Thursday, August 5, 2010

Quetzaltenango and another perspective…

To catch up, finally, on what I have been doing this summer, here is the most recent post of my time in Guatemala:

After a couple of weeks of living like a homeless person on a volcano and carrying around my life in a backpack I arrived in Quetzaltenango “Xela”, Guatemala. I arrived by bus, passing through El Salvador and Honduras, stopping for a day in Honduras to visit a friend working as a Health Volunteer for Peace Corps. All in all, the trip took about 5 days and I arrived supremely exhausted, not wanting to see another bus ever again in my life. I was very happy to arrive at my host-family and meet some extremely nice people that I immediately got along with. I spent the next couple weeks with another NGO working in the field of ecological and appropriate technology, AIDG (Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group). Upon arriving at AIDG I knew it was different from most NGOs I had visited, and from most NGOs working in the general area of appropriate technology for development. They have tried to come at the issue from a business perspective. Instead of finding communities in need and directly working with them on projects, the traditional approach, they have tried to form a more pragmatic model.They have positioned themselves as an incubator for various business ventures including a local renewable energy workshop, Xelateco.

Xelateco has local employees and works in many areas of renewable energy and appropriate technology such as water filters and ram pumps, improved cook stoves, biodiesel, bio-digesters, solar water heaters, solar panel installations, and small-scale hydroelectricity generation. For their small workshop with the most basic set of tools they have impressive capabilities. They produce biodiesel from used cooking oil with a homemade reactor, some old 50-gallon tanks, some piping and small motors. The process takes about a week and produces 70 gallons of biodiesel in total. They have a work truck that runs on biodiesel and sell some to local businesses when approached. The workshop is riddled with pieces of this and that, experiments of technologies toyed with in the past and some they are still working with, such as their improved wood-efficient cook stoves. One of the most impressive operations they have managed to develop is the casting of bronze pelton wheel cups. Pelton wheel cups are the paddles that form a turbine used for high-head hydroelectric projects. They have developed a home-made furnace, fueled by used car oil and an air blower. The furnace is used to melt the bronze used in the casting process. They are also equipped with casting sand and have successfully developed a system for producing the pelton cups for repairs and installations of hydro systems. It is quite impressive. To date Xelateco has won contracts for repairs and installations of a handful of small hydroelectric systems in the area. They have also completed some small ram-pump installations for delivery of potable water to communities in need. AIDG and Xelateco work together on projects, with funding coming partially from the communities they service as well as from large donor organizations such as the United Nations Development Program. The goal is that Xelateco will eventually get off the ground and be a local source of appropriate technology owned and operated by locals.

Aside from the appropriate technology workshop AIDG also funds business plan competitions for local entrepreneurs called “Guateverde”, a meld of Guatemala and verde, or green in English.The competition has three main categories- renewable energy, sanitation, and water. They are currently coming to the end of the submission period of their second competition, and have received around 40 submissions so far. This is a huge improvement over their first competition, last year, which received around 18 submissions. The winner receives $10,000 USD for startup costs of equipment, legalization, etc. and up to $40,000 USD of low-interest loans from AIDG, in addition to business, technical, and logistical assistance for a period of two years. This is one of the freshest, most obvious, but not often employed tactic to achieve sustainable development.Ask the people here what they would do to solve their own problems! They are given the chance to really make a difference in their own lives, but they must prove that they are capable of doing so and that it will be a profitable or at least self-sustaining business. The technical abilities that AIDG brings to the table help the businesses get off the ground and provide key inputs to the mix, but the first push comes from locals here in Quetzaltenango- and that is the reason I love it.

