The Promised Land

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Foreign Affairs Symposium Anne Smedinghoff Award

Last night, I had the opportunity to hear from Shabana Basij-Rasikh, the president and co-founder of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, which is Afghanistan’s first boarding school for women. Ms. Basij-Rasikh was presented with the Inaugural Anne Smedinghoff Award by the family of Anne Smedinghoff through the Foreign Affairs Symposium, which will be presented to an individual who is committed to education, development and global harmony.

Anne: Scholar, Diplomat, Friend

Anne Smedinghoff, who graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2009 with a degree in International Studies and served an Executive Director of the Foreign Affairs Symposium, was killed on April 6, 2013 by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, on her way to deliver books to a local school. From the words that were said last night, I think I would have wanted to be Anne’s friend. She was an adventurer, a servant, a hard worker, and perhaps, most importantly, a good friend. In her honor, the Foreign Affairs Symposium has created the Annual Anne Smedinghoff Award and has established the Anne Smedinghoff Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will go to a student who wishes to follow in Anne’s career path of foreign service.

How much is an education worth?

  I encourage you to check out Ms. Basij-Rasikh’s Ted Talk to learn more about how she risked her life to go to school or about how she started a school for Aghanistan women as a sophomore in college or how she has helped her students win over $10 million in scholarships. Oh, and by the way, she’s 24.

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With poise, she spoke about how, contrary to popular belief, the people of Afghanistan love Americans and that technology and conditions have been progressively been getting better.

Moral Responsibility

One note that Ms. Basij-Rasikh focused on was that we have a moral responsibility to use our education in a way that helps others. How true. How refreshing. How forgotten. We are blessed. If you are in the small minority of 6.7% of individuals hold a college degree, you are extremely blessed. And you are extremely obligated. There is a weight that comes with privilege.

college degrees worldwide, Nelson Mandela, monica rex

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela

When I asked Ms. Basij-Rasikh about what we—as college students—could do, she spoke about getting involved in the SOLA’s Skype mentoring program. For instance, one of the girls wants to be a businesswoman; her mentor works for a hedgefund. Ms. Basij-Rasikh mentioned that one of the girls wanted to become an engineer.


In the following reception, I asked Ms. Basij-Rasikh if there were engineering opportunities in Afghanistan. She replied, “Afghanistan is like a blank slate. It would be your promised land. There are so many problems.”


Needless to say, I am inspired. Inspired by the bravery and sacrifice of Anne and the passion and grace of Ms. Basij-Rasikh. I am not content to watch others suffer when I have the skills to do something about it. And you shouldn’t be either.


$Gold Digga$

You Need Money

money wad

You need a financial investment to build prototypes for your engineering projects.

The idea for building medical devices for developing         countries is great, but

if you don’t have the capital, it’s hard to build                  something out of nothing.

How do you fund a developing world project?

      Below are three ways to fund your project!



Don’t Break the Bank, Make the Bank


crowdfunding monica rex

Crowdfunding: when a group of people financially support an idea/ product.

    1. According to, “Crowdfunding… is a funding method where common people like you and me, henceforth the crowd, fund your personal or business project with their own money.” Crowdfunding allows other people to become involved in your project financially. Depending on the site you use, the supporter may then receive a product from you based on their level of financial giving.  Forbes has outlined the Top 10 Crowdfunding Sites for Fundraising; Engineering for Change has added their two cents as well.
    1. If you have time, check out this great report for the Department for International Development of the UK government regarding crowd funding.
    1. Crowdfunding in Action

  i. The Aezon X-Prize Team from Johns Hopkins is a prime example of an engineering design team using crowdfunding. They are using the Indiegogo crowdfunding site to raise funds to develop their device which will be capable of diagnosing 15 diseases. They are in the running to win the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize, with prizes of up to $7 million.

aezon health tricorder x prize qualcomm

Aezon Health Lab Box. Aezon is using crowd funding to raise $10,000 in the hopes to win the $7 million prize for the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize. Photo courtesy of, used with permission from Neil Rens.

