Ghana. In a randomized, controlled trial, they were found to be much more effective than a UNICEF initiative at addressing iron-deficiency anemia in adolescent girls. (Daniel Haik)

Abigail Woolf was reading a research paper in her AI for Healthcare class about the success of a convolutional neural network — artificial neurons used to analyze visual imagery — that could detect referable diabetic retinopathy, a preventable but major cause of blindness around the world. The paper impressed her, but it was mum on actually utilizing an algorithm with so much potential in clinical settings. “I asked in class why the technology hadn’t been deployed,” said the UC Berkeley Master of Development Engineering student, “and the professor said that it was complicated to standardize the data and processes behind everything.”

Her aunt, who has diabetes, has to make frequent treks to the doctor’s office to get her eyes checked. Woolf also knew there were cheap lenses that could be attached to iPhones for use in clinical settings. What if she could combine these powerful algorithms for detecting diabetic retinopathy — which can be more accurate than doctors — with these lenses that diabetics could use at home? It would save folks like her aunt time and money, while allowing ophthalmologists to spend more time on treating cases and less on diagnostics. Woolf, a member of Berkeley’s Health Tech CoLab, envisions “a data/camera package that can be sold or donated as a single unit to clinics for automated DR diagnostics.”

 

Divya Menon, UCLA MBA candidate and founder of Maiden, a trading application for single-family home equity. (Chithra Nair)

The idea earned a final-round spot in the 2022 Big Ideas competition. Of the nearly 200 pre-proposal applications that were received in November from students across every campus of the UC system, sixteen projects were selected from a diverse portfolio of innovations spanning a variety of social impact tracks, including global health, food and agriculture, financial inclusion, energy and resources, education and literacy, cities and communities, data and AI, and art and social change. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC San Diego, and UC San Francisco all have projects in the finals. Half of the team leads for the finalist projects identify as female. A quarter of the projects are led by undergrads.

Read more about the finalists and their innovations here.

Message to Friends of the Blum Center

S. Shankar Sastry has announced that he will step down as faculty director of the Blum Center at the end of the academic year. In his message, he expresses his thanks and reflects on the many successes of his tenure as director from 2007 to the current academic year.

Shankar Sastry, Blum Center Director. Photo Copyright Noah Berger / 2017

         S. Shankar Sastry has announced that he will step down as faculty director of the Blum Center at the end of the academic year. In his message, he expresses his thanks and reflects on the many successes of his tenure as director from 2007 to the current academic year. The UC Berkeley campus has a search underway for his successor, who will start on July 1, 2022.
       “Richard [Blum] told me early on that he wanted the Center to be a “do tank” rather than a “think tank.” I believe we have done just that. It has been a privilege to serve as the Director of the Center – the experience of a lifetime for me.” — S. Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director, Blum Center for Developing Economies, UC Berkeley

Read the announcement from Blum Center Faculty Director Shankar Sastry

New Cal Students Tackle Social Entrepreneurship in Berkeley Changemaker Big Ideas Class

UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a key campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen.

A group of students pitches their social venture on the final day of the Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas class. (Jorge Calderon photo)

Anvitha Tummala sees many unhoused people on her walks to class, and it raises an uncomfortable thought for her: She and her peers are earning a world-class education at UC Berkeley with access to all sorts of amenities, while those living on the streets in her neighborhood constantly live without stable sources of food or shelter.

“Seeing that every day opened my eyes, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.

Tummala found an outlet in UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas. The class, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a key campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen.

In the Big Ideas course, teams of students identify a social or environmental problem, develop an impactful solution that can be implemented through a business model, and ultimately pitch their startup concept to a panel of expert judges. Teams also draft applications to the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems. The course ran the first eight weeks of the fall semester.

Read more about Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas here.

Professor Dan Kammen to Serve in Biden Administration

Blum affiliated faculty member Dan Kammen has been selected to serve as senior adviser for energy, climate, and innovation for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Kammen, a leading expert in renewable energy science, technology, and policy, will primarily work with the agency’s PowerAfrica team to develop partnerships with African nations, with the goal of expanding access to sustainable power.

Photo credit: Elena Zhukova

Blum affiliated faculty member Dan Kammen has been selected to serve as senior adviser for energy, climate, and innovation for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Kammen, a leading expert in renewable energy science, technology, and policy, will primarily work with the agency’s PowerAfrica team to develop partnerships with African nations, with the goal of expanding access to sustainable power. 

Read more here.

Blackbook U wins Big Ideas Grand Prize

The UC-wide Big Ideas Contest, based at the Blum Center, awarded the 2021 Grand Prize to Blackbook University, a team of Berkeley undergraduate students led by Ibrahim Balde that designed a platform to equip Black students with communities, resources, and opportunities to help overcome institutional inequities in higher education and employment.

The UC-wide Big Ideas Contest, based at the Blum Center, awarded the 2021 Grand Prize to Blackbook University, a team of Berkeley undergraduate students led by Ibrahim Balde that designed a platform to equip Black students with communities, resources, and opportunities to help overcome institutional inequities in higher education and employment.

Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny made the announcement at the September 23 Grand Prize Pitch Session, featuring all six Grand Prize finalists, along with People’s Choice winners. Learn more about all of the 2020-2021 award-winning Big Ideas here. Watch the September 23 Grand Prize Pitch Session and Awards event recording here.

The Big Ideas Contest is an annual UC-wide innovation competition that provides funding, structure, and mentorship to interdisciplinary teams of students who have creative solutions to pressing social challenges.

Big Ideas is now accepting pre-proposal applications for the 2022 round. See the BigIdeasContest.org website for more information, or attend upcoming information sessions.

The Big Ideas Information Session on Tuesday, November 2, at 6-7 pm will feature the 2021 Grand Prize winning team, Blackbook University. The Blackbook team will discuss their winning strategies and entrepreneurial journey. Register at https://bigideascontest.org/apply to attend the hybrid event, which will be held online and in-person at Blum Hall.

Blackbook Info Session Flyer 

Berkeley X-Force Fellows Team Up with Military Sponsors to Solve Real-World Problems

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

The X-Force Fellowship gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to tackle real-world national security issues in DoD agencies. (Photo courtesy of NSIN)

By Sam Goldman

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

“This is among hundreds of other tasks and things we have to do to get everything ready,” said TSgt. Darin Pugh, Ellsworth’s maintenance training section superintendent, who oversees the process with MSgt. Samantha Rohrenbach, the base’s education and training manager.

The hefty time commitment “prevented us from being able to extrapolate useful things out of the data and come up with solutions because we were so focused on just getting the data into something that was presentable,” said Rohrenbach.

To solve their problem, Pugh and Rohrenbach applied to participate in the X-Force Fellowship program, which pairs the technical and entrepreneurial skills of students with Department of Defense (DoD) organizations, to address real-world military problems. For example, rather than ask a group of college kids for a shiny, all-or-nothing “Corvette-of-a-solution,” thought Pugh, “let’s have them build us a skateboard.” Because of his experiences with these types of arrangements in the past, he had seen contractor solutions sometimes fizzle out when the teams adopting the solutions couldn’t figure out how to use them.

In June, Rohrenbach and Pugh laid out their operational problem to three X-Force Fellows, including Lisa Huang, who had just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in cognitive science and a minor in data science.

Using only basic Microsoft Excel functions, the students automated the base’s laborious process, which saved the airmen significant time. The Ellsworth training team has implemented their solution into its routine, and other Air Force bases have expressed interest in implementing the solution as well.

“We asked for a skateboard and they gave us a really awesome, deluxe scooter,” expressed Pugh.

“It’s [the fellowship] really cool and rewarding,” said Huang, “because they [the airmen] can’t stop saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve saved us so much time. We’re already done. You’ve cut us back, like, a week.’”

Sharing UC Berkeley insights and innovation with the military

The X-Force Fellowship is an initiative of the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), which is a program office under the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. NSIN connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems. This summer’s 11-week, virtual program comprised 277 fellows from 36 universities across the U.S.

At 16 fellows, UC Berkeley had one of the largest cohorts from any individual school this year. Some of their projects included building out data-literacy products with the Naval Air Force, creating an algorithm that categorizes and tracks physical changes at commercial seaports with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and helping the Army Research Laboratory-West modernize tech and bring it to the market. “By the end [of the fellowship], some project sponsors would have hired their fellows on the spot if they could,” said Pamela Sharma, NSIN X-Force program manager.

“They didn’t just meet expectations, they blew past them,” explained Sharma. “What’s always really exciting to hear and really exciting to see is that people are coming in and coming up with solutions that are more innovative or more complex than people thought possible, and in such a short period of time.”

‘It could impact the entire Department of the Air Force’

Huang admitted to feeling a little intimidated and overwhelmed when the program let her know she had been accepted and that her project would involve data analysis and data visualization. She wondered if her limited experience from her data-science classes would be enough. Moreover, she was busy teaching at Girls Who Code.

After hearing about other, buzzier projects, Huang and her two teammates — from the University of Texas, San Antonio and George Mason University — weren’t exactly thrilled. “We were like, ‘Oh. Excel program,’” Huang said. “But we didn’t expect the results to have such a drastic effect on the Air Force.”

Huang spent the beginning of summer mastering the ins and outs of Excel, including power query and pivot tables, and her team exemplified true service and went to work on a solution. None had much experience with Excel — “which was amazing,” Pugh noted in hindsight. Huang and her team met virtually with Pugh and Rohrenbach twice a week, usually for an hour, corresponded over email, and sometimes met one-on-one. During their time together, they’d revise models of the solution, test data, and even found ways to expand the scope of the project.

Huang and her team called their solution “Tool Assisted Analytics Process,” and it automated Ellsworth’s training-data analysis by using only Excel’s pivot tables and power queries. Not only did they hand off to their project sponsors the slicers and graphs, but also a user manual and documentation that covered how they developed the process. “It’s not what we thought we wanted before the project,” said Rohrenbach, but in the end, it was “exactly what we needed it to be.”

When it came time for Huang and her team to demo their project to other X-Force teams and DoD agencies, Tool Assisted Analytics Process was 100 percent successful. “The ownership they had toward the end, it was kind of awe-inspiring to me,” said Pugh. In addition, their solution caught the eye of other DoD organizations. The team’s solution has been shared with Air Force Global Strike Command and all the Maintenance Groups in the Command, which account for all bomber and missile bases in the U.S.

Their solution wasn’t the flashy, complicated solution Pugh had seen flop before. “They kept it simple,” he said. “Any DoD computer has Excel on it.” Aside from paying their fellows, the Tool Assisted Analytics Process costs “zero money to implement, maintain, or upgrade.”

“After only working on something for 11 weeks, that it could impact the entire Department of the Air Force — that’s incredible,” Sharma said. “That’s phenomenal — something to be really proud of.”

‘Something no one has ever done before’

Huang wasn’t the only UC Berkeley student to change the way the DoD solves problems this summer. Edison Guanuna is an electrical engineering and computer science major who saw the X-Force Fellowship program in one of Berkeley Engineering’s newsletters. “I thought, ‘That’s a super-cool name, so I’ll check it out.’” He took 30 minutes to apply, not expecting to get in.

He was accepted and teamed with Jaylan Pierce from San Diego State University. They were paired with a couple of innovative professors including Rob Semmens, a systems engineering researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and Michael “Misha” Novitzky, a robotics researcher at West Point.

Together, they spent the summer exploring robot behavior, which comes in two forms: hard-coded behavior, where the robot’s actions in any situation are dictated precisely by its pre-written code, and machine-learned (or reinforcement-learned) behavior, where the robot begins to make its own predictions for how to act based on its previous experiences.