My time here has been sporadically mixed between a lot of things. I spent some time helping the improved cook stoves team perform surveys in homes around the area to get a better idea of how energy is used in the home. It covered not just cooking, but lighting, bathing, etc. The idea was to understand how energy was used in households around the area, on a macro scale. The surveys were initially very long and hard to perform, but were subsequently scaled down and streamlined after a couple trial runs. Some days it was very difficult as we arrived in communities that spoke little Spanish. Mom, one of the indigenous languages of the area was spoken by almost everyone in some communities, forcing us to pick and choose who was to be interviewed simply by their ability to understand us. It was, once again(not a new thing in my life, ha), a humbling experience and reminded me of how difficult it is to deal with the diversity that exists in the world. The simple act of communication in an area like this would require proficiency in around 5 languages, some of them little spoken and little taught. It is not easy…

I have also spent some time around the office getting to know what AIDG does and how they do it, what the employees are working on, and getting invited to go see this and that. One trip was to a local Geothermal Power Plant, including a tour and explanation of the facility by the local engineer. Although it has been a long time since I took classes on heat transfer and thermodynamics, it was interesting to hear some of those terms like the Rankine Cycle and Degrees Kelvin flying at me in Spanish form the mouth of a Guatemalan engineer. It was kind-of exciting to understand what he was saying and feel somewhat comfortable with the idea. The plant provided around 15 MW of power that was then sent on through the ridiculously complicated electricity delivery system that exists in Guatemala. The engineer explained that the electricity was all sent to Guatemala City where it was then distributed back to the regions is served, losing a lot of potential along the way. He also explained that during earthquakes or other emergencies the plant had a system set up to shut it down completely. If the emergency was large enough to shut down other power plants in the region they could be waiting for quite some time, as they would need outside power to start the plant up again. They do not have a backup system to start up their plant after it shut down. The engineers kind-of laughed at us and shrugged, as if to say, “Who knows, we didn’t design it, we just operate it.” Nonetheless it was very cool see a plant of that sort in action, and HEAR the generators pumping out electricity to the population. Yet another way to quench our thirst for electricity…

All in all AIDG seems to have a great idea, and I hope they find a way to take it off the ground, expand it, and reach their goal of truly SUSTAINABLE development.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Like I said, I am a thinker. I think too much sometimes. I am also a planner, although I like to think that I am not. Funny, right? So about a week ago while I was thinking and planning, I decided I should just write something down so I wouldn’t forget. This is what came out.

What do I really want out of LIFE?

To be used in a way that is beneficial to those people and aspects of the world that are most in need

To wake up every day happy to be doing what I am doing, because I know WHY and HOW to do it, and I am confident that I am working in the right direction

To end the day physically and mentally tired, but satisfied

To have a loving family that I love, and be able to provide for their needs, so they may explore and find what it is that they really want out of life

To laugh deeply, every day

To die without major "what-ifs"

Now if I could just whittle this list down to one bullet point, maybe, just maybe, I could go after it. But that would be too easy wouldn't it. It wouldn't be LIFE.

Hablar en otra lengua… (To speak in another language)

Today was a day of thinking. To some this may come as no surprise, and to my good friends it may possibly be a huge surprise that I do actually think. It was a day where I questioned what I am doing, why I am doing it, why I think it is important, among other things. So when dinner time came around and I was sitting at the dinner table with my host-dad, I let him have it. I opened up one box of worms after another. First I told him how I was not raised with any specific religion, then about how religion was explained to me by my father- (as a fence on a cliff top of a mountain on a deserted island, that some feel better with, and some are annoyed that people keep trying to put up fences for them, they just want to look down and see what there is to see, but there is no shame in wanting or not wanting the fence)(my interpretation of Dad’s description, don’t sue me!), then we talked about some semi-religious experiences (for you fencers) or coincidences (for you non-fencers) I have had, then we talked about the universe and the unknown, and we finally landed on my inability to find a way back to the feeling of satisfaction I vividly remember from the end of long days as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Although the specific stories I told him, and he told me, are interesting and worthy of a blog post (but let’s be honest, if I got a bad infection I’d think it was cool enough for a blog entry), they are not what I came out of dinner thinking about.

