public service

This is the first in a series of posts exploring Independent Activities Period (IAP) from students’ perspectives.

Sandra Chen

Sandra mentoring students on their project.

Guest blogger: Sandra Chen ’12

Hello from South Bend, Indiana! My name is Sandra Chen, a sophomore in the mechanical engineering department spending the first week of IAP, Jan 4–8, participating in the MIT Women’s Initiative Program. This is a student-run group whose mission is to encourage more women to pursue degrees and careers in engineering starting at the middle-school level. My partner, Elizabeth Kowalski (grad student, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), and I were selected to present about engineering to young girls curious to learn.

South Bend Middle School students having fun building their paper tower

South Bend Middle School students having fun building their paper tower.

Our week consists of visiting seven middle schools, with several presentations in the morning and afternoon. We reached approximately 600 girls to educate them on the following topics:

  • What an engineer does
  • Adjectives to describe an engineer
  • Stereotypes of engineers
  • What engineers design and make
  • Different types of engineering

In addition, we also described our research to the girls to get the students thinking about how engineers contribute to society. In terms of research, Elizabeth works on the U.S.’s contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project focusing on fusion energy. I conduct research on drug delivery and development.

Elizabeth Kowalski

Besides presenting, we also explored the scenic campus of Notre Dame, viewed artwork in the Snite Museum, and had delicious bread bowls at the Chocolate Cafe in downtown South Bend. Pictured, Elizabeth in front of the Notre Dame football stadium.

We incorporated an activity in our presentation where the students were assigned to build the tallest free-standing tower without any other materials besides two pieces of newspaper and imagination. The goal was for the students to gain hands-on knowledge on what an engineer, in this case a civil engineer, might do on a daily basis. The students were very curious and asked a variety of questions pertaining to being an engineer and about our research!

Learn more about the MIT Women’s Initiative.

Guest Blogger: Steve Lustig ’93

As they approached graduation, Omprakash Gnawali ’01 , SM ’02 and Hesky Fisher ’02 talked about starting a non-profit organization to help out children in Omprakash’s native Nepal. With the help of a social worker in Nepal and some other interested friends at MIT, the Nepalese Children’s Education Fund (NCEF) was born. As Omprakash explains, “We gathered a group of students who wanted to stop talking and start doing.”

Volunteers distribute educational materials.

Volunteers distribute educational materials.

Today NCEF is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop the potential of disadvantaged Nepalese children through education. NCEF identifies children unable to pursue education because of the economic situation of their families. Students are provided with tuition, textbooks and supplies to enroll in school. Our dedicated network of volunteers in Nepal meet regularly with the children and their parents to monitor the progress of the student through school. We dedicate our resources to each child until they complete their high school education. NCEF is sponsoring over 60 students this year, making a major impact on their lives and those of their families. Why focus on education, when there are a variety of needs waiting to be met? Omprakash comments, “Most people that I know who have been successful in leading a life with some basic human dignity have been able to do so through education.”

As MIT students, the first thing they did was set up a website for the charity. At the time they laughed that this was a very nerdy way to start a charity. However, it very quickly began to pay off. While they recruited and raised funds among friends and family and even found a board member by posting in the Tech Review, it was through the web site that most people found NCEF. It didn’t take long before they started getting contacted by people across the U.S. and the world wanting to get involved.

As the founding members of NCEF were graduating and moved far from each other, it became clear that the organization existed as a distributed entity with the web site at its center. Most records are kept directly on the web site—transparency is an important aspect. Members collaborate over email and phone conferences as there is no paid staff or office, which allows more of the money to be spent directly on funding the childrens’ education. Many members…

Learn how alumni and students help today…


Drs. Dheera Ananthakrishnan and David Katz in the operating theatre, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Blantyre, Malawi.

From left: Drs. Dheera Ananthakrishnan and David Katz in the operating theatre, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Blantyre, Malawi.