Guanuna tested these two approaches by simulating robots playing aquatic capture the flag, which is a game of defending one’s own territory and flag while remaining undetected and trying to capture their opponent’s flag. The game had been played before by Novitzky, who had led a project at MIT called Aquaticus, where two teams, both composed of humans and robots, would face off in Boston’s Charles River. But coordinating humans’ and robots’ behavior is difficult. Just telling a robot, say, to snatch a flag means it has to hear the command and translate it into a series of actions: figure out where it has to swim, then orient itself in that direction, scan for the flag, go to it, snatch it up.

Teaching a robot commands is of keen interest to the military.

“The fewer people we can put in harm’s way because the robot can do the job, the better,” said Semmens.

Guanuna’s primary focus was to develop machine-learning defensive behavior for the robots — “which no one had done before,” he noted. After studying up on Aquaticus, reading through documentation, and performing research, Guanuna hand-coded robot behaviors and created machine-learning algorithms to facilitate more robot behaviors.

The results came as a surprise. “In the defense, the hand-coded behaviors are better than the reinforcement-learning behaviors,” said Semmens. “But in the offense, it’s the opposite.”

Guanuna and Pierce had “proved very plainly that machine learning and AI are not the solution for every problem that’s out there,” he added. “So I think it was a pretty great 10 weeks with them. Even though it started off as a summer internship, I fully expect them to get publications out of this. They deserve it.”

Berkeley undergrads and graduate students interested in making their own tangible impact on practical national-security problems can get started now: Applications for the full-time, paid Summer 2022 X-Force Fellowship open October 18 and close December 17.

A New ‘Pipeline for Social Innovation’: HealthTech CoLab opens in Blum Hall

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

RespiraWorks, which produces ventilators and respirators for low-resource settings, demos one of their devices at the CoLab opening. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

By Sam Goldman

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

Housed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the HealthTech CoLab will be unique among the many accelerators and incubators at Berkeley and around the Bay Area. While those programs have launched Berkeley students’ and alumni’s ideas — from smart power grids to new forms of plant-based meat — into the laps of VC firms and toward adoption, less profitable innovations are often left without a pipeline to viability — including many tech innovations focused on improving lives in low-resource regions.

Prof. Dan Fletcher welcomes guests to the HealthTech CoLab’s grand opening on Sept. 23. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

“That’s certainly the case with many global health technologies that are being developed,” said Dan Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering and the Blum Center’s associate director of research. “They’re not something that a VC is looking to fund right now. How do we support those projects that have the potential to really transform lives but aren’t the ones that are being sought after by people with money?”

Enter Fletcher’s brainchild, the HealthTech CoLab.

In addition to a virtual and in-person space for undergraduate, graduate, and faculty teams to harness their human experiences, trade stories, and start dialogues, the CoLab will provide space for student teams, host workshops and talks, and be a place for teams and industry to connect and share each other’s know-how.

“Having an impact on health requires input from a lot of directions — from clinicians, from technologists, from patients, from healthcare providers,” said Fletcher. “It’s such a complex problem that I think we need a space where we can focus attention on that collaboration and not just the technology development.”

The need for this kind of space, unconstrained by profit-first notions of success, was made all the more pressing by the pandemic, which revealed serious inadequacies in healthcare systems — from delays in receiving Covid-19 test results to difficulties even accessing quality care. “It makes this an exciting and urgent time to try and change that,” Fletcher said. “There is a dire need for expanding access to quality healthcare.” 

“The CoLab will be a hub of cross-pollination within and beyond campus,” said CoLab Manager Karenna Rehorn. “Great innovation doesn’t happen in a silo, and developing a medical device that truly addresses a pressing need in healthcare should incorporate the perspectives of those it’s intended to benefit as well as those who know how to bring the initial idea into the field.”

Once Fletcher and crew had the vision in hand, a spate of supporters also keen on changing the way healthcare is delivered stepped in to get the lab off the ground, including the Harvey and Leslie Wagner Foundation, Mitsuru and Lucinda Igarashi, former Vodafone CEO and Blum Center trustee Arun Sarin, and the CoLab’s first corporate partner, HCL Technologies.

Researchers show off the Fletcher Lab’s CellScope, which can make a high-quality microscope out of a smartphone camera. (Judah Marsden photo)

Last month, the CoLab was officially introduced in a grand-opening ceremony with balloons, HealthTech CoLab merch, and, of course, CoLab face masks. On display or being demoed during the opening were social tech innovations of the sort that will eventually develop in the CoLab: We Care Solar, KovaDx, RespiraWorks, CellScope, and Sal-Patch — most of which originated at UC Berkeley, many through the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, also housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems.

“The HealthTech CoLab will help upcoming Big Ideas health projects by offering access to everything from industry feedback to the space and resources needed to further their social ventures to the point where they know they have some traction,” said Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny.

The 3,000-square-foot lab is home to a new conference room and small meeting room with video-conferencing systems. The main space hosts electrified work tables, A/V capabilities, and lockers for teams. The set-up allows the CoLab to seamlessly transition between, say, several in-person team meetings and a virtual symposium. 

“What astonished the Dean’s Office was how quickly this came together,” recalled Karl van Bibber, professor of nuclear engineering and the college’s executive associate dean, at last month’s opening. “When I got the email that said, ‘Could you come here? We’re having the opening,’ I said, ‘Already?’”

Eight inaugural teams will be selected later this fall semester for up to a year’s stay in the CoLab.

“The real work begins now,” said Fletcher. “The set up is done, but now the work of inspiring and organizing and encouraging student teams and faculty labs begins.”

Kris Kohler Joins Dev Eng, GPP Programs

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes.

Courtesy of Kris Kohler

By Sam Goldman

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes. Kohler holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in sociology from UC San Diego and a B.A. in Black studies and political science from UC Santa Barbara. 

Kohler’s research and teaching has centered on transnational activism and social movements, international development (or “underdevelopment,” as he notes), and global sociology. He has lived and worked in two dozen countries, most notably in Zambia, and has served in the Peace Corps, worked as a rural health volunteer, and is a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellow. Kohler also has over 80 courses under his belt, including lectureships at San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara, Montgomery College, UC Merced, Stanislaus State University, and Mount St. Mary’s University. 

“UC Berkeley is probably the finest public university in America, if not the world,” he says. “I am a product of California, and the UC system, and the opportunity to teach at UC Berkeley is an honor.”

GPP 115 is a core course of the undergraduate Global Poverty and Practice Minor and focuses on 20th-century development and 21st-century poverty alleviation, and Kohler brings a wealth of first-hand, on-the-ground experience.

“I consider myself a ‘citizen of the world,’ and the challenges of social inequality, poverty, power, and oppression have been concerns of mine for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I majored in ethnic studies, I studied abroad, I participated in the Peace Corps and various social movements. I have studied transnational social movements and international development for a very long time as well. The Global Poverty and Practice course is a wonderful fit for me, providing the opportunity to highlight the role of power and movements in questions of poverty and development.”

“We are excited to have Kris join the teaching team of the GPP Minor,” says Chetan Chowdhry, the Blum Center’s director of student programs and GPP’s lead advisor. “GPP 115 isn’t an easy course to teach, but students in the course have already expressed how much they are learning from it just a few weeks into the semester.”

Kohler teaching DevEng 202: Critical Systems of Development

DevEng 202 is one of two required courses for first-semester Master of Development Engineering students, the inaugural cohort of which started classes last month. M.DevEng students learn a variety of methodological frameworks, the skills needed to participate in the sustainable-development field, and the history and ethics of global development. “I am a ‘pessimistic optimist,’ Kohler says. “I know that ‘another world is possible,’ but strategies for positive social change must be grounded in sophisticated understanding of the challenges which face us.”

“It’s been exciting to sit in the class and see how engaged the students are with the material. It is often hard to stop the conversation for the sake of moving to the next reading and topic,” says M.DevEng program coordinator Yael Perez. “The power of the class was particularly evident when one of the students asked to turn off the recording for a question that he didn’t want to have on any record due to its political sensitivity in the country he is from.”

No one or two perspectives or disciplines are enough to capture the realities of poverty and development. Kohler grounds his teaching in a “globalized, transnational, and international world of experience and scholarship” and “emphasizes cross-national and cross-cultural comparison of sociological concepts,” and pulls from a diverse array of media to accommodate students’ various learning styles and to facilitate cross-cultural communication. Importantly, his courses’ concepts and research are not merely theoretical. “I take great pains to outline the relevance of social and political theory to the lives of real, flesh-and-blood people,” Kohler says.

“We are thrilled to have Kris aboard to teach such pivotal courses in the M.DevEng and GPP programs,” said Prof. Alice Agogino, education director of the Blum Center. “He not only brings a deep and first-hand familiarity with his subjects but also years of experience and passion for teaching the next generation of effective changemakers.” 

Every class, Kohler notes, is an opportunity to debunk myths and hegemonic ideas. “Students in my courses are constantly challenged to interrogate dogmatic understandings of globalization, economics, democracy, freedom, justice, crime, race, gender, culture, and nation,” he says.

Meet the Inaugural M.DevEng Cohort

Students from around the U.S. and the world — coming from the fields of finance, electrical engineering, nursing, and beyond — make up the inaugural cohort of the three-semester professional master’s program in development engineering, a transdisciplinary field founded at UC Berkeley that creates technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings.

Students of the inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program came from around the U.S. and the world and bring experience in everything from nursing to electrical engineering to finance. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

By Sam Goldman

Barbara Mensah had studied education, founded her own organization to empower rural girls, and worked at a university in Ghana. But wanting to take the next step in her education and career, she had applied and been accepted to UC Berkeley’s first cohort of the brand-new Master of Development Engineering (M.DevEng) program, housed at the Blum Center. It would be a 7,700-mile trip.  

The program had nominated Mensah for a Mastercard Foundation scholarship. When she accepted it, she and other UC Berkeley recipients of the scholarship received an informational email with each other’s names and emails visible. One name stood out. “Is this the Patricia Quaye I know?” she asked herself.

Mensah sent Quaye a WhatsApp message, asking if she was the Patricia Quaye she knew from university in Ghana — the one who had received the same scholarship as Mensah in undergrad. She was. Both, it turned out, chose the Sustainable Design Innovations track of the five M.DevEng tracks available, and both, like many of their peers from abroad, are part of UC Berkeley’s I-House community. Both had even been working in education in Ghana, and now, on another continent, they’re neighbors.

Barbara Mensah (left) and Patricia Quaye attended the same university together in Ghana but didn’t know the other had applied to the M.DevEng program. Both chose the Sustainable Design Innovations track. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

Mensah, Quaye, and 44 other students from around the U.S. and the world — coming from the fields of finance, electrical engineering, nursing, and beyond — make up the inaugural cohort of the three-semester professional master’s program in development engineering, a transdisciplinary field founded at UC Berkeley that creates technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. 

As the Berkeley campus transitions to a mostly in-person fall semester, most students were able to attend a masked-up, open-windows welcome orientation on August 23. “It’s been a long journey for you to get here,” said Shankar Sastry, Blum Center faculty director, professor of computer science, and leader of the M.DevEng AI/Data Analytics track. “It’s particularly exciting to be here in person after an extraordinarily challenging year.” 

“The idea of development engineering is to combine the social sciences with the hard sciences, technology and engineering, and policy,” said Alice Agogino, Blum’s education director, professor of mechanical engineering and leader of the Sustainable Design Innovations track. “We want to tackle problems that require system-level solutions — systems solutions that require multiple disciplines.”

