Adding Some Social to the Science
By Alissa Mallinson
Natasha Wright (SM ’14) started her time as a MechE master’s student with a trip to rural India. A new researcher in Assistant Professor Amos Winter’s GEAR Lab working in collaboration with Jain Irrigation Systems, her goal was to get a read on members of rural Indian communities and their attitudes toward home water filtration systems.
There were already several devices on the market, but most studies indicated that villagers didn’t use them regularly, though no one had yet pinpointed the reason why.
“At the time, I was focused on biological contaminant removal,” she says. “But as I spoke with villagers, I heard many of them complain about the levels of salt in the water. They didn’t like the taste, it made their stomachs hurt, and it left marks on their pots and pans.
I kept hearing the same comments over and over again, even though I didn’t even have a question about salt in my survey.”
When Wright, a master’s fellow of the Tata Center for Technology and Design at that time, came back to the US, she started to do some digging. She discovered that approximately 73% of Indian villages use groundwater as their primary source of water, and that approximately 60% of the groundwater has salinity levels above what people can taste.
“Despite the health benefits of filtration systems, the people I interviewed didn’t use them regularly,” she says. “The salty taste is one reason why.”
Earning a mechanical engineering degree from liberal arts-focused University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, Wright had always been interested in international development and social sciences.
“If you design in a box, whether it’s for someone in the US or someone in India, your solution isn’t going to be right,” she says. “It’s the same process in both cases, but when your user is so much different than you, you have to do a lot more to try to get to know them. I find that aspect of engineering for developing markets really interesting.”
Wright quickly saw the oft-invisible barriers involved in talking to people from significantly different cultural, religious, and economical backgrounds – and understood the nuances of success. The problem was much more subtle than a simple lack of clean water.
Now a PhD student in GEAR Lab, Wright has sleuthed her way to what she believes is the optimal solution, an electrodialysis (ED) desalination system powered by a photovoltaic system. In off-grid villages of about 4,000 to 6,000 people, energy-hungry reverse osmosis (RO) systems powered by photovoltaics are not economically viable options. But ED systems fit the constraints of these villages quite well. Since they are “modular,” they can be scaled down, and they can accept a direct current straight from a solar panel.
“No one is manufacturing the really small-scale ED systems we need,” says Wright. “So right now we’re trying to answer the question of how the performance and cost laws of big-scale systems scale down to mini systems.”
She thinks that by cutting the energy in half through an optimized electrodialysis-photovoltaic combination system that she can beat the off-grid costs of an RO system and ultimately improve the health and lives of people living in rural Indian villages.
Wright’s desire to help others doesn’t stop with her research. She serves as a Graduate Resident Tutor in an undergraduate dorm, building community among the students and acting as a resource as well as a support system for underclassmen. She also serves as a volunteer for Resources for Easing Friction and Stress (REFS), a confidential student group for graduate students, and she’s vice president of the Graduate Association of Mechanical Engineers (GAME).
Read more about Wright’s research from the MIT News Office.