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Spotlights

RESEARCH FELLOW: Renee Cottle is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, thanks to the National Science Foundation. Photograph by Douglas Fraser.
RESEARCH FELLOW: Renee Cottle is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, thanks to the National Science Foundation. Photograph by Douglas Fraser.

Renee Cottle ’07 Th’09 and Kristen Lurie ’08 Th’08 have received 2010 Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation to support their graduate studies. Lurie is studying electrical and electronic engineering at Stanford University. Cottle is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.

“I plan to develop microRNA biosensors and a mathematical model that will distinguish between normal and breast cancer cells and predict the stage of breast cancer. The biosensors will be designed to target six specific microRNAs that are significantly over-expressed in blood samples of breast cancer patients,” says Cottle. “Once optimized, the biosensors will be incubated with microRNA extracted from blood samples of breast cancer patients and the fluorescence of each biosensor will be measured. The fluorescence signal from the biosensor will be correlated with the known stage of breast cancer so that a mathematical model will be optimized for a strong correlation with the disease stage. I am hoping that this project will be a novel diagnostic approach for non-invasive detection of diseases.”

Cottle got her start in biomedical engineering as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. “My most critical research experiences were my honors thesis on peptide mimics of Vibrio cholerae LPS and my capstone design project, in which I worked with two other students to develop a medical device that sterilizes intravenous fluids,” she says.

Echo II
Echo II. Image courtesy of nasaimages.org.

>> Ron Muller ’55 Th’56 appeared in a PBS series “History Detectives” in their Season 8, Episode 1 presentation on NASA’s first communications satellite, a 100-foot Mylar balloon called Echo. Muller, who worked on Project Echo early in his long career with NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center, explains on camera how the satellite was made, launched, deployed, and used. “Anybody could use it. It’s just flying up there. It’s just a passive thing. It’s like a mirror,” he says on camera. Echo I, launched in 1960, and Echo II, launched in 1964, boosted the United States into the space race against Russia, enabled the first coast-to-coast satellite telephone call, and set the stage for global communications.

>> Fred Schleipman, director of Thayer’s machine shop from 1969 to 1980, is fondly remembered by many alumni for teaching them to build Stirling engines. Today, at age 90, Schleipman works in his Norwich, Vt., machine shop on his start-up venture Telescopes of Vermont, which offers a $43,000 hand-finished cast bronze reproduction of the Porter Garden Telescope. The elegant telescope, first created in the 1920s, caught Schleipman’s eye in 1973.

STILL TOOLIN' AROUND: Fred Schleipman recently recast the 1920s-era Porter Garden Telescope.
STILL TOOLIN' AROUND: Fred Schleipman recently recast the 1920s-era Porter Garden Telescope. Photograph by Russ Schleipman ’71.

Schleipman’s Porter Garden Telescope. Photograph by Russ Schleipman ’71.
Schleipman’s Porter Garden Telescope. Photograph by Russ Schleipman ’71.

“It was love at first site. I was determined to have one,” he recalls. One problem: fewer than 20 were known to exist. Schleipman concluded that the only way he could own such a telescope — a work of art with high-end optics — was to build several of them and keep one from the production run. In 2007 Schleipman finally assembled a team, including a pattern maker, optics experts, and foundryman, that met his exacting requirements.

Most crucially, Schleipman was loaned an original Porter Garden Telescope to digitize. He then had to design and build all the tools to machine the castings. It was a long and expensive process. The patterning alone cost $150,000. Despite his success selling the telescopes (he even appeared on the CBS show Sunday Morning), there is one glitch he has yet to overcome. Not unlike the shoemaker’s son, he still hasn’t assembled a telescope for himself. At least now he has all the parts.

>> Dinsie Williams ’97 Th’97 volunteered with Doctors Without Borders in earthquake-torn Haiti this spring. “Many of the Haitians I met were amazed to learn that I was a Sierra Leonean (an African) and expressed being proud that I was part of the team, especially as an engineer,” she says.

To Haiti with Doctors Without Borders
April 2010

By Dinsie Williams ’97 Th’97

Photographs courtesy of Dinsie Williams

Dinsie Williams in Port-au-Prince.
Dinsie Williams in Port-au-Prince.

I was recruited by Médécins Sans Fontières (Doctors Without Borders) to volunteer in Haiti in April. I was asked to help out with the biomedical services at three hospitals in Port-au-Prince (the capital). As health care professionals depend more on technology, it has become increasingly important to monitor and plan around medical equipment, especially in emergency conditions. The MSF database did not have anyone with biomedical skills; therefore I was contacted for a special assignment. I played a very small role compared to those who were on the ground immediately following the earthquake; however, I was able to perform duties no one else could at the time I was there. The fact that I was not a minority in Haiti also made my mission atypical.