Mathews Tisatayane (left) and Greg Berger get to know each other on a tour of campus after the welcome orientation. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

The new cohort is diverse not only in geographic origin, but also in training and age. Shubham Salunkhe arrived straight out of undergrad at the University of Illinois, Chicago. After interning at UIC’s Energy Resources Center, he decided he needed to gain more knowledge before diving into industry. Malawi native Mathews Tisatayane spent the past decade working as a nurse in San Francisco, while masterminding community-oriented avenues for building wealth and stability on a local level in Malawi.

Tisatayane had devised solar-powered egg-incubators and brooders to support a chicken-raising operation in his hometown. If his community raised their own birds, they would eat well, which meant better health, self-reliance, and opportunity. Faulty machinery derailed the project, but motivated him to learn more. He discovered Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL), run by Professor Daniel Kammen, a Blum Center faculty member. His search led him to the new M.DevEng program, which he decided could provide the skills and networking bridge he needed to make a lasting impact in Malawi and, eventually, beyond.

Abigail Chin introduces herself during a welcome-orientation icebreaker. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

“I’m a little bit emotional, a little bit in disbelief,” Tisatayane said of starting graduate school at age 48. His younger peers, he said, were “working forward” on building their skills, “while I’m working backward” on filling them in. 

Despite the momentousness of arriving at the top university in the U.S., however, the most common surprise among students didn’t have to do with rigorous academics, eye-popping Bay Area rents, or “Berserkeley” culture.

“California is so hot,” Quaye recalled hearing as she prepared to move from the hot climes of Ghana. “But it’s cold!” she added, sitting outside Blum Hall after orientation. 

(From left) Raghav Mittal, Curtis Wong, and Barry McLaughlin catch up during orientation. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

Raghav Mittal, who arrived two days prior from the outskirts of Delhi, India — another legitimately hot area — had the same expectations: the sunny California of the media and postcards. 

Nope. 

“That’s why I’m always wearing a jacket,” he said on a campus tour following orientation. 

But it will be in this fickle climate that Mittal, Quaye, and their peers will begin building projects that will make a tangible impact on the well being of those in low-resource areas.

“Consider yourselves the leaders of this field,” M.DevEng program coordinator Yael Perez told the inaugural group at their orientation’s opening remarks — “a field in the making.”

National Science Foundation awards $10M to alliance of Native American institutions, UC Berkeley, and UArizona to increase Indigenous participation in higher ed

A wide range of academic programing around food, energy, and water systems (FEWS) designed by and for Native Americans and other underrepresented student groups will expand substantially as a result of a new $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Arizona, in collaboration with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and more than 20 additional partners.

Twenty-partner alliance to expand programing around food, energy, and water systems

UC Berkeley’s American Indian Graduate Program commencement celebration in 2019. (Irene Yi photo courtesy of AIGP)

BERKELEY, CA – August 5, 2021 – The UC Berkeley Blum Center for Developing Economies announced today that a wide range of academic programing around food, energy, and water systems (FEWS) designed by and for Native Americans and other underrepresented student groups will expand substantially as a result of a new $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Arizona, in collaboration with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and more than 20 additional partners.

The NSF grant springs from past work based at the Blum Center featuring successful collaborations with Native American FEWS experts and tribal colleges, nations, and communities throughout the West. The five-year grant will expand the vision and the impact. The overarching goal is to significantly broaden the opportunities for participation and the ecosystem of research and training by and for Native Americans and other underrepresented student groups.

Native American households are 4 times more likely to report not having enough to eat compared to other U.S. households; 14 percent lack access to electricity; and 9 percent do not have access to safe, adequate water supplies and also lack access to waste disposal facilities. Historical factors that led to these conditions are exacerbated by accelerating climate change, more frequent natural disasters, and the current pandemic – all of which has had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples.

At the same time, there is scarce representation of Indigenous professionals in engineering positions with both the technical know-how and the socio-cultural understanding to implement solutions on Indigenous lands. This project will focus on these two interconnected challenges: the crisis in access to food, energy, and water in Indigenous communities and the paucity of educational and career pathways available to Indigenous peoples to address these crises.

“To empower Native American communities, it’s important to consider the FEWS nexus on tribal lands from a systems perspective that is both Indigenous and place-based,” says Principal Investigator Alice Agogino, Blum Center Education Director and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley. “Many holistic concepts of food, energy, and water systems are already deeply connected to traditional practices of Native Americans across the country, yet STEM educational pathways in the U.S. are often more narrowly defined.”

University of Arizona Associate Professor of Environmental Science Karletta Chief, a member of the Diné nation, is the P.I. on the collaborative proposal from UArizona. Along with Agogino, the two project leads (who have worked together for two years on projects around environmental knowledge and educational practices in Native American communities) will partner with a number of other institutions and alliances representing native groups, including Diné, Laguna, Mohawk, Lumbee, Pomo, Samish, Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakota, Nakota, and Cherokee, among others.

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) will be the backbone for the project. AIHEC represents 37 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) across the U.S., providing leadership and advocating for policy and programs that expand higher education opportunities to American Indians.

On the Berkeley campus – the unceded Ohlone land of Xučyun – the project is supported by the Office of Graduate Diversity and the American Indian Graduate Program (AIGP), headed up by Patrick Naranjo, a tribal member from Santa Clara Pueblo.

This initiative is the latest of the NSF INCLUDES series grants, a program launched in 2018 to develop a national network to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by broadening participation in those disciplines.

“NSF INCLUDES addresses populations largely missing in the current science and engineering enterprise,” said NSF Director France Córdova, announcing the program. “Their inclusion is essential in helping the U.S. maintain its position as the world’s leader in innovation.”

The Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, founded in 2006 to address urgent global challenges globally and locally, will serve as the NSF INCLUDES project home and administrative hub. For more information, see blumcenter.berkeley.edu.

As Wildfires Worsen, Berkeley Students and Alumni Team Up with First Responders to Solve Information Challenges

At the beginning of summer, the University of California brought together scientists and faculty from across the UC system for a symposium series to tackle one of the biggest threats to the state: wildfires. With expertise in forest ecology, climate change, and drought, panelists shared how innovations in understanding and modeling fire behavior and other risk factors affect our ability to prepare for, battle, and recover from ever-more-destructive blazes.

Staff Sgt. Richard Glover, 163d Attack Wing IT Specialist, shows burn areas to Staff Sgt. Jamel Seales (sitting) and Staff Sgt. Shawn Blue (background) at the wing’s Hap Arnold Center at March Air Reserve Base, California. The center is one of several wing assets activated to support ongoing wildland firefighting efforts in Northern California. Airmen will work at the center around the clock to support CAL FIRE and other agencies. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

At the beginning of summer, the University of California brought together scientists and faculty from across the UC system for a symposium series to tackle one of the biggest threats to the state: wildfires. With expertise in forest ecology, climate change, and drought, panelists shared how innovations in understanding and modeling fire behavior and other risk factors affect our ability to prepare for, battle, and recover from ever-more-destructive blazes.

“We know fires are going to happen every year, but when and where? Why? How large?” asked Theresa Maldonado, the UC’s vice president of research and innovation. “Can we make predictions accurately, understand the complexity of these events, and develop science-informed strategies and solutions?”

Over the last few months, four teams of Cal students and alums have been developing tools for providing real-time fire perimeters, live on-the-ground conditions, and the ability for disparate agencies to submit vital information in one place. 

Before the teams — Perimeter, WICS, FireTrace, and Keep It Simple (KIS) Fire View —  enrolled in the SkyDeck HotDesk program, a UC Berkeley accelerator, they were finalists in the Beat the Blaze hackathon; Perimeter and WICS won the event. Beat the Blaze was hosted by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), a program office under the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering that connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems.   

Perimeter CEO Bailey Farren co-founded the company as a Berkeley undergrad after she and her family had to evacuate the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa. (Credit: Benjamin Farren)

“I feel very strongly about Berkeley students getting involved early in startups that are truly working to make the world a better place and to leverage technology for social good,” says Bailey Farren, founder and CEO of Perimeter. “And I think NSIN and Berkeley, as well as the other collaborating universities, did a phenomenal job hosting a hackathon with so many resources to really be a launching pad for so much impact in the public-safety space.”

The virtual Beat the Blaze competition, one of several hackathons NSIN operates, garnered over 450 entrants looking to tackle a truly important challenge posed by the California Air National Guard’s 163d Attack Wing and Hap Arnold Innovation Center: How might we increase the information-sharing capacity and capabilities between the National Guard and civilian emergency-response agencies during wildfire operations?

“There’s civilian data, there’s military data, there’s Army data and Air Force data — all on different networks, all with different formats, and people like to use what they like to use,” says Lt. Col. Michael Baird, director of operations for the 163d Operations Support Squadron. “How do we have that data interact together better and have it talk to each other?”

Participants coalesced into teams and spent dozens of hours talking to frontline responders, the National Guard, and other NSIN mentors and partners about these challenges. Hackathon evaluators winnowed 32 ideas into 10 finalists who pitched their ideas to expert judges from the fire and tech industries and the military. Three winners secured $15,000 contracts with the National Guard to continue developing their solutions.

“Berkeley is a school that has a culture of social impact. Disaster response and humanitarian assistance are very near and dear to the hearts of most Berkeley students and people associated with Berkeley,” says Kaitie Penry, the NSIN program director at Berkeley. 

“If you’re a Berkeley student, you are living in one of the most wildfire-prone states in the country,” adds Kedar Pavgi, NSIN’s program manager for its Hacks program. “You’re living day-by-day with the outcomes of wildfires and their impact on people’s lives.”

The challenge for firefighting agencies has never been greater. Last year, over 4 million acres burned in nearly 10,000 fires, forcing evacuation orders on hundreds of thousands of people — all in California. Seven of the most destructive fires in state history have occurred since 2015, including the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people in the town of Paradise. In 2020, blazes across the West Coast caused over $16 billion in damage, and this is nothing to say of toxic air quality and firefighters who have been lost in the course of battling these infernos. Between climate change and worsening droughts, the need for information sharing on the frontlines has never been more important.

“When you send this out to people, you’re always worried about, ‘Do they understand the problem? Do they understand what we’re actually trying to look for?’” says Lt. Col. Baird. “But all the solutions that came in were all very applicable, and it was very hard to come down with the three winners.”  

Perimeter is a mobile platform where first responders can input and share information about an incident in real time, information which can be made accessible to the public as responders see fit. (Credit: Perimeter)

Perimeter: rooted in real-life experience

It’s personal for Bailey Farren. The 2019 Berkeley grad’s father is a firefighter and her mother is a paramedic. In 2017, the family had to evacuate their Santa Rosa home to escape the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed thousands of structures and killed at least 23 people. As an undergrad, she and fellow Golden Bear Noah Wu founded Perimeter, a mobile platform where first responders can input and share information about an incident in real time, information which can be made accessible to the public as responders see fit. They attracted more Berkeley alumni as they built out their platform. Entering Beat the Blaze felt like a no-brainer.

“We were able to connect with so many industry experts that we hadn’t been able to work with in the past,” Farren says. “It really clarified a lot of the context around the work we’re doing and many of the more nuanced struggles and opportunities that exist in this space.”

A key feature is Perimeter’s saving newly inputted information for users with limited or no cell service. Many of today’s incident-response tools “have been primarily designed as heavy-weight software for decision-makers working with a desktop device and constant connectivity,” Farren told judges on Beat the Blaze’s Pitch Day. With Perimeter, all levels of incidence response can access vital information. 

FireTrace: the power of machine learning

In December, Ross Luo graduated with a master’s in electrical engineering and computer science, with a research focus on artificial intelligence in humanitarian assistance and disaster response. He and his friends, most of whom grew up in California and went to Berkeley, knew the impact of the state’s wildfires. “I told them, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to take our technical backgrounds and try to make a difference in firefighting in California.’”

