Research on affordable technologies for developing countries a two-way street be

The School for International Affairs in cooperation with the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI), the Uganda Management Institute, and Penn State's new Center for Global Studies recently hosted a live videoconference event entitled “From Lab to the Field: An International Discussion of Affordable Technologies” on April 22.

Teams of Penn State students and researchers shared their research on innovations for developing countries with researchers at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. In turn, the Ugandan researchers presented information on their projects as well as challenges that they face in implementing their innovative ideas in the field. The idea for the event was first conceived by SIA's Professor Caroline Wagner and the staff of GKI, which specializes in forging partnerships to solve shared challenges that require science and innovation for solutions. Wagner is a GKI Fellow.

Recognizing that Penn State University is home to more than 38,000 future engineers and thousands of researchers of food science, material science, and agricultural science, the fit seemed perfect for GKI to collaborate with Wagner and other faculty to devise a matchmaking event. The goal of the event was to bring Penn State students and faculty face to face with their colleagues in Uganda with whom they could jointly devise solutions to some of the toughest development challenges facing the world today.

Dr. Nina Fedoroff, Penn State Professor emeritus and co-chair of GKI's Advisory Board and most recently the science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, explained the impetus for the collaboration. “During my time as science adviser, we organized a global conference of university chancellors, rectors, and presidents. What was articulated was that we have lots of university to university agreements, but what we don't have are connections between individual researchers. The genesis of the GKI is to connect individual researchers to solve problems.”

Today GKI's programs extend across Africa, South Asia and the United States. The organization specializes in helping people locate the technical, human, institutional, communication, and knowledge-based resources needed for collaborative problem solving. GKI then enables them to collaborate through competitions, trainings, and capacity-building initiatives. Seeking to deepen its relationship with Penn State, GKI is keen to offer both students and faculty an outlet to practically apply their skills and knowledge to critical challenges impacting the developing world. 

Speaking of the resonance of GKI's goals to Penn State, Dr. Sophia McClennen, director of the Center for Global Studies said, “This is an extremely exciting opportunity for us. One of the things that we are interested in is advancing global research and global partnerships. This event symbolizes one of our best opportunities to do that.” She continued, “The technology that is allowing this conference to take place is also one of the things that we are interested in trying to use more often in order to allow faculty and students from different parts of the world to communicate on their research.”

A Two-Way Street

For several years, Penn State students and researchers have worked to design low-cost structures, medical instruments, a social networking system, and agricultural devices to help the developing world. Medical instruments included spirometers to test lung capacity for conditions such as tuberculosis, pulse oximeters, and infant scales—all costing less than $10. The normal market price for each item can be as high as $500. Researchers discussed designs for other projects including: an anaerobic digester to produce methane for cooking; a machine to improve the nutritional quality and shelf-life of injera, a staple in Ethiopia.

After sharing their findings, Penn State researchers briefly heard about the research efforts and successful projects of their Ugandan colleagues, some of whom are facing similar challenges – the protection of intellectual property rights for new products like a “milk booster,” the ability to implement technologies in remote areas, and the dissemination of these technologies.

“We hope that this is just the first of many opportunities to connect researchers from around the globe with each other while putting innovations to work to solve real world challenges,” said Sara Farley, the Chief Operating Officer of GKI. “GKI is a resource for both sides of this equation as you move toward equal partnerships. We have many models to translate this first virtual meeting into partnerships poised to deliver solutions.” The evidence:  a planned 2012 Penn State-GKI-Africa Collaboration Summit that would bring several of the Africans who attendees met on April 22 to campus to build on this first exposure.

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