When I arrived in Port-au-Prince, there were a lot of security measures in place. I soon learned that two MSF volunteers had been kidnapped a month earlier but later released. We had to travel through the town in convoy and return to the house before 5:30 p.m. every day. We woke up at 5 each morning, so it wasn’t too hard to meet the curfew. Non-essential excursions were prohibited. Within the NGO world, MSF is known to be frugal with its volunteers. Shared accommodation was provided in a rented house. I spent the first night sleeping on a cot out on the balcony. I later transferred to a mattress before finally finding a free bed in the living room area a couple of days later. Accommodation was mixed and privacy was nonexistent.

Unpacking a mobile x-ray generator.
Unpacking a mobile x-ray generator.

My assignment involved installing equipment, repairing failed systems, hiring and training technicians, and identifying improvements for biomedical services. I worked with Siemens Mobilett mobile x-ray units, CareStream CR 120 and CR500 (Computed Radiography x-ray) cassette readers, Devilbiss oxygen concentrators, and Tuttnauer and TBM autoclaves. Most of the large systems had to be protected from power surges and outages using voltage stabilizers. Installation of the x-ray units involved defining specifications for the imaging rooms, taking initial measurements, and training technicians. The primary challenge for biomedical services in Haiti is unstable power supply. Frequent power surges and outages cause damage to equipment. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether a power surge had caused a system to fail or whether the system failed through regular wear and tear. Everything I had learned about troubleshooting equipment required stable power. I had to adapt to the new environment. Another challenge was inappropriate donations. For example, boxes of glucometers remain unused because they were donated without measuring strips. One of the mobile systems that came in as a donation was manufactured in 1994! It took images all right, but the exposure cord was too hot and the collimator light worked only intermittently. It is my opinion that donors must refrain from disposing of decrepit equipment on unsuspecting recipients. If the recipient country does not have the infrastructure or man-power to support a donation, it is by far better to cancel a donation. Donating aging equipment may prove to be costlier financially and environmentally for recipients than the burden of unhealthy patients.

Doctors Without Borders clinic in Port-au-Prince.
Doctors Without Borders clinic in Port-au-Prince.

One of the hospitals in which I worked was dedicated to orthopedics. Within hours of our setting up the radiology equipment, patients were lined up. Almost all of them had a completely broken leg, thigh, or arm. Some had severely dislocated or fractured hips or spine. Many had surgical pins holding their bones in place. Others had been in temporary casts for weeks, waiting for surgical services. Unfortunately, a lot of people had their limbs amputated in the days after the earthquake because there were inadequate resources for reconstructive or orthopedic surgery. Patients were of all ages, babies to grandparents. The earthquake was equally unkind to all. It was very difficult to witness children with severe injuries. It was equally disturbing to see those who were staying at the hospital despite the fact that they were not injured. They were there because their lone surviving relative was hospitalized. I once saw a perfectly healthy toddler hopping along on one leg. Apparently, she was mimicking what she saw the amputees doing around her. Normal looked different there.

Tents house orthopedic units
Tents house orthopedic units.

The second hospital was located at Cite-de-Soleil (loosely translated at “Sun City”), a neighborhood that’s inappropriately named. The sun just does not shine on Sun City! Almost every time I was at that hospital a patient with a gunshot wound was admitted. There were gang members and felons at large. Apparently hundreds of prisoners had escaped during the chaos following the earthquake. Our convoy drivers had to check the routes before every trip to avoid getting caught in police raids. Everyone had to be accounted for at all times. The third hospital was in an equally notorious area called Martissant. I trained the technicians on how to use computed radiography systems. These are x-ray systems in which the image is taken on a phosphor screen and transferred to digital format. The system cuts down on costs associated with film processing, and it produces clearer images in most cases. It was at this location that I experienced an aftershock. All I can say about it is I’d rather not live through another. All the patients and nurses ran out of the hospital. Even the women waiting to deliver babies slowly made their way outside. After a few seconds, all you could hear was loud laughter mixed with audible gasps of joy. I now know what relief sounds like. The patients were just happy it was not another earthquake. Getting some of them to return to their beds in the hospital was somewhat challenging. The aftershock brought back traumatic feelings. Months after the earthquake Haitians continue to live on edge.