Through interviews with first responders, they developed Beat the Blaze finalist FireTrace, which takes existing terrain data and aerial imagery of fires from drones to make a constantly updating map for firefighters out in the field. Using machine learning, FireTrace continually improves its understanding of what the boundary of a fire looks like.

“We had to go to office hours every day and talk to different people to really dial in on the problem,” says Luo, who now works on deep-learning frameworks at Nvidia. “That way you get an optimal problem–solution match because you’re actually talking to people who have problems on the ground. This is a good opportunity to talk to many of them and come up with a solution that solves many of their problems at the same time.”

KIS Fire View: removing barriers to adoption

Such tech solutions are a whole lot faster for agencies than relying on static maps tacked up onto boards.

KIS Fire View, another top-10 Beat the Blaze finalist, would also track live fire perimeters, as well as provide the locations of fire vehicles and up-to-date road conditions. Sukh Singh, executive director of The Curiosity Foundation, who entered with recently graduated Berkeley grad students and his Foundation partner, thought it would be hard to update this all-important puzzle piece in real time.

“From speaking to the fire chief, he was like, ‘Real time? Right now, I wait a whole day. Fifteen minutes would be phenomenal,’” he recalls. “For the graduate students on the team who were AI specialists, they had the hugest sigh of relief. Fifteen minutes is like infinity for them.”

Singh and his teammates wanted to create a tool that was as easily adoptable as possible; they found out from dozermen and other front-line firefighters that they didn’t want to have to learn complex new systems (and lose valuable time in the field doing so). So, they designed KIS Fire View as a one-stop-shop digital map that would update every 15 minutes with the live fire perimeter using drone imagery, stream data from the Office of Emergency Services to locate all responding fire vehicles, and incorporate traffic conditions from Google.

“To me, it was a really fantastic learning experience,” he says. “Speaking to all the fire services as well as all the people from the National Guard and FEMA was hugely educational for both me and the graduate-student team I worked with.”

WICS: faster firefighting funds

Shreyas Krishnaswamy, an electrical engineering and computer science undergrad, was interested in applying CS and tech to huge problems like climate change. He had participated in hackathons with his high school friends before, and they were all interested in sustainability. After he saw a College of Engineering email mentioning Beat the Blaze, Krishnaswamy called them up. “We got the gang back together,” he says.

In talking to stakeholders during the hackathon, they learned that local and state agencies can, in some cases, file papers with the federal government once a fire has started to get most of their firefighting costs covered via the Fire Management Assistance Grant, but they coordinate this through a patchwork of communications.

“The main problem is that it costs time on the front end for people at the local level, the state level, and the federal level to synchronize and get the information to wherever it needs to go to,” Krishnaswamy says. If information gets lost in translation, it can delay the FMAG’s approval.

Their solution, Wildfire InfoComm Service (WICS), provides a single tool where every agency involved in this process can sign in and provide their information for easy submission to the feds. A quick approval, Krishnaswamy points out, reduces the burden in the back of officials’ heads about whether they will have to shoulder all the firefighting costs.

Despite only beginning to learn about FMAGs during their stakeholder interviews and expecting the hackathon to be an all-student affair, the Berkeley–UC Irvine–King’s College London team developed a solution that beat out established tech companies to join the three-team winner’s circle.

Going beyond the concept and out into the field 

Since the competition, WICS, KIS Fire View, and Perimeter have continued working with Beat the Blaze mentor and judge Thomas Azwell, a Berkeley environmental scientist building a disaster lab to focus on wildfire technology.

Additionally, Kaitie Penry, the NSIN university program director at Berkeley, introduced WICS, KIS Fire View, and FireTrace to SkyDeck, a UC Berkeley accelerator, where the teams continue to receive mentoring and guidance, including from NSIN stakeholders they met at Beat the Blaze. Perimeter was readmitted to the program after a stint there a year and a half ago.

Singh says the KIS Fire View team was about to shelve their project after the competition. “Because [Penry] was willing to push it and give us the resources to make that possible,” he says, “I think she’s totally the catalyst who ended up pushing us forward to be like, ‘Yeah, we can probably pull this off.’”

Without access to some of the data and relationships KIS Fire View had enjoyed during the competition, Singh’s team is pivoting to focus more on an army of hillside cameras across the state that monitor the environment for smoke and fire; an eventual web app could drastically reduce the number of camera feeds that agencies have to monitor. Singh says Marin County, whose disaster-response officials he had already been in contact with, is interested in the project, and he can see businesses like fire-country wineries wanting to get in on a system that can prepare them for the worst.

The WICS team, meanwhile, hopes to field test its system in August or September as it continues to compile subject-matter expertise from contacts as far-flung as Washington state, Colorado, and North Dakota. And the FireTrace squad is working with the National Guard to receive data on which to train its AI model.

With two extra years of development under its belt, Perimeter has already been developing and testing its platform with the Palo Alto Office of Emergency Services and recently closed $1.2 million of early-round investment funding. “Some of the major opportunities that are presented by having this contract is really being able to have a continued dialogue with the stakeholders that sponsored Beat the Blaze,” Farren says.

Each team acknowledged that, at the end of the day, it all came down to helping those very stakeholders.

“Even if this tool’s able to detect one fire early and prevent one disaster, that’s absolutely worth it,” Singh says. “To be able to build something that might be able to help with that side of things and potentially save just one or two people or save someone’s home, that’s really exciting.”

Ph.D. Student Paige Balcom Turns Awards into Innovation and Social Change in Uganda

Paige Balcom was in Uganda when COVID hit. The country quickly instituted a strict lockdown—all borders and airports closed, transport stopped, a strict curfew and other restrictions were enforced by the military, misinformation spread, and many people couldn’t get food. In the fall, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. student’s classes went remote, and she dealt with the 10-hour time difference.

Balcom and fellow Takataka Plastics employees hold tiles they produced out of PET waste

Paige Balcom was in Uganda when COVID hit. The country quickly instituted a strict lockdown—all borders and airports closed, transport stopped, a strict curfew and other restrictions were enforced by the military, misinformation spread, and many people couldn’t get food. In the fall, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. student’s classes went remote, and she dealt with the 10-hour time difference. 

Ugandan hospitals were facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, and Balcom, a mechanical engineer and InFEWS fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and her team decided to make PPE for them.

In January 2020, Balcom and Peter Okwoko, a Ugandan environmental and community activist and lecturer at Gulu University, founded Takataka Plastics, which recycles plastic waste into usable household goods. They began churning out face shields, over 18,000 of which have now been distributed to frontline workers across Uganda. Though “Uganda pulled through OK,” she says, “the last year has been crazy.”

UC Berkeley mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate Paige Balcom in Uganda

Balcom has just finished the fourth year of her M.E. Ph.D., where she’s majoring in heat transfer and minoring in development engineering and design. Earlier this spring, she won the $15,000 “Use It!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Takataka Plastics’ system for recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste, a common plastic used in everyday goods like water bottles. “PET waste is a significant problem across the developing world because many countries like Uganda lack the infrastructure and technology to recycle this plastic, and it is often infeasible to ship it elsewhere for recycling,” the Lemelson-MIT Program wrote. Balcom plans to turn her prize money into grants for local innovators in the East African country.

PET’s brittleness and semicrystalline nature make it difficult to recycle, but Balcom’s invention changes the chemical structure of PET enough to make it salvageable using a manually powered and locally made system. 

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is far from her first accolade. Balcom was the 2016 University of New Hampshire Woman of the Year, and from 2016 to 2017, she spent 10 months in Uganda as a Fulbright Scholar studying aquaponics. She has received a USAID Global Development Fellowship, and, in 2018, she and her teammates finished second in the Energy and Resources Alternatives category at the Big Ideas Contest with their venture Trash to Tiles, a precursor to Takataka Plastics. The following year, Trash to Tiles won the Scaling Up Big Ideas category. Early last year, Takataka Plastics won Stanford University’s first Global Energy Heroes competition; soon after, the Clinton Global Initiative University awarded Balcom a COVID-19 Student Action Fund for the company’s face shields. From 2019 to 2020, Balcom was also an inaugural fellow with the Institute for International Education’s Centennial Fellowship. At Berkeley, she’s received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a Chancellor’s Fellowship, and a Tau Beta Pi Fellowship.

The engineering innovations are only one aspect of Takataka Plastics. “I get super excited about the impact Takataka is having in the community through the jobs we create that are transforming people’s lives and through our outreach efforts changing mindsets about plastic waste,” says Balcom, who first visited Uganda as an undergrad with Engineers Without Borders.

The company’s waste collection reduces community health hazards. It employs survivors of war, exploitation, and human trafficking, whom the company connects to care organizations that provide counseling and life skills. And Takataka is growing quickly, too. It’s up to 16 employees, nine of whom, Balcom says, are “former street-connected youth.” 

“Their creativity, passion, hard work, innovativeness, and desire to serve their community inspire me,” she says of her coworkers. “I consider it a privilege to work with them every day.”

Currently, Takataka sells wall tiles and coasters in addition to face shields. Its goal is to be able to recycle 9,000 kilograms of plastic a month in Gulu — half of the city’s PET waste.

Balcom hopes to graduate next May, move back to Uganda, and expand Takataka. “We’re always working on new products, entering new markets, exploring different sales strategies, and hiring new staff. There are always new opportunities, partnerships, and projects,” she says. “We can’t keep up with the orders, so we’re working on scaling up our production capacity.”

She also plans to lecture at Gulu University. “I really love teaching the engineering students,” she says. “They have so many bright ideas!”

“I’d like to thank my mom and dad, sisters, friends, professors, and mentors who have invested in me and encouraged me. Winning an award such as the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize would not have been possible without all of their support,” Balcom adds. “I’d also like to give a big shout out to the Big Ideas competition and Haas [School of Business] startup programs that guided me through developing the initial Takataka Plastics model. And I’d like to thank God for blessing me with so many opportunities in life.”

Sastry wins 2021 ASME Rufus Oldenburger Medal

Blum Center Faculty Director Shankar Sastry, Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Computer Science and former dean of Berkeley Engineering, has been named the recipient of the prestigious 2021 Rufus Oldenburger Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

S. Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director, Blum Center, UC Berkeley (Photo: Noah Berger)

Blum Center Faculty Director Shankar Sastry, Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Computer Science and former dean of Berkeley Engineering, has been named the recipient of the prestigious 2021 Rufus Oldenburger Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

The ASME Rufus Oldenburger Medal recognizes lifetime achievements in automatic control. Inaugurated in 1968. The list of recipients is a true honor role of major contributors to the science and profession of control. Sastry’s medal citation reads, “For fundamental contributions to the foundations of nonlinear, adaptive and hybrid control, control of robots and vehicles, and for contributions to control and robotics education.”

Professor Sastry will receive the award at the ASME Dynamic Systems and Control Division Awards ceremony and dinner, which will take place during the newly instituted Modeling, Estimation and Control Conference (MECC 2021), this October in Austin, Texas.

Congratulations, Professor Sastry!

Student Teams Partner with DoD to Improve Disaster Response

Language barriers, international communiques requiring Embassy review, and disaster workers who are 6,300 miles away — not to mention a global pandemic — were just some of the challenges addressed by UC Berkeley students working with the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces Search and Rescue Unit. This incredible experience was part of a popular class supported by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), in partnership with the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

Prototype for FireFly, an augmented reality helmet that “seamlessly connects to a mesh network of drones to provide real-time navigational and situational data to firefighters actively working to suppress wildfires.”

By Sam Goldman 

Language barriers, international communiques requiring Embassy review, and disaster workers who are 6,300 miles away — not to mention a global pandemic — were just some of the challenges addressed by UC Berkeley students working with the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces Search and Rescue Unit. This incredible experience was part of a popular class supported by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), in partnership with the Blum Center for Developing Economies. 