It is the fact that the whole conversation, the whole heart-to-heart, the connection we made, it was all done in Spanish. It is not important that it was done in specifically Spanish either, because it is just another way to put thoughts together. What I realized is that this other language was like a mask to me. Sometimes in English it is hard to show your face, your true colors, to even people that you know extremely well. It is a language we all know and use every day, so if we do not express what we are thinking correctly it is out of laziness, or even worse, lack of intellectual capacity. Sometimes it just sounds silly or absurd to hear our thoughts so starkly in a language we use all the time. Therefore a lot of times we keep quiet even when we have something we really want to question or mention or simply chat about. The fear of failure to express your thoughts or be judged or considered different keeps us in line, in check, and under wraps. But in Spanish it is like I am wearing a mask. I am not supposed to know exactly how to express every single thought I have with the most versatile word structure, I just need to communicate. The words that I use and the way that I say them- they are my mask. The way my eyes connect with theirs and the way I look down when something really makes me think- that all shapes the mask as well. I put on this mask and they see me. I can really reach across boundaries with the mask. It is something that transcends religion and language and culture.

I grew up in a suburb of Connecticut in a fairly comfortable lifestyle and economic bracket. My host-mother here grew up in a campo like the one I served in while in the DR, and my host-father was a crazy young kid in the city who changed from a heavy drinker and revolutionary who watched many friends die in wars to an architect and highly religious and insightful human being. Somehow, by way of una otra lengua, we completely understood each other tonight. I realized that moments like these are what make me keep searching for ways to return to the Peace Corps lifestyle. That real connection that happens when you put on your mask and finally someone can really see you, it is priceless. The fact that you know that your words weren’t the only reason that they saw you is indescribable. They saw you because of everything you did and said and acted but also because they were looking for you. They were searching for you, had their hands on your face with their eyes closed, feeling around and trying to make out the bends, corners, ins and outs of your mask. When they finally see it, see you, and appreciate you for sharing with them who you are, en otra lengua, it cannot be beat. That is the joy that speaking in another language brings to me, if only rarely, and is part of the reason I keep coming back to places like this.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

El Porvenir - Sustainability Report

After leaving Blue Energy I headed back to the west half of Nicaragua, to the edge of a volcano where I had helped to design and install a community water pumping system over 3 years ago.The community, El Porvenir, is made up of 59 families from very mixed backgrounds. As Nicaraguan history has shown, this is a nation of very distinct ideological groups. The Contra War of the 70’s divided the country and led to immense amounts of bloodshed, mostly in the northern mountain region. El Porvenir is proof that organization can lead to peace, as the community is comprised of Contras, Sandinistas, past military advisors, and political officials. They have formed a communal cooperative and live mostly on the profits from bi-annual coffee harvests.Through connections with an NGO in Managua, they have achieved fair-trade organic, rustic shade grown coffee status. They export their coffee to another NGO and roaster based in Pittsburgh (yes, Pittsburgh!) called Building New Hope. All hours worked by cooperative members are counted and then directly translate into an equivalent share of profits from sales.

Over three years ago as an undergraduate student I was looking for a senior design project that would have some MEANING and would be really VALUABLE to someone. Through connections with the service-learning office at Bucknell University I, and three other fellow students, designed a project to provide water to El Porvenir. At that time the cooperative’s only water source was a fresh-water well at the base of the volcano they are perched on, 1200 feet and 5 Km. below. The well, over 400 feet deep was fitted with a deep-well pump and powered by a diesel generator. The pump delivered the water to a steel water tank near the well, still at the bottom of the volcano. The cooperative also has three very large storage tanks up in their community, and catch rainwater whenever possible to satisfy all of their needs for water. In the approximately six-month “dry season” when rain was not consistent, they were forced to get water from the well at the bottom of the mountain. This meant they relied on their ancient Ford 500 diesel farm tractor to drive the 45 minute trip down the hill, fill up as many water jugs as possible, and then head back up the hill. Multiple trips were made every day to ensure that every person in the community was allowed at least two gallons of water every day. Six hours of work and 1,085 Córdoba (~$43 USD) was spent on gas and workers every day. It was not an easy life.

My team and I designed and installed a water pumping system that took water from the tank at the bottom of the mountain all 5 Km. up to the storage tanks in the community. The pump was run by an electric motor, with power from the same diesel generator already in use.