Setting up an x-ray machine
Setting up an x-ray machine.

Since I was in Haiti during an emergency situation, I ended up working on other tasks. I did not have a set routine. I had to show up at the site that was having the most problems on any particular day. On more than one occasion, I had to put on a radiation vest and hold a crying child in place while an x-ray was being taken. Since French and French-Creole are the official languages in Haiti, being able to communicate in (limited) French helped. English is not widely used in Haiti. Many of the patients were surprised to find out that I was non-Haitian.

On my return from Haiti, the question I have heard most often is: “So, what was Haiti like?” It’s a difficult question to answer. There are multiple sides to Haiti, but I can only report from one perspective. As we arrived by plane, I was struck by the number of tents on the ground — hundreds, maybe thousands. On the ground, it looked worse. When I saw multi-story houses that looked like giant piles of pancakes, I quickly realized the inhabitants had no chance of getting out. There was rubble everywhere, clearly hiding corpses. The majority of the structures that were still standing had cracks running through their entire length. All are waiting to be torn down. Months have passed since January 12th, and what’s most fascinating in Port-au-Prince today is the will power of people trying to get on with their lives. Every morning on the drive to the site, I would stare at the elementary school children being led to school on foot by parents, friends, relatives, or driven by motorcycle or van (‘tap tap’). They were all in clean uniforms, white socks and black shoes. The little girls had their hair neatly plaited and filled with barrettes and ribbons that matched their uniforms – blue, white, yellow, green. The boys likewise wore clean matching uniforms. Where did they get the time, energy, and motivation? Half of them were headed to classes in tents or dilapidated buildings but that did not stop them from hurrying to school in the morning. After all, Haiti’s future existence rests mostly on their tiny shoulders. What a weight to carry.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone can have hope in Haiti. The street vendors there only have very dusty roads and trenches from which to sell their wares. And very few people are buying. Most have to take on jobs as daily workers even though they have professional experience. There are lines everywhere: for transportation, drinking water, money, basic household supplies, and visas. Telephone land-lines are practically nonexistent; many side roads are treacherous; the heat is unbearable; electricity supply is intermittent at best; and sanitation management is minimal. There were literally tons of plastic bottles, styrofoam boxes, and rags filling up drains and conduits/canals and spilling on to the roads. Close your eyes, imagine a very, very large number of plastic soda bottles and styrofoam littering the streets. Double that number and you might be close. There is no chance those items will be recycled. And that’s just the beginning. The garbage appears to stretch out as far as the eye can see. Since people are living in temporary housing, they mostly only have access to disposable utensils and accessories. There isn’t enough water to wash plates and utensils. It’s true that everyone does not live like this: There are still Haitians living in huge houses, driving flashy cars, and going out to restaurants or the beaches. They are, however, by far in the minority.

Devastation from the earthquake remains widespread
Devastation from the earthquake remains widespread.

MSF’s directive is generally to provide emergency help to people regardless of where they are located. In Haiti the mandate includes both medical care and distribution of tents and household kits. As I met the volunteers, what struck me the most was that everyone was willing to talk and share stories. The first conversation I had was with someone who, in another life, used to be a diamond polisher in Brussels. He now volunteered full time. Fascinating! I was surprised to find out that many people have made a career out of volunteering. Prior to this I assumed volunteering was only done on weekends. Most of the volunteers will risk personal safety in order to get the job done. A surgeon from Italy epitomizes the general attitude of the volunteers. One day on the ride back from the hospital, volunteers were swapping “war stories.” The surgeon held up his arms to show us very hairy forearms and hairless fingers. When asked what happened, he was happy to tell that he lost all the hair on his fingers by operating under x-rays in the field without adequate protection during a different mission. He probably saved a lot of lives that way. We joked about how he may have found an alternate to hair removal by laser! Some of the volunteers are married, some are single. Some have families, some don’t. Some have savings, some don’t. Some have full-time jobs, some don’t. I discovered volunteers had different reasons for going on missions. Surprisingly few in my group were there for philosophical or religious reasons. Some were there because volunteering gave them an opportunity to go to different places, some were there because NGOs paid more than local employers, others were there because of the flexibility of the schedule. The one thing they had in common was that they were there “to get the job done.”

On my way back, I asked one colleague why he chose Kandahar, Afghanistan for his next volunteer mission with MSF. I asked whether he was scared. “No one wants to go there. If I do not go, who will do the work that needs to be done there?” he replied.

How cool is that?

Categories: Alumni News, Spotlights

Tags: alumni, history, humanitarian service

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