University Collaboration

  1. Universities love innovative, motivated students that they can brag about. Many universities try to promote collaboration and creativity through dispersing student research grants. I can only point to specific grants for Johns Hopkins, but many universities provide funding for extracurricular student projects.
college money scholarships fundraising

College costs a lot of money. Take advantage of all that your university has to offer. If you don’t, you’re paying for someone else who is.

2. Two specific Johns Hopkins grants administered to foster innovation and research are the PURA Award and the Student Initiatives Fund.

Traditional Fundraising

  1. It’s time to harness your inner neighborhood kid on the streetcorner selling lemonade! Get creative and think of ways in which your group can raise money for your project. I’ve listed some examples to help you get started.

i.     Organize a 5k (UMassAmherst Engineers Without Borders)

ii.     Organize an auction and social

          1. Montana State University EWB raised over $25,000
          2. UMassAmherst EWB raised over $13,000 with this method.

iii.     Hold a recital, like UCSB EWB

iv.     Plan a dessert reception and project showcase

        1. Johns Hopkins University EWB

v.     Organize a Quidditch Tournament

Check back in next week when I overview the top competitions to raise money for your engineering innovation. How have you raised money in the past for your engineering projects? What did I miss?

bike race olympics

Can you compete?

“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”


What does the new Disney movie Frozen have to do with engineering? How might the plotline of Frozen changed if any of the characters were engineers? Now, I’m not saying that engineers don’t believe in the power of sisterly love to fight climate change, but I am saying that we would not have taken the time to let our sisters freeze in hopes that we could figure something out (you’re welcome, Natalie, my awesome twin sister). You don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you.

Below are three neat devices that student engineers have invented or are developing so that they can take temperature into their own hands.

1. Cooling Cure

When a baby is born and he or she is deprived of oxygen, which impedes brain function, possibly leading to cerebral palsy, mental disability, or death, what do you do?

Cool the baby.

baby cool sunglasses

The face of one cool baby.

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No, cool THE baby!

That’s right, there is a 72 hour window in which you can lower the baby’s temperature to effectively rescue brain cells. A team of biomedical engineers at Johns Hopkins invented a $40, easy-to-use solution that is built of a clay pot, plastic-lined basket, and a sand and urea-based mixture. When water is added to the mixture (what is used in cold-packs), the heat is extracted from the basket holding the child. Brilliant!

2. Embrace Innovations

Babies are important. Not only are they adorable, but they are the future. A group of Stanford students who understood this saw that many of the 4 million premature babies that die within the first month after birth per year are from developing countries. The main problem for these infants is regulating their temperature. These Stanford students invented a sleeping bag-like solution that can maintain a constant for up to six hours without electricity. The infant warmer is composed of a phase-change material that absorbs heat and slowly disseminates it to the infant.

lady bug sleeping bag engineers monica rex

I hope future iterations of this sleeping bag-like product come in ladybug form.

Control that body temperature; don’t let it control you. And save some lives along the way.

3. LTU Heating System

We usually think of developing countries as warm, tropical places. This presumption is not necessarily always true, though. A portion of developing countries lie above the Tropic of Cancer and temperatures can dip low, causing a need for heating systems to avoid freezing. Students at Lulea University of Technology in Scandinavia created an “simple stove with integrated heat recovery” at a minimal cost that could be used in North Korea, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Siberia and northern China.

developing country third-world monica rex

Third world countries span beyond just tropical climates.

What other projects do you know of? Where are some areas that need improvement from engineers regarding temperature? Are there any other ways that engineers relate to Frozen?

How Can I Help?

When You Help Less, It’s Hopeless

There are certainly many engineering challenges that face the world with the population rising above 7 billion individuals worldwide.

  • How do we feed 7 billion people?
  • How do we dispose of waste from 7 billion people?
  • How do we save the environment from the carbon footprints of 7 billion people?
  • How do we transport 7 billion people?
india population growth

Our population has already exceeded 7 billion people. How will engineers shape the course of development to sustain growth?

Engineers must be willing to tackle these problems head on or else we will be left to the bickering of global politicians. We want solid solutions, not waving words.

What Can I Do?

Engineering Internship and Volunteer Opportunities

As high school and college students make summer plans, they may be wondering, “What can I do this summer to change the world? To really make a difference?” Students and adults alike should take a look into these four organizations that provide summer opportunities for engineers.