This summer I wanted to come back and see how everything was doing and, for the first time, speak with the men I had sweat with in construction over three years ago. Now I speak Spanish, and back in my university days all I could generate was a simple “hola”. To make the trip even more special, I was driven up the mountain by members of the Alumni Trip of the Bucknell Brigade, the service-learning trip at Bucknell that first exposed me to Nicaragua. We arrived at the top of the mountain after some slipping and sliding on the muddy trail uphill, and I immediately recognized a boy standing there watching these gringos drive up to their home. I asked him name, and he told me it was Alexander. I distinctly remembered him from a picture I have from my trip three years ago. The picture was of me chasing him around his school, much smaller, smiling ear-to-ear. He is the boy on the right. It was surreal to see him again, all grown up. I snapped a quick picture with him, and just kinda chuckled to myself. This world is crazy.

All in all I spent a week up in El Porvenir, sleeping in a hammock on the community center porch overlooking Nicaraguas valleys and volcanos, and waking up to the sunrise early in the morning(sometimes, haha). It was great to see people collecting water from the tanks at the top of the mountain, even though I was there during the rainy season and the pump was not being used. The galvanized steel pipe that entered the tank made the project very real. I was not involved in the installation of the pipeline, as that occurred well after the pump house construction which I worked on, so it was extremely satisfying seeing the project FINISHED.

I spent the days talking with people about the system, walking every inch of the pipeline, turning on the pumps and see the system work, and interviewing/auditing the water committee. All in all I am proud to say that the system looks to be pretty sustainable, overall. In terms of saving time and money to the community, the system is doing great. Before its installation I calculated that every home was receiving 10 gallons of water, and to provide these 10 gallons per house the cooperative was expending 3 hours of work and $542 Córdoba. Now that the system is installed I have calculated that each house is receiving at least 20 gallons. As a comparison to the previous system, to provide each 10 gallons per house, I calculated that the cooperative is expending about 15 minutes of work and $213 Córdoba. They are saving about 2 hours and 45 minutes of work as well as $329 Cordoba ($15 USD) for each 10 gallons of water they receive, and they have also at least doubled their water availability in the dry season. The system seems to be in good working condition and, in this first year of operation with many quick repairs and fixes, the cooperative handled all hurdles that came their way.

All in all, I feel extremely lucky to have been given the chance to go back and see, talk to, and get to know the people of El Porvenir. And I have to say, it was great to see how satisfied the whole community was with the project, and proud they were to finally have a constant water source year round.

I even had a chance to chow down on some forest iguana-doesn’t look as cute all skinned does it?

Bluefields - The Reggae Coast

It has been a while since I added an update- and a lot has happened!

First, I spent a month on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua learning from a small NGO called Blue Energy. Blue Energy works to provide basic services to remote villages on the east coast of Nicaragua. They maintain offices in Bluefields-Nicaragua, San Francisco-California, and Paris-France. The Bluefields office is where all of the action happens. For the past 6 years Blue Energy has been working to provide basic services, focusing on electricity, to the small remote villages along the coast. It has not been easy. First of all, transportation to these communities is only possibly by boat. Some of them have a rudimentary public “panga” transportation system comprised of small motorboats, but some of them have no public transport whatsoever. No roads exist, and locals only come and go with their personal motorboats (if they are wealthy enough) or by hitching rides with fisherman as they come and go. This makes project planning, coordination, community interaction, and continual project oversight very difficult.

Blue Energy has been struggling to deal with these problems, on top of the inherent difficulty of engineering design and technology transfer. They have implemented mostly hybrid wind-solar electricity systems within the communities they work with. The wind turbines are manufactured in Bluefields by Blue Energy volunteers (mostly international) and employees (mostly local Nicaraguans) in a workshop donated for Blue Energy use by the local technical college, INATEC.The design is based on a low-cost wind turbine developed by Hugh Pigott of coil stators, hand-cut steel rotors mounted with high-power magnets, hand-carved wooden turbine blades, the supporting steel framework, and galvanized steel support towers are all manufactured in house from readily available materials found in hardware stores. Over the years, design and fabrication improvements have made the process more streamlined, although much is still done completely by hand with the “measure twice, cut once” mentality.

