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Alumni Highlights: Engineering a better world

Rather than jumping into the work force to begin her career ascent or returning to the classroom to pursue an advanced degree, Sarah Brownell ’98 (mechanical engineering) chose to travel to remote, underdeveloped regions of the world to work on behalf of the underprivileged.

Bill Larsen, associate professor of civil engineering technology, and Sarah Brownell, mechanical engineering '98, in front of a solar panel that powers an ultraviolet drinking-water disinfecting system in Borgne, Haiti.

Weeks after graduation in 1998 she arrived at the HOPE health clinic in the farming and fishing community of Borgne, Haiti, to install solar panels as part of an independent study project on renewable energy. Within two years, she helped develop and install a solar-powered drinking-water disinfecting system at the clinic.

The device uses a filter bag and 40-watt ultraviolet light bulb to produce five gallons of clean water a minute, providing village residents with free, safe drinking water. It was designed with help from Bill Larsen, RIT associate professor of civil engineering technology.

Similar systems were installed in Nan Sab and Fond LaGrange, neighborhoods just outside Borgne. In January 2002, Brownell installed one in an AIDS hospice clinic in Takeo Province, Cambodia. Another is planned for a Haitian hospital.

With each installation, Brownell provides technical support and training in the operation of community water-supply systems. Funding came from Rochester-area churches, notably Spiritus Christi Church; from Larsen, who provided supplies and tools; and others.

After returning to the United States from Cambodia early this year, Brownell continued her work on behalf of the poor. At the University of California at Berkeley, where she’s studying for a master’s in civil and environmental engineering/water quality, she’s helping design the UV-Tube, an ultraviolet-powered water disinfecting unit that can be made for about $40.

Often, the biggest challenges she faces are cultural. “It’s easy to make a project work in the technical sense,” she says. “It’s much harder to figure out how social beliefs and cultural practices of the area will affect sustainability of a project.”

It comes as no surprise that along with her interest in engineering, Brownell also has a passion for social issues. At RIT she was involved in social-justice issues, was project coordinator for Community Service Clubhouse and volunteered at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, a shelter and soup kitchen in Rochester. She was an Outstanding Undergraduate Scholar, honors student and recipient of the Kearse Writing Award in Literature. Outside the classroom, the Amsterdam, N.Y., native played intramural soccer and volleyball.

Laboring for the welfare of humanity, though, always topped her list of activities.

“When Herbert Hoover wrote, ‘To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort and hope,’ he evoked a higher calling for engineers,” she says. “He intimated that engineering is not only about developing new technology and making things faster, more efficient and more profitable for people in the first world. It’s foremost about improving lives. I give my time to these endeavors in the spirit of Herbert Hoover’s words and in hope that I can bring some simple engineering solutions to those who have far too little life, comfort and hope in their lives.

“I hope one day all the people in Borgne and surrounding areas will have access to free, safe drinking water,” she continues. “Simple technology, simple ideas can go a long way toward making this a reality.”

For a full account on Brownell’s work with the HOPE health clinic in Borgne, Haiti, see the article, “Free, Safe Drinking Water in Borgne” at www.haitimedical.com/hope/Newsletter/fall2000/page_3.htm.