 Engineering World Health Summer Institute

  • Live in a developing country with a host family
  • Duration: 2 months over summer
  • One month of training, one month of service
  • Focus: Install and repair medical equipment
  • Target

-Undergraduate and graduate college students
-Postgraduates or new professional engineers

  • Locations


  • Cost: $7,100 – $7,200

Engineering for Africa

  • Freedom to choose when to travel and which projects best suited to your skills.
  • Project examples: waste management, timber footbridge, construction of learning centers
  • Locations


  • Cost: variable depending on duration;  required to fundraise on own
  • Duration: 1 month to 1 year
  • Target: Students looking to take a gap year. Student or professional engineers.

World Endeavors

  • Volunteer and internship opportunities
  • Seeks to immerse individuals in international cultural experiences
  • Locations:


  • Cost: ~$2,500 per month
  • Target: All 18 and older are eligible to apply. Non-engineering opportunities also available.

Engineers Without Borders

  • Become a member with a local EWB chapter, then work on specific global projects to your chapter
  • Travel abroad with your EWB chapter
  • Locations: Worldwide, dependent on individual chapter
  • See Johns Hopkins EWB for more insight
tip of the iceberg, monica rex

These opportunities are just the tip of the iceberg for engineers to intern or volunteer abroad!

This is just the tip of the iceberg covering the opportunities available for engineers looking for intern or volunteer abroad this summer.

What other awesome engineering summer internships do you know about?

We Have Problems.

“You won’t find a solution by saying that there’s no problem.” –William Rotsler

Real Problems, Real People, Real Solutions

Biomedical Engineering. Johns Hopkins University. Monica Rex. OcuRex

Design Team 12 at Biomedical Engineering Design Day. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.

Hands down, the best academic experience that Johns Hopkins University engineering offers is the biomedical engineering design team program. Twelve design teams are filled with undergraduate students from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed incoming freshmen to wiser and more experienced graduating seniors. Each team is confronted with a real world problem (no, they haven’t been solved yet), and they have to do what engineers do:  find a solution. The topics range from global health to domestic issues including:

  • prosthetic limb development
  • vaccine transport in developing countries
  • subcutaneous injection of monoclonal antibodies
  •  shock delivery in cardioversion and defibrillation

What’s the Problem?

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on Design Team 12 eight brilliant young men to innovate a device for automated early glaucoma screening in Indian eye camps.  Let me set the scene for our project:

  • The Setting: With a population of over 1.22 billion people and only one ophthalmologist per 100,000 people, citizens cannot be expected to travel hundreds of miles to receive eye-care.
    • Protagonists: Eye camps consist of a group of ophthalmologists and eye-care workers who travel around the country to deliver eye-care to villages at a time.
indian eye camp

A woman undergoing screening at an Indian eye camp. Photo courtesy of

  • The Conflict
    • Medical: Glaucoma is a disease of the eye caused by the buildup of pressure which damages the optic nerve.
    • Scale: Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in the world and is affected to affect over 80 million individuals by 2020.
    • Clinical: Eye camps either screen for glaucoma using an ineffective method (tonometry) or do not screen for glaucoma at all.
    • Need: Create a highly sensitive and specific device that will either replace existing devices or introduce a new method that does not add more work for the one or two traveling physicians. Make it inexpensive. Shrink examination time. Don’t use pupil-dilating drugs. GO.

The Climax: OcuRex

design day. johns hopkins. ocurex. monica rex. glaucoma

OcuRex on display at JHU Design Day. Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.

Our device, OcuRex, takes multiple color images of the back of the eye and then stitches them together using an image stitching software. The color image can then be run through an algorithm that will output a metric that tells the likelihood of an individual having glaucoma. We were able to obtain a provisional patent for our device and our team went on to win the Best Group Process Award.

Throughout this process, I learned a lot:

  • Brainstorming is about saying the crazy ideas
  • How to use CAD
  • Identifying the problem is sometimes harder than finding the solution
  • How to embarrass yourself at an elevator pitch competition
  • Failing is okay, as long as you persevere
  • How to write a business plan

Engineering is about defining a problem and finding a solution to make the world a better place. I’m thankful that I got to experience this firsthand through Design Team 12.