The Royal Armed Forces are among Morocco’s top responders to major disasters, which occurred with a 22-fold increase from 2000 and 2014. Since 2003, the Royal Armed Forces have collaborated with the Utah National Guard through the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program, which seeks to strengthen global security, foster long-term relationships, and directly assist places in need. These responders must make quick life-and-death decisions in crisis situations, often with very little context. To support better outcomes, the UC Berkeley student team developed a prototype desktop application to coordinate disaster operations and monitor real-time data on the ground. 

This team, and five others enrolled in “Innovation in Disaster Response, Recovery and Resilience” (IDR3), presented their final projects in a showcase attended by over 50 representatives from the Department of Defense (DoD), USAID, startups, the venture community, and leaders in disaster tech. 

DoD partners from the U.S. Central Command, Army Futures Command, the Utah National Guard, and more were brought in by Kaitie Penry, UC Berkeley’s university program director for the NSIN, a program sponsored by the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering; its mission is to bring new communities of innovators together to solve national security problems by partnering with academia and early-stage ventures.

The NSIN partners “have real-life, challenging, complex problems and are responsible for disaster response, which is what makes these projects such authentic learning,” says Professor Alice Agogino, the founder of the field of Development Engineering and Blum Center associate director of education. “These weren’t toy problems. Some of these projects are going to see the light of day. That’s what’s really exciting about it.” 

Agogino co-taught the course with lead instructor Vivek Rao, a lecturer at Haas and a researcher in mechanical engineering, who helped pilot an earlier version of the course.

The six team projects were each sponsored by an agency important to national security:

  • Working with the Army Futures Command, FireFly is an augmented reality helmet that “seamlessly connects to a mesh network of drones to provide real-time navigational and situational data to firefighters actively working to suppress wildfires.”
  • Working with U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Coast Guard, iOSOS is a smartphone app that activates during a disaster and “allows the user to send a quick SOS request, helping both rescue agencies and civilians through this streamlined process.”
  • Working with the Utah National Guard and the Morocco Royal Armed Forces, the Digital Disaster Portal is a dashboard and application that agencies can use to coordinate operations and monitor real-time data on the ground.
  • Working with U.S. Central Command in Qatar, ID SCAN is an ID scanner that military personnel can use to update their status and location, which leaders can access in a user interface to make quick personnel-allocation decisions. 
  • Working with the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command – Pacific, which deals with places with varying connectivity during a disaster, the team created new tools for visual and temporal representations of information coming through the various lines of communication used by first responders.
  • Working with Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, the team developed a hangaring planning tool so that military aircraft remain on bases during hurricanes instead of being evacuated, and are thus able to respond more quickly to disaster events.

“The inherent talent of the Berkeley students to solve national security problems that have a real impact is incredible,” says Penry, the NSIN program director at Berkeley. “The projects that the teams worked on will have a real impact in disaster response, making it more effective for the DoD to act quickly and save lives.”

“What was very clear when the students walked down this path is that we didn’t even know our own process for how to hangar aircraft. There was essentially nothing on the board at all,” says  Major Niko Votipka of Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam. “This project was really a forcing function for the maintainers and the weather shop and leadership to really figure out a good process moving forward for something that is so critical and we struggle with every hurricane season.”

These unique and interesting challenges attracted a diverse group of students. More than 60 percent of students who enrolled were women, with 10 academic disciplines represented. “For an engineering class that involves heavy project-based work, this definitely looks different than the overall demographics of the College of Engineering,” Rao says. “Focusing on this type of problem domain — applying innovation to social-impact issues — really drew a different audience, and we’re really excited to continue to build on that at the Blum Center.”

“It was really inspiring to see how evidence-based the students made their decisions,” says Deniz Dogruer, IDR3’s graduate student instructor and a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Group of Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education. “They were really taking into account what they were hearing from their stakeholder interviews to really motivate and justify any pivots or any changes they were making.”

That end-user focus, combined with hefty research into the problems they were tackling, led to a wide array of potential solutions that the teams scrutinized to narrow down to the most effective. “I think that was exciting for some people because the possibilities are really endless,” says Yakira Mirabito, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering on the Digital Disaster Portal team.

Teams had the opportunity to work on-site with their DoD clients. For example, the aircraft-hangaring team 3D-printed some of their prototypes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam and the rest in Berkeley, before shipping their work across the ocean. Similarly, the FireFly team demoed their helmet prototype at an Emeryville fire station. 

“We had an awesome time experimenting and developing our various prototypes, and it was also very exciting garnering feedback from firefighters and other stakeholders regarding the prototypes we developed,” says Nicholas Callegari, a mechanical engineering student. “Most of our team members had not worked with an organization like [the Army Futures Command] before, and it ended up being a great learning experience that exposed us to the managerial styles and organization of a specialized government entity.”

“I thought the projects were extremely impressive and mature,” says Penry. “The level of prototype that most of the teams were able to get to by the end of the semester was extraordinary.”

Going forward, the Digital Disaster Portal team has an invitation to attend the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces’ annual natural disaster mission exercises this fall to demo their tools — tools that the Utah National Guard is also interested in implementing closer to home. “The design challenge that [the Royal Armed Forces] presented was just really what they think they needed,” Mirabito concluded, “and what we presented is taking that idea and kind of exploring multiple facets of it.” That analysis and perspective is exactly what the NSIN course is designed to do — providing DoD units with new insights into possible solutions, and UC Berkeley students with an opportunity to focus their energy and talents on challenges that matter.”

MD4SG Co-Founder Rediet Abebe Joins Blum Faculty

Rediet Abebe joined the UC Berkeley faculty this spring as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, affiliated with the Development Engineering Group at the Blum Center. Abebe holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Cornell University and graduate degrees in mathematics from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. Prior to Berkeley, Abebe was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Rediet Abebe joined the UC Berkeley faculty this spring as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, affiliated with the Development Engineering Group at the Blum Center. Abebe holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Cornell University and graduate degrees in mathematics from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. Prior to Berkeley, Abebe was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Abebe’s research in artificial intelligence and algorithms focuses on equity and distributive justice. Through her work, Abebe has tackled mathematical and computational problems related to poverty, housing, education, and health. Recognition for her research includes the 2020 ACM SIGKDD Dissertation Award for pioneering the new research area of mechanism design for social good (MD4SG). She was also named one of 35 Innovators Under 35 by the MIT Technology Review and “one to watch” on the Bloomberg 50 list. A native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Abebe’s work has already informed policy and practice at the National Institutes of Health and the Ethiopian Ministry of Education.

The leading question of my research is, how can we use computational techniques – and in particular, algorithmic, optimization, and mechanism design techniques – in conjunction with other disciplines, to support some of the broader societal changes that we want to see?” said Abebe, introducing herself to the Blum Center Board of Trustees last fall. “And to do it in such a way that’s mindful of any social harms we might cause, and deeply informed by other disciplines, as well as by those who bear the brunt of the burden of social problems.”
Abebe is a co-founder of the Mechanism Design for Social Good (MD4SG) research initiative – a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary initiative bringing together researchers and practitioners from over 150 institutions in 50 countries. Launched in 2016, MD4SG aims to improve equity and social welfare for marginalized groups. In 2017, Abebe co-founded Black in AI, which has grown from a small Facebook group to a global movement of more than 3,000 members and allies dedicated to increasing the presence and inclusion of Black people in the field of AI.

Building on the success of events within MD4SG, Abebe has co-led the launch of the inaugural ACM Conference on Equity and Access in Algorithms, Mechanisms, and Optimization (EAAMO ’21) and serves as program co-chair. This new conference, to be held virtually October 5 – 9, 2021, will provide an international forum for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to come together to highlight and discuss work across the research-to-practice pipeline. (The submission deadline is June 3, 2021).

“It is a great pleasure to have Rediet here. She has been incredibly active,” S. Shankar Sastry, Blum Center Faculty Director, told the board. “When she interviewed last year, as far as I could tell every major research university in the United States made her an offer. I feel like we really hit the jackpot in convincing Rediet to come to Berkeley.”  

“The very last interview conversation I had was with folks at the Blum Center, and I remember it was an amazing conversation,” recalled Abebe. “I walked down from my interview to my hotel thinking, ‘Wow, it’s done – this is where I need to be.’ I am incredibly, incredibly excited to be here.”

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.

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.

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.”

Gadgil’s Infant Warmer ‘Warming Indicator’ upgrade wins Patents for Humanity award

Blum faculty Ashok Gadgil and Berkeley Lab research scientist Vi Rapp (Ph.D.’11 ME) won a “Patents for Humanity” award for their Warming Indicator, a phase-change material temperature indicator that improves the Infant Warmer’s functionality and safety, received a 2020 Patents for Humanity award.

Blum faculty Ashok Gadgil and Berkeley Lab research scientist Vi Rapp (Ph.D.’11 ME) won a “Patents for Humanity” award for their Warming Indicator, a phase-change material temperature indicator that improves the Infant Warmer’s functionality and safety, received a 2020 Patents for Humanity award. The Infant Warmer is a low-cost, convenient, re-usable, and non-electric wrap-around pad that maintains a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius/98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately six hours for a newborn infant.
Read more here: https://eta.lbl.gov/award/honorable-mention-2020-patents-humanity

Jennifer Doudna on the Pandemic Year: The Power of Mission-Driven Science

In this WSJ op-ed, Nobel prize-winning CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna describes UC Berkeley’s research response to the pandemic, including the creation of a new rapid, point-of-need COVID test developed with Blum Center Research Director and CellScope inventor Dan Fletcher.

In this WSJ op-ed, Nobel prize-winning CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna describes UC Berkeley’s research response to the pandemic, including the creation of a new rapid, point-of-need COVID test developed with Blum Center Research Director and CellScope inventor Dan Fletcher.

Read more here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/jennifer-doudna-on-the-pandemic-year-the-power-of-mission-driven-science-11616080902?page=1

The Pandemic Pushed This Farmer Into Deep Poverty – Then Something Amazing Happened

NPR: The Togo government partnered with Blum faculty member & I-School associate professor Joshua Blumenstock to use satellite imagery and mobile phone data to find citizens most in need. “Mobile phone data can reveal a lot about income level,” says Blumenstock.”

NPR: The Togo government partnered with Blum faculty member & I-School associate professor Joshua Blumenstock to use satellite imagery and mobile phone data to find citizens most in need. “Mobile phone data can reveal a lot about income level,” says Blumenstock.” Read more here.

Additional Press Coverage:

Wired: A Clever Strategy to Distribute COVID Aid – With Satellite Data
Fast Company: How GiveDirectly is finding the poorest people in the world – and sending them cash
BBC: Wealth and poverty mapped using mobile phone data
The Economist: In poor countries, statistics are both undersupplied and underused

On the Passing of George Shultz

The Blum Center for Developing Economies is especially saddened by the passing of Secretary Shultz. He was a very special friend of the Center. He served as a Trustee since the inception of the Center in 2007. He came to most of the bi-annual meetings of the Blum Center board and offered his sage advice in a low-key and workman-like fashion. As in other matters, he always advocated a Big Tent approach, including other university partners and collaborators. He was a huge fan and outspoken supporter of the Blum Center.

By Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director

This weekend on Saturday, February 6, we lost a true giant – and a huge friend of the Blum Center. George Shultz was considered a pillar of the Republican foreign policy establishment, but was truly someone with a bi-partisan reach and a commitment to the good of the nation. He held four different cabinet posts in the Nixon and Reagan administration, including six years as Secretary of State for President Reagan. He served in Cabinet roles of Secretary of Labor, Treasury, and the State Department, as well as the Director of the newly established Office of Management and Budget. His signature achievement as Secretary of State was his diplomacy, contributing to the end of the decades-long Cold War. He continued as a leading voice on national security, economic, and environmental issues even after leaving government service. He gave freely of his wise advice: providing his inimitable counsel to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, our own senior Senator Dianne Feinstein, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed. His legacy will live on. As his wife Charlotte Mailliard Shultz says, “Now, he leaves it to five children, eleven grandchildren… and a world of trusted friends to keep thinking about the future.”