In communities they have worked with the wind turbines are paired with a small solar array. Together, the two provide power to a bank of batteries, used to power a local community center or small health clinic. The idea is very powerful, and very attractive. But many problems have caused setbacks to this idealistic bunch of young employees and volunteers. First of all, the problem was defined as an engineering one from the get-go: how to provide electricity with wind and sun in the difficult conditions of the Caribbean coast. Blue Energy has realized that possibly the most important piece of the puzzle is community integration and understanding, as poorly maintained batteries, increasing maintenance costs, and less than ideal wind conditions have caused them to reconsider the use of wind turbines in every community. Two local women and a small team of volunteers head up the “Community” team and have tried to maintain better relations with the local energy committees, helped them organize and raise funds, and tried to help the technical team guide their designs in a more appropriate direction. Although the community team has obviously made huge strides, the results are mixed. The decision has been made to remove the turbines from various communities, leaving the solar array as their source of electricity. Also, lack of communication with the local government has led to the arrival of mini-grids of electricity in communities with BE energy systems, making them all-but obsolete. On the short team, the Renewable Energy system is more economical than the grid as no fees are needed to provide electricity, but on the long term the sky-high prices of deep-cycle batteries will ultimately render the systems cost-prohibitive, that is, unless the community organizes a fairly hefty battery-replacement savings account. Many problems are left to be solved.

.Blue Energy is also attempting to branch into areas of other basic services such as potable water and economic development. They have developed their own bio-sand water filter construction system and have placed more than 20 filters in communities, some purchased and some donated. Still, lack of sufficient funding seems to be hamstringing their operations. They are coming to the end of a large grant that has covered most funding over the past year or so and are waiting for hopeful approval of more, larger grants. Sadly, the grant approval process seems to have no definite time schedule and in the mean time people are waiting…

Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to visit some communities with Blue Energy systems, help with some wind turbine tweaking, climb up a turbine tower and help lower it for maintenance, as well as observe BE volunteers in action fixing damaged systems, installing new batteries, and training locals in system maintenance. Blue Energy is up against it, but one can only hope that with every day they will learn more and develop a model for rural development that will benefit their communities in a environmentally, economically, and most importantly socially sustainable manner.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Still gets me...

How is it that while working in another latin country after two semesters back at university in the states that the DR still hits me in the chest?? Just sitting here with my mosquito net in Bluefields, Nicaragua, I put on some Aventura and begin editing the Fulbright essays I am writing. Although I am writing about Peru, the music brings me back to the campo of the DR. I miss the people, the culture, the tools I used ever day, and the men I worked with. Then I get a message from a friend who is still working in the DR, that she was in a town near my village the other day and a guy came up to her and told her, "Oh, that Roberto. He brought water to a community. Tell him I said hi." Can't help it. It hits me. Is it possible that one period of your life can be so rich and heavy with emotion that for the rest of your life a simple reminder of it puts you right back in? I love the feeling, but it hurts. Those two years seem to be untouchable and unforgettable. I left the DR 10 months ago. How far I have come is amazing but it pales in comparison to how far I have left to go.
How do I go forward when the biggest smile I have ever had was 1.5 years ago... Remembering is not enough.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hydro Hydro Everywhere

I am officially back in the saddle, and it feels good(haven't lost the butt groove or anything!). The last couple of weeks I have been absolutely thrown into the world of small-scale hydroelectric projects in the northern region of Nicaragua. I spent the first week accompanying a Villanova University service trip to help them design a community-based micro-hydro system, then spent a week on my own talking to the Ministry of Energy, the Municipal Engineer, local engineers who are incredible entrepreneurs and have perfected the art of extracting energy from water, community-based energy committees, carpenters who now have electric tools, and lots of communities including some with damaged or completely broken systems. It has been overwhelming, but invigorating! Feels great.

