Development engineers support sustainability through self-sufficiency

BESTie doctoral student Sonia Travaglini’s article in Berkeley Science Review (Thinking inside the cardboard box) is also published in the University of California News and Sonia Travaglini’r research is in sustainable materials and novel mushroom biomaterials. She is on track for receiving a Designated Emphasis (PhD minor) in  Development Engineering and is exploring how Engineering can help people around the world. Sonia was recently elected as a Graduate Council representative for the 2017-18 Graduate Assembly.


How do you help someone thousands of miles away in an Indian slum fix their roof, or someone in the African urban jungle access cervical cancer screening? You might think of sending some money, or perhaps supporting some charitable agencies. But in recent years a new solution has emerged — one that empowers as it helps people solve their own problems.

The latest kind of engineering being explored at UC Berkeley helps those in the lowest resource areas of the world by finding ways to solve big problems without needing big resources. This rapidly evolving field is called development engineering, the core concept of which is helping others help themselves. While traditional aid imports finite resources that require an agency to distribute and maintain, development engineering finds new ways for a community to use their resources, knowledge, and people-power in solving their problems. After all, who is more motivated to solve a problem than those affected by it?

UC Berkeley’s long history of philanthropic work has paved the way for engineering solutions in some of the world’s most difficult living conditions. Founded in 2006, the Blum Center for Developing Economies is an interdisciplinary hub that supports and trains scholars across UC Berkeley to apply their skills to helping those who need it most. The development engineering program at UC Berkeley offers practical courses aimed at helping diverse teams of engineers, data scientists, entrepreneurs, and many other specialists figure out new ways of making life better with technology and ideas.

One such class is headed by the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Alice Agogino, also the chair of the Development Engineering Graduate Group. “Development engineering is about using ideas and technology to help solve challenging problems using an interdisciplinary approach that builds on and contributes to a research foundation,” says Agogino, who teaches the project-based development engineering seminar course for graduate students. “Solutions have to be self-sustaining. It’s about understanding the whole situation,” she explains.

To empower a community to use the resources they have on hand, development engineers must get into the nuances of the everyday lives of those they aid. Development engineering uses analysis, user research, and design methodology to come up with solutions and then test those solutions to make sure they really work. Development engineers’ solutions are created with first-hand input from people immersed in the community. Exploring the locals’ knowledge and skills enable development engineers to find scalable — and sustainable — solutions.

VIA screening traditionally relies on community doctors or local medical staff to screen for cervical cancer. Development engineers created a kit, called Visualize, that teaches anyone how to use the VIA screen. This kit allows local midwives to screen for cervical cancer. Image by Ashley Truxal.

Julia Kramer’s research on VIA cervical cancer screening to rural communities is also highlighted:

Recently, a team of development engineers has been working to enable women to monitor their cervical health even without trained medical staff. The UC Berkeley team is led by Julia Kramer, a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, who co-founded Visualize, a project to design and implement training for VIA cervical cancer screening in Africa. What began as immersive research project in Ghana led to an idea to empower local women by training midwives to screen for cervical cancer. While several organizations have worked to bring VIA cervical cancer screening to rural communities, none have taken the novel approach of empowering midwives. Midwives are traditional providers of reproductive healthcare in these communities, and by developing a technology to train them in the VIA screening methods, women can effectively help other women prevent cancer.

Read the full article at Berkeley Science Review. Also see Sonia’s article on her Fungi research.

Featured image: Sonia Travaglini, credit Dan Lurie