Shultz spent many years in academia: With a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he began as an economics professor at MIT and served as dean of the Business School (now the Booth School) at the University of Chicago. After leaving government, Schultz became a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and worked there on many causes – including non-proliferation, the environment, and the advancement of developing nations. He also served as CEO of Bechtel Corporation. 

The Blum Center for Developing Economies is especially saddened by the passing of Secretary Shultz. He was a very special friend of the Center. He served as a Trustee since the inception of the Center in 2007. He came to most of the bi-annual meetings of the Blum Center board and offered his sage advice in a low-key and workman-like fashion. As in other matters, he always advocated a Big Tent approach, including other university partners and collaborators. He was a huge fan and outspoken supporter of the Blum Center. One of his more memorable remarks, delivered at the inauguration of Blum Hall, was the observation that the Center’s association with technology innovation and prototyping solutions in-situ carried its agenda much further than Centers focused exclusively on development economics. Coming from an economics professor, this was high praise indeed! We always sought out his guidance for critical decisions at the Center, and he gave freely of his time, inviting us to his home or to the Hoover Institution at Stanford for long discussions.

Agogino Awarded for Faculty Service

Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino, and on Berkeley Engineering’s faculty since 1984, has received the 2021 Berkeley Faculty Service Award, along with mechanical engineering colleague Oliver O’Reilly, the 2021 award co-recipient.

Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino, and on Berkeley Engineering’s faculty since 1984, has received the 2021 Berkeley Faculty Service Award, along with mechanical engineering colleague Oliver O’Reilly, the 2021 award co-recipient.

The Berkeley Faculty Service Award is given annually to honor a member of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate who has provided outstanding and dedicated service to the University.

“In this, of all years, to stand out for effort and dedication, is truly an accomplishment,” says S. Shankar Sastry, faculty director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. “As a testimony to her service, even in the midst of the pandemic Alice has been able to take the lead in getting the new Masters of Development Engineering approved for a fall 2021 start.”

Agogino first established Development Engineering at the Blum Center with a Graduate Group and Ph.D. concentration in 2016. The new MDevEng professional master’s degree program represents a major expansion for the field.

A Berkeley alumna (M.S. ’80 ME), Agogino is the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley Engineering; she is also affiliated faculty at the Haas School of Business, Energy Resources Group, and Women and Gender Studies.

COVID-Scope: Mobile Phone-Based Virus Detection

A collaboration between Blum Center Research Director and bioengineering professor Dan Fletcher, Professor Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and Dr. Melanie Ott of UCSF’s Gladstones Institutes is developing a CRISPR-Cas13a-based diagnostic to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

Courtesy Dan Fletcher

A collaboration between Blum Center Research Director and bioengineering professor Dan Fletcher, Professor Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and Dr. Melanie Ott of UCSF’s Gladstones Institutes is developing a CRISPR-Cas13a-based diagnostic to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA. This mobile phone-based diagnostic technology aims to provide results in under 15 minutes and could rapidly increase diagnostic capacity worldwide. 

Read the full Berkeley News story here.

Press coverage
Forbes, December 13, 2020
Can CRISPR-Based COVID-19 Testing Using Smartphones Slow the Pandemic?
https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2020/12/13/can-crispr-based-covid-19-testing-using-smartphones-slow-the-pandemic/?sh=49e1919a314c

San Francisco Business Times, December 8, 2020
Covid test may be as close as your smartphone, say UC, Gladstone researchers
https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2020/12/08/covid-19-coronavirus-at-home-test-crispr-doudna.html

Business Insider, December 4, 2020
New CRISPR-Based Test for COVID-19 Uses a Smartphone Camera
https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/new-crispr-based-test-for-covid-19-uses-a-smartphone-camera-1029866479?op=1

ABC7 News, January 11, 2021
Bay Area researchers develop new rapid COVID-19 that uses smartphone camera
https://abc7news.com/cellphone-covid-testing-crispr-test-smartphone-detects-phone-camera/9568999/

National Security Innovation Network Partners with UC Berkeley

The National Security Innovation Network, a program office within the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Blum Center have expanded their partnership to connect students, researchers, and entrepreneurs at the University of California, Berkeley, with the DoD. This collaboration allows NSIN to help bring the university’s energy and talent to solve important defense and national security problems.

National Security Fellow Kaitie Penry (third from left) at a Bootcamp with the 4th Fighter Wing. Photo: Vivek Rao

The National Security Innovation Network, a program office within the U.S. Department of Defense,  and the Blum Center have expanded their partnership to connect students, researchers, and entrepreneurs at the University of California, Berkeley, with the DoD. This collaboration allows NSIN to help bring the university’s energy and talent to solve important defense and national security problems. 

The NSIN efforts on campus are led by Kaitie Penry, who serves as NSIN program director at UC Berkeley to expand its network on campus and with entrepreneurs in the Bay Area.

The appointment further builds on a collaboration already established between NSIN and the Blum Center Bootcamp program. This initiative educates and empowers participants from military units to solve pressing problems within their organization. The NSIN network adapts to the emerging needs of those in the defense and national security arenas and helps link academic and venture partners to solve DoD challenges. 

As the NSIN program director at UC Berkeley, Penry builds connections by expanding NSIN programming to new and diverse communities that may have important insights for addressing national security concerns. Penry works closely with faculty, students, and industry stakeholders to help solve problems related to AI, cybersecurity, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and more.

“Our campus is filled with problem-solvers who care deeply about innovations in national security that make our planet a safer place,” said Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director of the Blum Center at UC Berkeley. “This new partnership with NSIN and the OSD will provide opportunities for innovators working across disciplines to understand and solve the complex security challenges in areas ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to cybersecurity and preventing the spread of pandemics and misinformation.”

Penry brings significant experience to this new role gained from 10 years of DoD service. In her first year at UC Berkeley she is already making an impact on innovation for national security. Penry has deployed programs such as the X-Force Fellowship, X-Force Capstone, and Hirethon to help engage students within the national security ecosystem. In Spring 2021, she will  launch the renowned Hacking for Defense program, which challenges teams of students to develop minimally viable products addressing real-world defense and national security problems, and Hacks, a program that offers students, academics, entrepreneurs, and early-stage startups a two-week period to engage in collaborative problem-solving with DoD sponsors. 

Penry has a bachelor of arts degree from UC Davis and a master of arts degree from American University. 

Penry is one of eight NSIN university program directors embedded at top research institutions. Other NSIN partner institutions are the University of Virginia, Arizona State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, South Dakota Mines, University of Washington, Washington University in St.Louis, University of Nebraska Omaha.

Amy Pickering Named Assistant Professor in Development Engineering

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor.

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor. Pickering, the Tiampo Family Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University, will commence her teaching and research duties at Berkeley in January 2021.

Professor Alice Agogino, who led the search committee and is the Blum Center’s Director of Education, notes that Pickering’s background ideally matches the needs of the Development Engineering position. She had over a decade of experience in multidisciplinary research in development, high quality scholarship, and an impressive record in both teaching innovations and diversity, equity, and inclusion contributions.

Pickering received a BS from Cornell University in Biological Engineering, a MS from UC Berkeley in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a PhD from Stanford University in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources. Her current and proposed research directions are in developing novel water and sanitation technologies, impact evaluation of scalable interventions on child health and development, and environmental surveillance for infectious diseases. She has >70 peer-reviewed publications.

Pickering has been Principal Investigator or Co-Investigator on 22 current or completed research grants from the NIH, NSF, USAID, the World Bank, and foundations including the Thrasher Research Fund, Saint Anthony Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Givewell. She has 15 years of field experience in development in Bangladesh, Benin, India, Kenya, Mali, Malaysia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.

With her strong teaching record in Environmental Engineering and Development Engineering, Pickering said she is eager to contribute to teaching the Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies course and to design new courses, such as Public Health Impacts of Climate Change and Ethics in Development Engineering. She also expects to continue her strong record of mentoring students, especially women and underrepresented minorities. 

Professor Agogino said the search committee was particularly impressed by Pickering’s work with KQED developing an e-book to engage students in STEM topics that featured an inexpensive water purification device she co-designed for use in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an initiative that included collaboration with Blum Center students. Her research has enjoyed strong interest from the press, with articles and podcasts in BBC World Service, New York Times, Lancet Press Office, Everyday Health, The Hindu, World Bank, and the ASME Global Development Review.

Joeva Sean Rock Joins Global Poverty & Practice Program

Joeva Sean Rock, an outstanding instructor in international development who researches agricultural biotechnology, food sovereignty, and environmental governance, has joined the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice program as Lecturer.

Joeva Sean Rock, an outstanding instructor in international development who researches agricultural biotechnology, food sovereignty, and environmental governance, has joined the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice program as Lecturer. 

Rock, who has served as Professorial Lecturer in the Health Inequity and Care Program in the Department of Anthropology at American University, has taught courses on globalization, social movements, and political-economic determinants of health. She earned a BA in International Studies/Political Science from UC San Diego and a MA and PhD in Anthropology from American University. She has served as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. 

Rock’s research has been funded by the Fulbright-Hays Program and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and featured in African Affairs; Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment; Global Bioethics; The Nation; Popula; and Foreign Policy in Focus. She has served as a contributor to Africa Is a Country, where she writes on issues related to development, agriculture, and social change.

Her current book project is We Are Not Starving: the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana, “an ethnography of Ghanaian activists, farmers, scientists and officials embroiled in intense debates over agricultural futures, national development and political sovereignty,” according to Rock’s website.

Among Rock’s areas of expertise is online learning, a boon for UC Berkeley, as the campus enters its first full semester of virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’m thrilled to be joining a program that takes a critical lens to poverty and development practice,” said Rock. “As inequalities continue to widen in the U.S. and around the globe, we need more than ever students and practitioners who are committed to building different, more equitable worlds. GPP 115 seeks to do just that, and equips students with interdisciplinary skills in asking deep questions, analyzing structures of inequality, and imagining alternatives.”

Deep Learning and Mindset Shifts in GPP Summer Study

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Global Poverty & Practice Experiences were cancelled this summer. However, the Blum Center created the GPP Summer Study, taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak with 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about.

The signature element of the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice undergraduate minor is a “practice experience” for students to connect the theory and practice of poverty action. Students select to work with nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, social movements, or community projects that focus on various dimensions of poverty action—from community health and food security to economic justice and grassroots political power, in the U.S. and abroad. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. Students have been forced to cancel their summer 2020 practice experiences, and seniors have questioned their ability to finish the minor. As one student wrote, “My PE in Ghana was cancelled and since I am a senior I am unable to reschedule my PE abroad to next summer.”

To address this problem, the Blum Center created an online offering for students to engage in deep learning and to allow for mindset shifts. GPP Summer Study taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak supported 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about. Problems pursued by the students included:

  • How might we address rising health disparities among low-income communities of color during the pandemic?
  • How might we reduce rates of disease in the northern region of Peru?
  • How might we expand educational technology access for young children?

Throughout the summer, GPP students leveraged toolkits from design and systems thinking to understand how to make change in a complex problem space. The first challenge was to determine what problem to tackle. Using a Ladder of Abstraction (Fig. 1), students thought critically about the problem space entailed and why it mattered. This helped them to see the problem space from multiple perspectives. They used “journey mapping” to understand, for example, the experience of an individual navigating the healthcare system during COVID-19. And they were challenged to map the system in which their problem exists—charting political, historic, economic, and social forces within specific communities. 

