Hajim Spotlights

Leonor Teles

Class year: 2021
Major: biomedical engineering
Challenge: Provide Access to Clean Water

Why did you decide to apply for the Grand Challenges program?

The Grand Challenges program was, to me, the best of both worlds: I could combine my public health cluster (Editor’s note: clusters are part of the University’s open curriculum) and the work I had been doing with Engineers with Borders. I pursued BME because I aspired to go beyond trying to understand existing systems: I wanted to learn how to utilize what we already know to design devices and models to improve healthcare. The Grand Challenges program was the perfect opportunity to fuse my BME curriculum, collaborate with individuals across many majors and work together towards meaningful change through innovation and forward-thinking. While each individual focuses on one challenge, I still felt that it was possible to learn about all the challenges and how they intersect.

Which of the five “competencies” (research, interdisciplinary, entrepreneurship/innovation, global, service) did you most enjoy completing? Why?

I loved completing the service-learning competency. Through Engineers Without Borders, I have worked with a team to contribute to previous work to develop a potable water treatment and distribution system at a school in the Dominican Republic (DR). My three years of involvement on the Executive Board and as a travel team leader have encompassed extending and testing the water system, as well as grant and documentation writing, and working directly with the community.

Serving as the main point of contact with the vice-president of the school in the DR for two years taught me how to actively listen to the wants and needs of our community. Although the water system was functioning, she told me that the school staff and students were dissatisfied with the taste. To accommodate this, we implemented a water softener to reduce water hardness during our most recent visit to the community in January 2020.

This is one of many terrific experiences we have had with the community, and a great example of how resourceful and creative this team is! We have also continuously addressed the misconceptions of our partner about using the water system by recording instructional videos in Spanish and interviewing community members to gather feedback. Working with our partners to define their personal views of their needs also gave me insight into technology transfer.

This opportunity to combine multidisciplinary work and dedication towards impacting the lives of our partners has been the most challenging and exciting part of the Grand Challenges program.

Do you think you will want to continue work in the field of your “challenge” after graduation? How?

While I plan on attending graduate school in the field of biomedical engineering and not directly in water management, my team’s long-term dedication to providing access to clean water has given me the tools to be fully committed to any long-term project (and this, to me, includes Ph.D. work).

Being aware of others’ needs and finding creative solutions to challenges as a team is a skill I am eager to continue applying in the future. This is where the Grand Challenges Program is so crucial and applicable anywhere regardless of whether one continues to work in the field of their ‘challenge.’

How did being at the University of Rochester help you to complete this program?

The University has so many campus organizations that do terrific work directly related to the challenges in the Grand Challenges program. It is simple to get involved in any campus organization and then complete the different competencies of the program. Whatever competency that cannot be fulfilled through the work of a campus organization itself can be easily completed through other University resources (iZone, Ain Center for Entrepreneurship, and so many others).

For you, what is the value of the Grand Challenges program?

One of the most defining moments of my college years was when my History of Public Health professor said, “scientific knowledge cannot live without humanitarian efforts to benefit the population.” Throughout my college years, I have witnessed how STEM is not independent of politics and society. A skill set of only engineering knowledge will not suffice. To become a changemaker, one must understand the need for collective efforts and the root causes of world issues.

Being a Grand Challenge Scholar is, in my view, a terrific start (key word start) to this interdisciplinary mindset and work. It allows students to combine many disciplines and areas that create an impact and become a little piece of the puzzle of individuals contributing to positive change. While the program is not solving all challenges in all parts of the world, it is important for students to become aware of these challenges and learn strategies for addressing them in one community at a time.