In Touch With: Khanjan Mehta

Khanjan Mehta, assistant professor of engineering design and director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program at Penn State, helps students solve problems in developing nations in ways that benefit local economies and are self-sustaining. HESE ventures range from telemedicine systems and ruggedized biomedical devices to affordable greenhouses and solar food dryers.

Via Skype from Zambia this past June, Mehta spoke with Research|Penn State editor Cherie Winner about the program’s aims and approaches.

What are you doing in Zambia now?
My team just got back from a clinic about 45 minutes away where they are building a greenhouse to provide food for women waiting to deliver babies. These women travel long distances to reach the clinic and they eat maize meal in a porridge form for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We are trying to improve their nutrition.

What’s the basic philosophy of the program?
We are all about the execution, all about how to get things done and build enterprises that address socio-economic problems and can be sustained without charity. The technology is just 10 percent. The other 90 percent is supply chains and contracts and figuring out how to hire people, finding the talent, marketing and sales and getting things up and running. It’s all about venture creation.

How do you choose the communities and problems to work with?
That’s a million-dollar question! These are very complex problems and contexts. I can’t imagine saying, ‘OK, here is Zambia, and we’re going to try to solve this problem of infant mortality.’ It’s a big, hairy, slimy problem, and it’s not just going to go away. I can’t think about, ‘How can I solve this problem once and for all?’ What I can do is say, ‘Look, here is where things are right now, and here is a way that we can make things better in a sustainable fashion, while creating jobs and improving livelihoods. That’s a step forward, that’s a step up. You take a lot of these little steps and when you look back, you realize how far you’ve come.

Much of this work is not traditional engineering. Have you had to learn a lot about other fields?
It’s been an immense learning curve. The month I spent in Kenya ten years back, my first time there, was a complete game-changer for me, because I saw project after project after project that all kinds of organizations had initiated, and every single thing was failing. That’s when I started getting interested in a different narrative. Instead of ‘let’s teach them how to fish,’ well, these people are already excellent fishermen. They know how to fish. It takes much more than that. There is a very wide range of cultural, social, economic, political challenges that they face. So I decided to take a more systemic approach to how we develop sustainable enterprises, because ultimately everybody needs to make money and go back home and put food on the table. That philosophy of engagement is critical, and that’s also something that really sets our program apart from other efforts of this nature across the U.S.

You’ve said this program is unique in that you can draw on the expertise of materials scientists to develop products that will hold up in harsh conditions.
That’s the beauty of being at Penn State: There is an expert on every subject matter that you might need, and everybody is very happy to give you an hour or two of their time to advise you on specific issues. The Materials Research Institute has been a great partner. In the law school, there is the International Sustainable Development Projects Law Clinic, and they help us with our contracts and our licensing agreements. We needed a little adult supervision there because we wanted to do it right or we could be in trouble. And there they were!

How else does HESE differ from similar programs?
We also have a significant research emphasis. We make up new ways of working, new ways of thinking, and then we validate them and publish them. All the students who complete the program typically have one or more publications by the time they are done. For the students it’s a step toward building a career doing this kind of high-impact work.

What do the students find most challenging?
The number one thing is the need to keep pivoting. So we’re going in a certain direction, and all of a sudden something happens, and we have to change course. We were supposed to be in Kenya in May to do assessments of our greenhouses and healthcare ventures, but we had to pivot because of the terrorist attack there in April. It’s very frustrating, because every few days, every few hours sometimes, you’re changing plans and trying new things. Students especially struggle with that early on. They have this notion, OK, here is a problem; there has to be a solution; I’ll develop a solution and I’m done. And in this world, you’re never, ever done.

 

HESE is a program in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP).

This interview first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Research|Penn State magazine.

 

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Last Updated January 13, 2016