One interesting feedback loop that stuck in my head:

The small community of Acote Tumba is situated up in the municipality of Waslala, about an
hour into the hills from the town center. The village consisted of only 12 homes five years ago and they were selected by the municipality to receive a hydroelectric project. The surveying was done, and as the designs were being made and the community was being groomed to organize themselves and form their 'comite', more people moved into the village. By the time construction started a year later the village had swelled to around 20 homes! Construction began and more and more people kept moving in, so by the the time they were ready to finally install the turbine and generator, they all knew that it wouldn't provide enough electricity for everyone. They submitted a request to the municipality to have the generator upgraded to a higher capacity, and it was approved. Well, by approved I mean that the municipality said that if they fundraised enough money to offset most of the cost difference then they would have no problem installing a larger system. The first problem is that the penstock was sized for a smaller system and was already installed. Fine, so construction continued and concluded successfully.

They hooked up the lights of the 20-some homes and everyone clapped. Yay! A year later the village had exploded and it now had around 44 homes! The word was out! Acote Tumba had electricity and everyone wanted in. As more people moved in, mostly farmers, they bought up land in the surrounding area. As more and more people came to this small valley, tracts of land further and further up the hill began to sell. Eventually farms were being sold above the water source that had powered the electrification and subsequent expansion of the community. Now,
four years after the completion of the project, the energy committee president told me that he thought the stream had about half of the flow that it did back then. People had deforested the watershed of the stream and it no longer flowed with the same amount of water, for the same period of time. Now the community is involved in a project to reforest some of the area above the water source, as are many communities in the area that have realized that environmental conservation is not a game with hydroelectric projects. The development that the hydro project spurred has come around and threatened the viability of the hydro resources in the area. What do you do? Hydro projects are typically over sized to account for community expansion, but in these rural areas they become extremely expensive. Costs are cut and system designs are sometimes scaled back. You cannot always provide enough supply to meet the every-expanding demand, and the environment cannot handle it either. There is a give and take and a balance must be struck in the middle.

It isn't easy to make technology work in this kind of environment. I also am pretty sure its not easy for the politicians and other government employees to keep their sticky fingers off of the funds that have come pouring into this country for hydro projects. It doesn't add up, when a million dollars is spent to give basic electricity to a couple hundred people.

I also had the pleasure of accompanying a local engineering, machinist, entrepreneur, you name it and he has probably done it as far as small hydro goes- a man by the name of George Op Den Bosch. He lives and works here in Matagalpa building custom hydroelectric systems. This morning he took me around a project of his that is under construction on the nearby hacienda of a wealthy Frenchman. Over the land area of the very large farm, George will capture nearly all of the water potential, a total of 3 MW, with a system of seven smaller turbines that work in parallel and in series. Water is piped down to the maximum penstock pressures that can be managed with local pipe materials, and the discharge flows of the turbine are then directed into yet another penstock and energy is extracted again at a lower elevation. Using staged and parallel systems of this form, George has managed to piece together previous hydro systems and virtually all of the water resources of the area to produce 3 MW of renewable energy that has been approved to be sold back to the Nicaraguan electricity utility, a first for the area. He expects his customer to be very happy as he has estimated the project to make upwards of a half of a million DOLLARS every year in profit simply from selling electricity to the grid.

Now the big question right?! Not an original one of my own- How do you get the skill and efficiency of George(the private sector) to provide services to some of the poorest and most marginalized people of this country, without creating an environment where being poor makes them less desirable customers???

If you have an answer, let me know.

I am back off to the capital in a couple days, and then am heading to Bluefields to learn with Blue Energy Group about the next set of technologies available for electrification of isolated communities.

The saddle feels good - and what do you know, a year spent back in school and I still know how to ride!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Back in the saddle-almost.

I have officially completed my first year here at Pitt and feel incredibly grateful to have made it. Gradschool 10 days after Peace Corps is not a good idea-and I now know they tell you that for a reason! If your head is still swimming it is hard to concentrate! But I made it in one piece, with a couple of changes over the past month.

