During Intersession, while many Hopkins students were sleeping and eating at home or taking classes at Hopkins, Yunuscan Sevimli, Sakina Girnary, and Makesi Paul were halfway across the world, asking questions, exploring a new culture, and engineering life-changing devices. I got the chance to catch up with Yunus to hear about his travels and what he learned.
Monica: Give me some background: who are your partners for this project and how is it being funded?
Yunus: We are working through Global Engineering Innovations within the Institute of NanoBiotechnology at Hopkins. GEI’s goal is to determine a need, develop solutions, and carry out those solutions in developing countries. There is a large focus on the implementation aspect of the project. GEI has also sent Hopkins students to Tanzania and Brazil. Our advisor, Dr. Elisseeff, connected us with Kopernik, an international NGO headquartered in Indonesia that aims to create technologies and give them to people who need them most.
Monica: What was your goal going into Indonesia?
Yunus: Our specific goal was to initiate contact between Hopkins and Kopernik. Next, we wanted to learn the culture so that we could figure out any problems and come up with solutions. Oh, and obviously, to learn as students.
M: Let’s dive right in. What is your project?
Y: We visited two target villages in East Java and both of them were very different regarding their income. In Bojonegoro, the biggest problem was rice processing. The process was very inefficient, and throughout the process, they would cut themselves and would experience respiratory problems. We essentially combined some of the normal processes into one machine that would do all of it.
In Tuban, a coastal village, the main source of income is fishing. But there was no technology to store fish (no refrigerators), so they would dry the fish. This created a lot of sanitation concerns and became a problem because it rains all the time there. We created a solar furnace to dry the fish.
M: How important is it to understand the culture throughout the engineering process?
Y: If you’re trying to make a difference, you should start with the culture. Start with them. You should listen to them completely objectively without any assumptions. That’s really important.
We spent most of our time interviewing people and households. We went into Indonesia knowing they may have “these problems,” but we weren’t sure until we actually talked to them. For instance, we thought/ were told that corn harvesting was a bigger deal but when we went there, we heard that rice harvesting was actually a bigger deal.
M: What was your biggest takeaway from your field experience in Indonesia?
Y: Culturally, I would personally call myself open minded, and I have traveled abroad a lot.* But Southeast Asia is really different. Being there made me realize that I actually know nothing and how much there actually is to learn.
Technically, we had to work with local materials like bamboo, and it was a challenge. If we were doing the same thing here at Hopkins we would go to the machine shop and measure precisely, but that’s not how it works in the field. There, you would cut bamboo with saws and see if the pieces stuck together.
*Yunus is from Istanbul, Turkey!
M: How have your engineering classes prepared you for this project and where were they lacking?
Y: When I went there, I had taken senior design for a semester. In that semester, I learned how to use a lot of hand tools. For our first three years, we did a lot of learning engineering. But we just started doing engineering through this senior design project. This helped me learn how to make an actual prototype. My experiences from our hands on classes are what really helped me.
But it was also a culture shock. I don’t know if there was a way to be prepared for that.
M: What was so shocking about it?
Y: The way of thinking. For example, the people there thought, I cut my hands day after day, and so did my father and his father and his father… That’s just how it is, and you get used to it. We view these problems and say, “There has to be a better way. How could we solve this?”
M: What is the potential impact for your project?
Y: Obviously to improve people’s lives. This is going to become a business. We are doing this with local materials and tools, so that a local carpenter can make it and sell it to people. It’s going to improve the quality of life of people (no more cutting hands, respiratory problems). It will also will create awareness; most people didn’t even know they had respiratory problems.
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M: What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring engineers who want to make a difference in the developing world?
Y: There are a lot of things that are hard to calculate before you actually implement a solution. A lot of cultural considerations. Engineering done in a lab in Baltimore is barely applicable to a fisherman in East Java. Human interaction is the key to development. You could create the best technology and if it doesn’t fit into cultural norms there, it won’t help them.
How important do you think culture is in engineering considerations? If you could travel anywhere to engineer a project, where would you go?