Every day in the U.S. orthopedic surgeons use basic trauma plates and screws to set and repair fractures in patients’ arms, legs, and other bones. But in the developing world, where this equipment is often not available, a broken arm can mean the difference between a family’s breadwinner being able to work or not. And, because surgeries are infrequent, new doctors can’t be adequately trained. When orthopedic surgeon Dheera Ananthakrishnan ’90 learned from company reps that a surplus of first-generation orthopedic implants sat gathering dust in warehouses, she decided to do something to unite obvious demand with abundant supply.

Having studied mechanical engineering at MIT, the logistical problem appealed to Ananthakrishnan. She joined with orthopedist Jim Kercher and his wife, Heather Kercher, both Georgia Tech-trained engineers, to apply supply chain management principles to the problem. Before long, Orthopaedic Link (OL) was born. It’s a nonprofit that uses an online portal to connect idle, usable orthopedic implant surpluses with the surgeons and organizations in the developing world that need them.

Dr. Nyengo Mkandawire, the only Malawian-born orthopedic surgeon operating in Malawi today, with a patient of his who had been treated for four months by a traditional healer for a herniated disc in her low back. She was unable to walk when she came to Queens Hospital. Mkandawire performed a lumbar discectomy surgery on her, and just before this picture was taken, they were dancing together!

Dr. Nyengo Mkandawire, the only Malawian-born orthopedic surgeon operating in Malawi today, with a patient who had been treated for four months by a traditional healer for a herniated disc in her low back. She was unable to walk when she came to Queens Hospital. Mkandawire performed surgery on her using supplies delivered by Orthopaedic Link, and just before this picture was taken, they were dancing together!

Recipient hospitals and doctors, though, are fully evaluated before they can receive supplies. “We’re trying to find surgeons with a good skill set who are limited mainly by a lack of supplies, in developing countries that are politically stable,” Ananthakrishnan explains. She seeks doctors already providing services for free and who are looking to train other doctors and students. She herself personally visits sites to observe surgeries and understand the needs of a hospital. Ananthakrishnan and her team also follow up with the doctors and patients to gather feedback about the efficacy of the donated equipment.

Success story—Philippines
The government hospital Davao Medical Center (DMC), the only hospital in the Philippines that performs charity spinal surgery, houses the best spine surgeons in the region but they lack the implants needed to treat patients. One year after Ananthakrishnan and her partners conceived of OL, in March 2009, patients at DMC were receiving much-needed spinal implants. One patient, Donald Manurong, a 46-year-old coconut picker and sole supporter of nine, fractured his spine after falling out of a tree and was unable to provide for his family. He could have been crippled for life, but after his surgery he is recovering and will soon be back to work. Since OL’s visit, doctors have performed nine other spinal surgeries—valuable training for the next generation of surgeons. See photos of Orthopaedic Link in the Philippines (on Facebook) and read a blog post by a resident training there. (more…)

A demonstration for kids at the 2008 Cambridge Science Festival

At the "Science Comes Alive" event at the 2008 Cambridge Science Festival, MIT Club of Boston member John Dolhun PhD '72 led a group of club volunteers in presenting educational experiments and demonstrations for kids.

We all know it’s good to give back and volunteer in our communities. Here’s a fun way to do just that. The Cambridge Science Festival, a nine-day celebration of science and technology that encourages audience participation and discovery, is currently seeking proposals of lectures, performances, family activities, exhibits, tours, debates, workshops, and any other creative activity for the fourth annual event, held April 24-May 2, 2010. The citywide science extravaganza, the first of its kind in the U.S., showcases Cambridge as a leader in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by making science accessible, interactive, and fun. Think movie or art festival, but for STEM.

Past presenters have offered hands-on origami demonstrations, taught the basics of solar cookery, explored sound through numerous musical instruments, run a mystery game using handheld GPS devices, and helped kids build and launch water-bottle rockets. Festival participants are selected through a curated process, and proposals are judged based on audience appeal, technical feasibility, site availability, and funding. Applicants are encouraged to involve community-based organizations in the planning and production of programs. Proposal deadline is December 12, 2009.

Learn more about the festival and submit proposals.