I have removed myself from my fellowship and the PhD program all together. I had been trying to make it work but in the end this just wasn't the program for me. I am still going to finish my M.S in Civil & Environmental Engineering, and do it the way I want. This summer I will be conducting field research in Nicaragua and Guatemala on rural electrification and next year I'll finish up my thesis on the Sustainability of Rural Electrification projects. Also, I have been picked up by the department as a Teaching Assistant for next year to help develop their first course on Engineering for Developing Communities. So next year will definitely allow me to focus on engineering in the developing world, the real reason I am back in school.

After that, I am not quite sure I am thinking that a degree in International Development might be in my future. We will see. For now I am focusing on doing some valuable research this summer and getting back to school in the fall excited to be back and studying exactly what I wanted!

Its funny how things tend to work out if you just follow your gut...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Back at it...

So, it has been a while since my last post. I have successfully finished a semester in Graduate School with the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering. I have to say that it has been tough! The transition from Peace Corps and living in MY hills with MY people has not been that easy. Although I know that education is key to having an impact, I am going through 'immediate satisfaction withdrawal'. I love the word USEFUL. I just miss that. I miss feeling wholly useful on a daily basis. But I am slowly and painfully getting through the transition, now much less painfully than four months ago!

Anyways, one good thing about the withdrawal is that I constantly am looking for eye-opening and worthwhile experiences. Last semester I spoke at the first University of Pittsburgh TEDx event, organized by a friend and fellow student at Pitt. My talk was titled In search of a good use of our time: The struggle of a privileged generation. I told my personal story of world discovery, realization that science and engineering was such a small part of the problem-solving process, and my frustrations in trying to fit into the educational molds laid out by universities. It was great, and it reminded me of why I came back to school. I am not here to become a world class scientist, nor a world-class policy maker or even a development expert. I am here to get a little bit of it all and hopefully find at the intersection some hints towards what Sustainability really entails.

With that in mind I spent much of last semester, and this semester so far, applying for international experiences and opportunities along those lines. And I have had luck! I was selected as a student delegate of a course here at Pitt called Global Engineering Technology. Part of the course is participation in an international conference called INNOVATE 2010. The conference is held for 5 days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and 5 days in Taipei, Taiwan. It is a collaboration of the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Tulsa, and Rice University, and delegates from around six other national and international universities will be attending. The themes are globalization and the interplay of technology, outsourcing, and international competition. The course has been a weekly web-cast connecting the students here at Pitt with those of Tulsa and Rice. It is an interesting way to bring diverse backgrounds together and learn about the world. So in about two weeks I will be headed off to Vietnam and then soon after to Taiwan. I am excited!

I also spent a lot of time last semester looking for funding opportunities for international research for this coming summer. I found a summer study abroad scholarship, designed my own independent research project, got department approval and course credit, and finally turned in the hulking beast of an application this January. Guess what-I won! My research project titled Success in implementation of clean energy and water projects was awarded the Mcgunagle Memorial Award, the largest award offered by the Nationality Rooms program at Pitt! I was surprised and flattered, not to mention pumped(come on, lets be honest, I am more pumped than anything else)! So this summer starting in mid May I will be visiting three NGOs to learn about their successes and failures in attempting rural electrification projects and potable water provision projects. The three main stops will be Blue Energy, the municpality of Waslala, and AIDG(the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group). The first two are in Nicaragua and the last stop is in Guatemala. I will also spend a week up at El Porvenir visiting the coffee cooperative for whom I helped implement a water pumping system. I am excited to go back to a place I spent so much time thinking about and finally SPEAK to them! Last time I was there I didn't speak any Spanish. It should be very cool.

So that is my life right now. In between the INNOVATE conference and the summer research I will be taking the PhD qualifying exams in my department: Sustainability and Green Design. It is going to be a crazy spring and summer, but I am glad it will be worthwhile! Even though it was and still sometimes is hard to be back, my desire to be useful is what has pushed me to seek out all of these opportunities, and for that I have Peace Corps to thank! Even though it has made this re-introduction to the states like a dip in an ice bath I guess I can be very grateful that it has kept me focused on WHY I came back to school and WHAT I want to get out of it. Like my Uncle John once told me-there are only three real questions. What do you got?
What do you want? And how are you gonna get it? I am still working on all of them, but I think I am heading in the right direction...