The students also engaged in introspection exercises to apply the same innovation process to themselves. “Students are grappling with really hard problems and questions in their life: Do I return to school during a pandemic? What are my job prospects amidst a pending global recession?” said Dzombak. “The same tools that can help a student discern a global development challenge can be used to help navigate ambiguity in their own life.” 

Dzombak said she structured the course so that students updated each other on their projects during each session. She also gave them time to connect about the complexity of being a student during a global pandemic. Asynchronous videos and resources allowed students to go deeper into their projects as time allowed. 

Said one student, “The Global Poverty & Practice Summer Study gave me a tool set to break down an issue and figure out ways I could begin to implement the changes I want seen.” A second shared: “It made me realize that GPP and my practice experience actually deal with real aspects of the world that need to be examined and not merely be seen as a ‘minor’ or a ‘practice.’”

Another Year of Outstanding Development Engineering and InFEWS Doctoral Graduates

Now in its sixth year, the Development Engineering PhD program enables UC Berkeley doctoral students from engineering and social science fields to pursue applied technological research in low-resource regions around the world. The InFEWS—Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Water, and Energy Systems—Fellowship, as part of this doctoral program, enables students to work with and for poor communities that face extreme challenges accessing nutritious food, clean and reliable energy, and safe water. Both programs recognize and stand to correct Paul Polak’s observation that 90 percent of the world’s design efforts are aimed at 10 percent of the population.

Among this year’s graduates are: Julia Kramer, who received a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a Master in Public Health and whose research focuses on global health and equity; Alana Siegner, a graduate of the Energy and Resources Group whose work addresses food distribution, access, and justice questions; and Christopher Hyun, also a PhD graduate of the Energy and Resources Group, whose research addresses water, pollution, and development, largely in South Asia.

Julia Kramer: Design for Global Health Accessibility

Julia Kramer has earned multiple advanced degrees at UC Berkeley: a Master of Public Health, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering. In addition to her scholarly work, she is co-founder of Reflex Design Collective, a consulting firm that uses design thinking to fight social inequality, and Visualize, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering and supporting midwives to screen for cervical cancer.

Kramer’s dissertation, “Designing for Health Accessibility: Case Studies of Human-Centered Design to Improve Access to Cervical Cancer Screening,” is based on her Development Engineering work in Ghana, India, and Nicaragua. She describes the impetus and framework for her research thus: “Our world faces immense challenges in global health and equity. We see huge disparities in access to health care across geographies, and while we have made massive strides in addressing health issues, we know that these disparities persist. In my dissertation, I explore the role of human-centered design to improve global health access. Human-centered design, a cross-disciplinary creative problem-solving approach, has been applied and studied in both academic research and industry practice, but its role in improving global health access remains poorly understood.

“I present research on designing for health accessibility in the context of one particular disease: cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is an illustrative example of the global disparities in access to health care, given that cervical cancer is preventable. Every year, 300,000 women around the world die of cervical cancer, and 90% are  in low- and middle-income countries. My research examines the work of two organizations that created unique solutions to improve access to cervical cancer screening in India and Nicaragua. I developed case studies of each organization grounded in ethnographic fieldwork, including over 250 hours of observation and 15 interviews over two years. Through these case studies, I show how early efforts to understand the barriers inhibiting cervical cancer screening access allow design practitioners to create novel and feasible ways to address these barriers. This demonstrates the importance of design practitioners considering multiple dimensions of accessibility, while conducting design research in order to improve the potential impact of their ideas and prototypes. Overall, this dissertation establishes the foundation of a new framework to ‘design for accessibility’ that can spark further research across sectors, including but not limited to global health.”

Alana Siegner: Education at the Intersection of Food Systems and Climate Change

After graduating with a double major in Environmental Studies and International Relation from Tufts University, Alana Siegner spent three summers in Uganda working on an Engineers Without Borders clean water storage project. Siegner then served as an AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools, working with 8th graders in Boston Public Schools. At UC Berkeley, where she completed a PhD from the Energy & Resources Group (ERG) and was an InFEWS Fellow, she researched sustainable, agroecological food systems and farm-to-school programs as mechanisms for developing student environmental and climate literacy. Her master’s project focused on the San Juan Islands as a case study of high-functioning school food programs and environmental education; and she served as a sustainable agriculture intern for two summers, working alongside small scale diversified farmers on Lopez Island. Siegner has developed, implemented, and evaluated food and climate change curriculum. She served as a graduate student researcher with the Berkeley Food Institute, working on a study of East Bay urban agroecology, with a focus on food distribution, access, and justice questions; and as an agriculture and plumbing systems engineer for the THIMBY tiny house project, a collaboration of ERG students, faculty, and graduate students from other departments.

The dissertation chapter most closely tied to Siegner’s InFEWS Fellowship is “Education: Experiential Food and Climate Change Curricula on Farms, in School Gardens, and in Humanities Classrooms.” It addresses the motivation for creating experiential, interdisciplinary, action- and solution-oriented climate change educational resources for a variety of educational settings. Using an integrated Food-Energy-Water nexus framing, she introduces concepts of systems thinking and experiential learning about natural resources as they relate to climate change education in the United States. Examples of experiential and solutions-oriented interdisciplinary curricula are provided from the San Juan Islands in Washington state, from Oakland, California, and from Washington, D.C. 

Christopher Hyun: The Challenge of Sanitation in Low-Income Communities    

Christopher Hyun has over a decade of experience in South Asia, working on water, sanitation, pollution, culture, religion, and development, particularly in the Ganges River Basin in Varanasi, India. He has worked with multiple NGOs on capacity building, education, and watershed and waste management. He earned a M.Sc. in Environmental Science from Banaras Hindu University, and in 2013 moved to Berkeley to join the master’s program in the Energy & Resources Group, then continuing on to become an InFEWS Fellow and complete his PhD at ERG with a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering.

Hyun’s dissertation, “Shit, Now What? Overcoming the Struggles of Infrastructure, Inequity, and Capacity to Achieve Sanitation for All,” details how and why inadequate sanitation is a hallmark of low-income communities in low- and middle-income countries. He writes: “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) attempts to address this challenge by declaring ‘sanitation for all’ and targeting a 50 percent reduction of ‘untreated wastewater’ by 2030. However, urban areas of low- and middle-income countries have struggled to reach such treatment targets. Since the 1980s, development practitioners and researchers have interrogated the reasons for these shortcomings, primarily focused on the need for decentralized technology; however, increasingly blame has focused on the complexity of social phenomena. My scholarship is grounded in empirical research on the challenge of sanitation in low-income communities. While centered on the crisis of sanitation, I seek to advance and inform critical theoretical and policy-relevant debates on socio-technical systems, local governance, and capacity building.

“I hypothesize that sanitation shortcomings indicate gaps and miscommunications in our collective understanding of sanitation systems. Practitioners and researchers often base interventions on the ‘sanitation service chain,’ which defines the sanitation system as an engineering one as opposed to one with both social and technological dimensions. Therefore, I ask: (1) What are the definitions, functions, and actors of sanitation uncovered across major disciplines? (2) How do these disciplinary understandings compare to baseline understandings of sanitation, i.e. SDG 6 and the sanitation service chain? I led a cross-disciplinary review team from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and Columbia University. Our discussion and results provide conceptual clarity to the complexity of sanitation systems through (1) the development of an augmented sanitation framework, as well as (2) recommendations for how cross-disciplinary research can support and advance the Sustainable Development Goals.”

LiquidGoldConcept Wins Big Ideas 2020 Scaling Up Contest

When UC Berkeley alumna Anna Sadovnikova launched her successful social enterprise devoted to helping pregnant mothers overcome the challenges of breastfeeding, she never expected that she would need to reinvent the entire program — transforming an in-person breastfeeding simulator into a virtual training program. But that’s what she and her team did this spring.

Dr. Bertram Lubin (1939-2020), An Appreciation

It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.

It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.

Bert joined the Blum Center Board of Trustees in 2016, and in 2019 he came to Blum Hall to serve as a senior health advisor because he could not fully retire. Although his career had been long and illustrious—he had served as the former president, CEO, and research director of Children’s Hospital Oakland for more than 40 years—there was still much he wanted to do.

And indeed, there was much he did do. He advised students from our Global Poverty & Practice program in their quest to reduce health inequities in California and beyond. He brainstormed with us to further the impact of the Blum Center’s Big Ideas Contest, Development Engineering programs, and healthcare technology innovations, specifically CellScope.

Months before his death, Bert was working the phones and sending emails at all hours to support Project PreVENT, to make backup ventilators available at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. He helped pull together a coalition of scientists and healthcare professionals that included College of Engineering Dean Tsu-Jae King Liu and Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell. “If there’s anything I can do to help,” was Bert’s constant refrain, during a time he was weak and fatigued from battling brain cancer.

Dr. Lubin leaves many legacies. He is widely known for advancing the concept of the social determinants of health and health equity, which include such varied factors as early child development, food security, housing, social support, education, housing, and poverty. A national expert in pediatric hematology, particularly sickle cell disease, he launched the first newborn screening program for hemoglobinopathies in California, which became the national standard, saving thousands of largely African American children’s lives. He started the first sibling cord blood banking program in the world for children with hemoglobinopathies; co-authored the first clinical best practice guidelines for sickle cell anemia; and supported the application of gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for children with hemoglobinopathies.  

At Children’s Hospital Oakland, he also mentored over 1,000 aspiring healthcare practitioners from underrepresented, minority high school, college, and post-baccalaureate institutions. The CHORI Summer Research Program was Bert’s way of saying: My parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t come from money, but now I develop groundbreaking health care programs for all children—you can, too.

In an interview for an October 2019 Blum Center article, Bert said: “I think we have to have healthcare leadership involved in public policy. If you don’t get policy and implementation together, then you’re not going to move the needle. We need to stop pursuing small economic advantages. We need to focus on big impacts for society.” 

Thank you, Dr. Bertram Lubin. We will carry your inspiration and vision with us.

—Blum Center Faculty and Staff

Blum Center for Developing Economies Statement of Solidarity for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, we remember Dr. King’s words about the rippling effect of injustice and oppression. We are horrified by the senseless racism and abuse of privilege and power that remain prevalent in parts of our society. And we stand in support of the peaceful exercise of grief, horror, and desire for systemic change for those who are injured and attacked for the color of their skin, the location of their home, or the assertion of their rights. 

The mission of the Blum Center is to promote social justice, inclusiveness, and greater economic and social opportunity for all. We believe that racial, ethnic, and religious harmony, empathy, and a shared sense of purpose are critical to solving the big problems confronting us today: the pandemic, global warming, poverty, health inequities, and racial and social injustices, to name a few. 

To create an atmosphere for working collectively on these large problems, we need to strengthen our networks of mutuality and speak a language that embodies a spirit of community, nationally and globally. We need to speak of historical sins and understanding, of the stark need for cultural, economic, and racial justice. We need to reaffirm loud and clear, Black Lives Matter. This must be part of the language with which we give power to a new culture based on solidarity, humanity, and progress.

Although we are in a moment of multiple crises: health, environmental, economic, and political, we harbor the hope that this moment can yield new understandings, futures, and destinies. Let us work together to create a more just, equitable, inclusive, healthy, and prosperous world. 

Faculty, Staff, and Students of the Blum Center


A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao—who both earned PhDs in Engineering at Cal, have expertise in design and innovation, and lecture for the Blum Center and the Haas School of Business—that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

For their 23 students—comprising even shares of graduates and undergraduates, technical and non-technical majors, and women and men—determining appropriate technological interventions to disaster-driven problems became visceral. And as the class moved online, connected by Google and Zoom instead of open studio space, the students observed how all manner of organizations were struggling to use technology to protect lives and livelihoods due to the fast-moving coronavirus.

