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Virginia Tech students create device to keep babies warm in Malawi

September 19, 2016

Ashley Taylor, left, stands with Domasi Rural Hospital administrator Symmington Nalawi, who holds an early prototype of the baby pod.
Virginia Tech graduate student Ashley Taylor, left, models an early prototype of the "baby pod," along with Domasi Rural Hospital administrator Symmington Nyondo. After receiving community feedback in Malawi, the pod was redesigned to resemble a basket.

In summer 2015, Virginia Tech mechanical engineering graduate student Ashley Taylor, a native of Fort Chiswell, Virginia, was on a transatlantic flight home from her third trip to Malawi. She was unable to rest, still thinking about what she had seen.

While touring the neonatal ward at Domasi Rural Hospital in southern Malawi, her group had discovered that doctors faced a big problem in keeping infants alive – keeping them warm.

Lack of reliable, consistent electricity meant that some babies died during cold nights in the neonatal unit. Blankets often disappeared, as mothers took them home to keep their children warm.

Knowing that mechanical engineering principles could underpin a solution, Taylor had a thought: A  group of undergraduate students could tackle the issue of neonatal hypothermia.

Before the plane had landed, Taylor had her advisor, Kevin Kochersberger, associate professor of mechanical engineering, on board to help. Together, they set in motion the development of a passive warming device they later called the “baby pod.”

The next year saw Taylor mentoring six undergraduates who adopted the baby pod for their senior design project. Employing only materials readily available and inexpensive in Malawi, the team devised a prototype built primarily from PVC pipe with chicken-feather insulation.

Because a group of Ugandan mothers was available to give quick feedback, the team turned to them for its first test. The mothers gave thumbs up but noted the pod’s lack of beauty and suggested it be covered in fabric, so Taylor’s group made the change.

Unfortunately, when Taylor returned to Malawi this past July to unveil the pod, the negative reaction jolted her. Because of the pod's shape and use of chitenge — the local fabric — what immediately came to Malawian minds was a child's coffin.

Humbled by the misstep, the team scrapped the design and intensified the gathering of community feedback. Based on local suggestions, the pod became a basket-like device with a natural look.

Taylor said a key lesson was learning how crucial it is to incorporate the community in the design process, to "make sure that we’re not just parachuting in with a cool solution, but that it is a community-led thing.”

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Just as Taylor mentored the undergraduate students, she also valued the mentors at Virginia Tech who have guided her path as an engineer. They've encouraged her to pursue interests outside engineering.

Two mentors who emphasized the importance of service are Khaled Hassouna and Wafa Al Daily in the Office of International Research, Education, and Development. Taylor has worked with the pair on Virginia Tech's initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa.

Keeping gender sensitivity in mind came from a third mentor, also part of Outreach and International Affairs: the director for Women and Gender in International Development, Maria Elisa Christie. The program works to ensure that women benefit from international research projects.

A news story about the baby pod project on WVTF public radio highlighted the interdisciplinary approaching of drawing from two fields: engineering and public health.

Taylor, whose master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and public health come from Virginia Tech, is currently working on her doctoral degree in the Department of Engineering Education. She is a graduate assistant for the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, enabling her to pursue her passion for STEM education.

Her work with maternal and child health and international development began while she was an undergraduate. At the Roanoke-based Pediatric Medical Device Institute, Taylor met Andy Muelenaer, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, who engineered her visit to Malawi as an intern in summer 2013. That year, Taylor helped design Global AIR, a breathing device for newborns.

Taylor’s work in Malawi has not only immersed her in international development projects that help women, but also enabled her to be a role model for younger women in the male-dominated field of mechanical engineering.

An engineer with a focus on public health, Taylor said she has faced her share of detractors who don’t believe she fits the mold of what an engineer “should” be. “I think that Virginia Tech is really working on expanding that definition and making sure we don’t put a box around the definition of what people think engineers are.”

Taylor will carry that message back to Malawi in October, where she plans to work with a local university on the recruitment and retention of women in engineering, furthering her goals to reinforce the importance of STEM education.

“As a female in engineering, I learned that I have to be authentic about what I’m passionate about,” Taylor said. “It’s important to know yourself, know what you’re excited about, and really chase after that. If we’re not authentic, we’re doing a disservice not only to ourselves, but also the world in which we live.”

Written by Melissa McKeown

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