Engineering a better world

Rather than jumping into the work force, Sarah Brownell '98 (mechanical engineering) chose to travel to remote, underdeveloped regions of the world to work on behalf of the underprivileged.

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 (pictured with Brownell above).

More recently, Brownell helped launch and provides technical expertise to the Brainstorming Technology Center — a pilot project for technology experimentation and community education aiming to eradicate waterborne illness associated with unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation in Haiti.

Prototypes of ultraviolet water-purification systems, a solar cooker and an environmentally safe "dry toilet," all of which Brownell helped implement, are demonstrated at the center and rural outreach education seminars. Support came from RIT, the University of California at Berkeley (where Brownell is a graduate student), Massachusetts Institute of Technology's IDEAS Competition, and Haiti Outreach-Pwoje Espwa, or HOPE, a nonprofit, Rochester-based volunteer organization supporting health care, health education and economic development in Borgne.

Brownell also promoted ultraviolet water-purification systems through the Cambodia Clean Water Project and worked with Ali Ogut, RIT professor of mechanical engineering, on a project to develop more energy efficient ultraviolet water-purification units for use in municipal wastewater treatment plants, rural areas and homes.

In fall 2003, Brownell presented her work at a conference sponsored by Engineers Without Frontiers at Cornell University and at a Caroline Werner Gannett Lecture Series talk on citizen activism at RIT.

"Being a citizen activist is about being engaged in your community and being willing to walk outside your comfort zone where you can encounter people different from yourself," Brownell says. "Democracy grows when people come into contact with one another to share ideas, when people feel empowered to make decisions and affect change on any level, when people seek alternative sources of information, when people ask questions, when people tell their stories and when people take direct action."

Fall 2003 update to story in The University Magazine, Fall 2002