Student Stories: Biological engineering major has impact in Zambia

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

-- Margaret Mead

Brett Abele often thought about that quote during his time in Africa.

The biological engineering major — who just graduated this month — spent last summer in Zambia. He went with 17 other students in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program. For three weeks, Abele worked as part of a small team of six people to build greenhouses to improve food security.

"We try to improve how aid is administered to other countries, doing it in a way to empower the people and putting self-sustainable businesses in their hands," he said.

working up high

Abele is traveling to Sierra Leone for three weeks in May, and then to Mozambique in June to do research on how much water the greenhouses save. He also will work as a manager, helping to push the greenhouse venture from a start-up phase to a maturity phase. 

Image: Penn State

Abele worked closest with the carpenters, as he personally taught them how to build the greenhouses even before he built them himself. He was able to do that because he had worked on the construction manual all summer.

However, Abele had to overcome some difficulties when it came to getting supplies.

"In a lot of countries the standard size of wood sold at markets changes. We try to optimize our greenhouse design to waste the least amount of wood, but we often do not know the sizes and prices until we are in-country," he said.

"With the sizes and prices locally available, the estimated cost was higher than anticipated. I had to re-optimize the structure with just a pencil, paper and calculator to save money and get our greenhouses to a price we were comfortable with."

He redid the calculations and had members from other teams double-check his math. The resizing brought the different teams together. He noted that members tried to help each other as much as possible.

"I was just really excited to be a part of this opportunity," he said. "I didn't think this experience would have as much of an impact on me as it did."

Abele emerged as the leader for his team, successfully getting the greenhouses completed. The experience made him realize he could make a difference in the world. He is traveling to Sierra Leone for three weeks in May, and then to Mozambique by himself in June to do research on how much water the greenhouses save.

He also will work as a manager, helping to push the greenhouse venture from a startup phase to a maturity phase.

"After the trip, I knew I would go back eventually, but I didn't think it would be this soon," he said. "Based on my experience, I can advise other students interested in these programs to find something they're really passionate about, and pursue it with their entire heart — be all in."

Learn more about the biological engineering major offered by the College of Agricultural Sciences.

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Last Updated May 18, 2016