Last Sunday Melissa Williams ’06 was lounging in her California apartment when her mother burst in with plans for a walk, an ab workout, and a leg workout. No, Williams’ mother is not a fitness instructor. She’s just excited about training for a longer walk that her daughter has planned, one that will raise money to support diabetes awareness and prevention—and last about six months. From January through June 2010, Williams (joined frequently by her mother) will be walking from San Diego up along the coast to San Francisco, and then heading east through wine country to Sacramento.

Slice recently asked Williams about the walk and MIT’s involvement with it. Interview below:

Slice: Why did you start the California Wellness Walk? What motivated you to get involved with diabetes awareness and prevention?

MW: The walk started as an interesting idea last fall. I work as a healthcare consultant helping pharmaceutical companies make better investments. In one project, I worked with a talented team to model diabetes, and the results of the model scared me into action. Diabetes is unique—prevalence is skyrocketing, but at the same time, healthy lifestyle choices significantly reduce your risk of diabetes. With a lifetime of obesity and a family of diabetics, I was well on my way to becoming a diabetic myself, but healthy habits and weight loss could change that future. I realized that I needed to change, and in the process of getting healthy, I wanted to help inspire others. From there, the Walk was born. Growing up I was the fat kid who couldn’t run a mile to save her life. Now at 24, I’m walking from San Diego to Sacramento showing by example that you can make a positive change in yourself.

Slice: What is MIT’s role?

MW: MIT has been a large part of the success of this project. While a Biology undergrad, I volunteered with Keys to Empowering Youth. KEYs brings together 11-13 year old girls in workshops with college girls to encourage interest in science and engineering. It was an amazing experience mentoring these girls month after month and watching their excitement and interest grow, and that experience formed the foundation of the classroom workshops with the Walk. Just as we were encouraging interest in science and engineering in KEYs, I would like to encourage healthy habits through the Walk workshops.

While at MIT, I also worked at the Public Service Center, and when I came up with the idea for the Walk, I contacted Sally Susnowitz to get her opinion. Since then, Sally has been a wonderful mentor and coach, and the walk would not be where it is without her. Add in my friends from MIT who have all pitched into the planning, and MIT has been instrumental in the Walk.

Slice: Whom will you be walking with?

MW: I will walk the full 750 miles and be joined at different stages by fellow walkers. My mother is walking for the majority of the Walk, Cate Smith  ’06 is walking in April after receiving her MD, and others are pitching in for other weeks and long-weekends. It’s a diverse group and we’re all committed to improving our health and the health of others.

Slice: How have people responded to your project?

MW: Throughout the planning, we’ve had an amazing outpouring of support. I have been consistently amazed at the time that people have devoted to the Walk and the commitment they have shown through connecting us with their friends and coworkers. Through planning the Walk, I’ve had the opportunity to meet countless interesting people and the reactions have been consistently positive – though sometimes completely disbelieving! “You’re walking how far?!”

Slice: MIT alumni will be hosting you along the way. How did you find the alumni hosts?

MW: We’ve worked closely with the listings on the Alumni Association’s Infinite Connection. There are over 5000 alumni along the route! We’re currently conducting our first wave of outreach and are optimistic from our early responses.

Learn more about the walk on Melissa’s blog, or follow her Twitter feed. Donations are accepted through her CA Wellness Walk Web site.

Tish Scolnik '10 working in Tanzania.

Tish Scolnik '10 working in Tanzania.

Glamour Magazine named Tish Scolnik as one of their Top 10 College Women (video), recognizing her work on mobility issues for the disabled, in the October issue. As a Public Service Center Fellow, Tish has traveled to Africa three times working with wheelchair workshops. Tish designed a three-wheel folding “small-business wheelchair” and five have since been built. Tish is also a member of the Leveraged Freedom Chair team, which designed a long-distance, lever-powered wheelchair that can traverse rugged terrain. Tish is also working with one of her community partners in Tanzania to build a new wheelchair workshop and skills training center.

Tish has helped four disabled entrepreneurs to start small businesses in Tanzania. These pilot entrepreneurs, emplower with their new wheelchairs, began by selling batik and bead jewelry, fixing small electrical goods, and repairing shoes. The shoe repair man has used some of his business profits to help two other disabled entrepreneurs to set-up shoe-shining businesses close to his stall.

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