Ethan Stobbe, a Master of Engineering student, recounted that the class started with different readings about drone technology. One reading was written for and by engineers whose view of drones was promotional and laudatory, and the other was written by and for government employees who warned about public policy problems presented by unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I realized there was this massive disconnect between the people who develop the technology and get excited about it and push it,” he said, “and the people who have to use technology to make life in a disaster zone more bearable. That’s the beauty of this class—to see both sides—and to understand how to bring technology that’s less than a decade old into a disaster response zone.”

Stobbe was assigned to the “cash disbursements” team with a fellow engineer and two lawyers. They included: Karen Olivia Jimeno, a Master of Development Practice and Fulbright student from the Philippines; Mozheng (Edward) Hu, a Master of Engineering student focused on product design from China; and Ifejesu Ogunleye, a Master of Development Practice student who trained in law at University of Manchester and the Nigerian Law School. As they conducted interviews about cash disbursement with representatives from FEMA, Give Directly, and other organizations, they were guided by Dzombak and Rao not just to focus on the mobile technology, but on “framing and reframing” their understanding of how to make cash disbursements more effective. 

Alex Diaz, Head of Crisis Response & Humanitarian Aid at Google.org, lectured to students on disaster prevention, response, and recovery, focusing on the roles of technology and governance.

The team’s first framing question was: How might we help streamline the disbursement of cash relief while maximizing its impact in disaster response? This prompted the students to question how the disbursement process works, why particular steps in the process are difficult, which organizations are the largest, and what existing standards govern the field. After conducting several interviews with practitioners, they learned that cash allocation can be enhanced through crowdsourced information and public accountability, but that targeting people is a challenge and enrollment and verification takes time. So they reframed their question to: How might we speed up the distribution of cash transfers by improving the enrollment of and verification process of disaster survivors?

The team’s final idea, which included a prototype website presented over Zoom in early May, was “biometric pre-registration” along with a policy guide to address legal concerns. The idea was to compel individuals in flood, hurricane, and other disaster zones to pre-register their biometric information on a website, in order to receive cash disbursements more easily in the event of a calamity. The point, argued the team, is to work around the problem of identification, as driver’s licenses, social security documents, and birth certificates often disintegrate in disasters. During their final presentation, the team acknowledged how seeing the rollout of the CARES Act, in which tax returns were used as a verification method, validated the need for solutions that enable quick access to cash for citizens.

Dzombak and Rao see the educational approach they offer to the cash disbursement and other teams as part of the emerging discipline of Development Engineering. “Development Engineering embraces complexity as a sub-discipline in itself,” explained Rao. “A lot of ways that design-based problem solving or technology-driven problem solving is taught—the problem isn’t engaged in a multi-dimensional way.”

Dzombak underscored that although the course teaches design methodologies, “The actual project is the focus and outcome of the class. The projects themselves demand that one builds technical and social fluencies and specifically how to move back and forth between the two to solve problems that matter.”

Dzombak feels strongly that STEM education needs more problem contextualization, more emphasis on ethics, and more rigor around collaboration and teamwork. She was drawn to Development Engineering during her PhD at UC Berkeley because she wants to see academic inventions tested and applied but also because she believes that well implemented technologies, devised in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way, can improve and even save lives.

Rao explained that there is a long orthodoxy in higher education that you must learn theory before exploring applied technologies or solutions—an orthodoxy that stems from the need for deep knowledge before tackling complex problems. “But there is also an urgency to many problems,” said Rao. “Students have a hunger for them and there are many ways to contribute to problems before you have a PhD in a specific field.”

Rao noted that the accessibility of technology is changing who gets to intervene in disasters and how. “The ability to manufacture a mechanical part would previously have required a high degree of fluency in several knowledge areas and toolkits,” he said. “Now, a rough prototype of that  product can be designed and built with a credit card and a few clicks. In many cases, the learning curve on technical tools has eased to the point where you can engage with tools and theory simultaneously and cater to students where they are.”

Dzombak noted that the augmented reality and data visualization sessions of their course would not have been possible four years ago when she and Rao were working on their doctorates. “Every student would have needed a background in programming and hardware in order to engage in that space. But given where toolkits are now, students were able to download software, do some reading, and then engage in a meaningful way.”

Since technologies will alway be advancing, Dzombak and Rao believe there is a growing space for people who are tech savvy but not tech specialized and can frame questions while leveraging the latest tools. “We’re trying to teach students how to learn how to learn in a very explicit way,” said Dzombak. “Because of the way jobs are shifting, people are going to be forced to get up to speed on new technologies and figure out how to use them to tackle problem areas.”

The student team that explored drone imagery is an example of this approach. They were excited to apply drone technology to fire mitigation in California. But after talking to fire chiefs, image processing researchers, and drone operators and designers, they surfaced several problem areas in which they did not have the expertise to make a contribution. For example, they knew that one of the challenges in using drone video footage during disasters is how best to parse the massive amount of data generated. And they also knew that drones suffer from flight mechanics and battery power issues during disasters, but those issues are best handled by drone manufacturers. Where could they make an impact?

One area where they found less activity is how to leverage public and private drone operation after the first hour of a disaster. The “Rapidash” prototype—developed by Master of Development Practice Student Aaron Scherf, Master of Engineering Student Wai Yan Nyein, Cognitive Science Student Meera Ramesh, and Data Science Student Jinsu Elhance—is an app that enables public and and private drone operators to collaborate during disasters by providing maps of high vulnerability areas and access by firefighters to this information. The idea is to get firefighters crucial information about the direction and density of a blaze as soon as possible and especially when public drones are too far away. 

Katie Wetstone, a Master of Development Practice student who was assigned to the “disinformation” team, said that this kind of idea formation has been a strength of the class. “We were given a structured way to process information after interviews and organize different insights,” she said. “This approach is different from other courses, in that we have more time to research and understand a problem space rather than jumping to a solution.”

Wetstone said it wasn’t until the last third of the class, after interviews with Alex Diaz at Google.org and Chris Worman at TechSoup, that her team homed in on the idea that disinformation is a “public sector problem in a private sector space.” They also realized that immediately after a disaster there is an “information vacuum period” when a lot of disinformation spreads, making people vulnerable to news that increases anxiety and bad decisions. 

“This whole problem is a balance between education, technology, and policy,” said Master of Development Practice Student Sadie Frank. “Until the policy mechanisms around enforcement and regulation of social media change, or until private social media companies make significant personnel investments, our best approach might be to teach people how to recognize and avoid disinformation.”

During the final projects showcase, the disinformation team presented “Compasio,” a downloadable device extension that filters potentially inaccurate information on social media through pre-verified accounts and geolocation. The software essentially warns users when information is suspect or unverified. 

Dzombak notes that “Innovation in Disaster Response” is not meant to jumpstart social enterprise ideas, such as new apps and web services, though it might. “The training is meant to prevent unintended consequences once students go into the workforce. That’s why we spent a lot of time on critical thinking, ethics and values, decision-making,  and teaming.”

Deniz Dogruer, an Engineering Education PhD Student and COO of Squishy Robotics, who served as the graduate student instructor for the course, noted that the range of disaster-related problem spaces students explored—drones, disinformation, evacuation, disaster documentation, and cash disbursement—made the course particularly complex to teach but also advantageous for development engineering training.

On Zoom: Innovation in Disaster Response Graduate Instructor Deniz Dogruer (upper left) and Course Developer-Lecturers Rachel Dzombak (upper right) and Vivek Rao (bottom).

Although the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the course online gave faculty and students a chance to consider the importance of technology during disasters, Dzombak said it’s been a “mixed bag.” 

“In some ways, it gives students an excellent way to connect with their learning. The disinformation team, for example, was inundated with so many examples of how their problem can manifest,” she said. “On the flip side, so many people think the future of education is purely online. But the intangibles that we’re trying to teach—collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, process iteration, emotional connections—are just drastically changed. I think the irony is that solving complex societal problems requires people collaboration as much if not more than advances in technology. We need to be present with each other, not just with the machine.” 

—Tamara Straus

George Moore Wins Chancellor’s Award for Public Service

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students.

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students. The Blum Center emailed with Moore to find out more about his academic and extracurricular interests and views on the culture of STEM.  

What was it like to move to UC Berkeley for grad school after growing up in Alabama and attending University of South Alabama? 

These two places have really different cultural values. So, in addition to the excitement of being in a new physical space, there was a lot for me to learn about Bay Area culture. In general, my decision to come to Berkeley was intentional: I knew that my academic capacity and personal lifestyle would be challenged.

Why have you felt compelled to help underrepresented communities develop STEM skills or advance in their STEM careers?

All underrepresented communities are not the same. It would be foolish to think that I have something helpful to offer just because I also identify as a member of an underrepresented community. But because support for these communities is insufficient, I feel inspired to give what I have to offer. Because I have been able to navigate a piece of the STEM institutional system, it’s easier for me to feel more comfortable offering my service in these disciplines. What I think is most important is that I offer my experience and advice purely as a resource, and not a conviction, that should be imposed on someone else’s lifestyle. In other words, it’s not my place to steer underrepresented folks towards an engineering degree or, more broadly, pursuing a STEM career. Instead, one of my essential goals is to shed some light on how to navigate and leverage opportunities in STEM when the system is not designed for you to succeed. I’d hate to see someone abandon their cultural values for a career in STEM. 

Tell us about your service work—with the SMASH Academy and the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet, share, and learn from scholars at the SMASH Academy and community members of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. With both groups, I was able to share some of the Human Centered Design strategies that I and other practitioners use to address big problems. My hope is that my work reassures and, if necessary, instills confidence in SMASH Scholars and the PPN community so that they are aware of their capacity to solve their own problems.

As vice president of the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Student Association, what kinds of programs have you implemented?

I’ve worked alongside Liya Weldegebriel (BGESS President) and several other strong black graduate students on the BGESS executive team to help provide supportive programming for BGESS members this year. A few notable programs include our Buddy Lunch mentorship program, Professional Development Workshop, Cultural Exchange Speakers Series, and attendance at AfroTech in the Fall. The Buddy Lunch program matches BGESS members based on their interests and encourages them to meet up for lunch to share experiences and advice navigating life at UC Berkeley. Recently, the program has moved to virtual lunches via Zoom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Professional Development Workshop was inspired by conversations about figuring out how to prepare ourselves for life after graduate school. The Cultural Exchange Speaker Series have offered a platform to have culturally relevant conversations with each other. These events range from panel sessions with prominent black scholars in STEM to sharing our own cultural backgrounds—acknowledging that while we share a lot of the same values and struggles as the black graduates in STEM, our cultural backgrounds are actually quite different. AfroTech is an annual Conference held in the Bay Area that focuses on accelerating black careers in engineering, design, and entrepreneurship. Thousands of black professionals in STEM and related fields attend this conference every year. In the Fall of 2019, we had at least 15 BGESS members attend. 

Your LinkedIn page notes that you are “On a mission to thread a desire for empowering marginalized communities with a passion for sustainable design. Hence, I stay familiar, and critical, of frameworks like the Human-centered Design process and Life Cycle Analysis.” Please explain your skepticism about HCD and LCA. What issues does it fail to address for marginalized communities?

While these frameworks are constantly being modified to better serve their purpose, “service to marginalized communities” is not always included in that purpose. So it’s important that I use these frameworks with caution and understand the underlying assumptions that other researchers and practitioners have made. A good understanding of these assumptions is what enables me to refine these frameworks to better serve a marginalized community of interest.