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Engineering World Health to Expand

In 2005, Aditi Misra spent a summer in an El Salvador hospital striving to keep ancient hospital equipment, such as ventilators and ECG machines, in good working order. If she and the other students in the Engineering World Health (EWH) summer program had stayed home that summer, many patients would have suffered.

For Misra, who graduated from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering with an MS in engineering management that year, the experiences she had helping doctors deliver health care in a developing country profoundly shaped her future.

“I realized that most of us forget the real world around us, where people suffer and struggle through life every day,” Misra said. “It is our job as the more fortunate to help these people. It’s just an accident of birth that we aren’t in their place. Engineering World Health was a wake-up call for me.”

After graduation she joined the Boston Consulting Group in its Atlanta office. However, the India native still wanted an outlet to help those less fortunate. She found that the international group Child Rights and You (CRY), an organization whose goal is to improve the lives of children in India, was having trouble establishing a presence in the U.S. Because of her efforts, there is now an American office in which she plays an active role.

Since its inception in 2004, hundreds of students – many from Duke – have put their engineering skills and ingenuity to use repairing medical equipment in often remote locations under less-than-perfect conditions in the Duke-EWH Summer Institute.

In the process of providing a much needed service to medical facilities in such developing countries as Sudan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the students in turn gain unique insights into the problems facing millions who don’t have access to the latest in medical care and how the medical community copes with these issues.

Robert MalkinAs a result of a new $2.1 million grant from EWH, the summer institute will not only be supported for the next five years, but will expand. More students will be able to participate and more health care facilities will be included in the program, according to Robert Malkin, Pratt professor of the practice of biomedical engineering and director of the Duke-EWH Summer Institute.

“With this grant, 300 students will have the opportunity to participate in this life-changing experience over the next five years,” Malkin said. “Just as importantly, during that period they will be putting almost $8 million worth of equipment back into service to help more than 100,000 people a year.”

Among the changes to come in the coming years are an increase in the number of students who can participate and an increase from 23 to 30 the number of hospital sites to be served.

Malkin is particularly excited about two new features that will be included in coming summer programs – the inclusion of rural sites in the experience and a more formal and expanded annual conference for participants at the program’s conclusion.

“In the past, students have only worked in hospitals,” Malkin explained. “In the new model, students will travel from clinic to clinic in the countryside, expanding their impact to people who are unable to seek care in the larger, urban hospitals. While there may be less technology at these sites, the impact of malfunctioning equipment becomes magnified.”

Also, while each summer session ends with a meeting in Washington, EWH plans to make these annual conferences even more meaningful by inviting other non-governmental organizations (NGO), such as USAID, the World Bank and Project Hope to participate.

“We’d like to see students and workers from other programs present their Third World experiences as well,” Malkin said. “That way we can all learn more from each other.”

At this past summer’s conference, Frank Webb, EWH’s executive director and chief executive officer, was impressed by the participants as they related their experiences and impressions of their time in the Central America Summer Institute.

“For all of them it had been an eye-opening, potentially life-changing experience, while for many people in the communities they had served, their work may truly have made the difference between life and death,” Webb said. “We are thrilled that EWH and Duke University have committed to continue a partnership that offers this rare opportunity for students to participate meaningfully in international development and make a difference to people's lives."

Misra hopes that future participants are as inspired as she was by her time in El Salvador.

“Once I was part of an organization that really helped people like EWH, I realized that all you need to do to help was to have the will to do so,” Misra said. “My experience with EWH was the single most important and defining period of my college life and the effect of that experience will last with me forever. More importantly, it felt great, meaningful.”

Applications for the 2009 institute will be accepted through Jan. 30 and are available online.