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Engineering for the World
Chemical engineering graduate combines education, international service
By Tara Roberts
To Nate Suhr, helping people in remote villages learn about water filtration isn’t just humanitarian work – it’s science education.
Suhr, who graduates from the University of Idaho this semester with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, is past-president of U-Idaho’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a nonprofit group that connects engineers with communities in need around the world.
In 2012, Suhr spent several weeks working with Engineers Without Borders in Bolivia, where he and a team of students helped a community improve its water sanitation.
His experience on the trip has helped inspire him to continue his education with a master’s in civil engineering. He plans to write his thesis about the educational and social aspects of working with developing communities on engineering projects.
"In humanitarian work, there’s a lot of focus on the effect of it on the professors and the students. But there’s not a lot of talk about the effects of it on the people," he says.
A National Science Foundation fellowship will fund Suhr’s graduate studies in exchange for his work as a physical sciences teacher at Jenifer Junior High School in Lewiston. Suhr is one of just 10 students nationwide to receive the fellowship.
Suhr – who plans to stay involved in Engineers Without Borders during graduate school – quickly connected with the people in Bolivia and saw the how science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education ties to humanitarian work.
His team’s first task in the village of Chiwirapi was testing water quality using portable petri dishes that could show the presence of E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria. To keep the dishes at the right temperature for bacteria to grow, the team had to move them throughout the day and keep them warm at night.
"At night they were in a Ziploc bag, and I just put it them in my shirt and slept with them," Suhr says.
When the bacteria grew, demonstrating the water’s contamination, he showed the dishes to one of the village’s elected leaders, Eloy.
"He could see the little colonies of bacteria, and see this is what’s happening," he says.
Eloy’s 18-month-old daughter had recently been sickened by contaminants, and he immediately responded to the visual evidence in the petri dishes. He called the whole community together to talk to the Engineers Without Borders team about well protection.
The people of Chiwirapi maintain contact with the Engineers Without Borders team, and they’ve developed a give-and-take relationship that started when the team first visited the village and learned from the people.
"You can have this idea in your head of what the needs are, but until you talk to somebody and go to their house, you have no idea," Suhr says.
Suhr isn’t certain what his future will be post-graduate school, but he hopes to continue focusing on appropriate, sustainable ways to use his engineering skills to help people around the world.
"The reason I do this is there are all kinds of problems everywhere. It doesn’t matter what country, there’s poverty, there’s hunger, there’s people without access to clean water," he says.
I can’t focus on a billion people without water, but I can focus on 300 people without water. It gives me a manageable bite of a global problem."