Engineering for the Global Good
Biomedical Engineering Undergrad Researches HIV Prevention Among Sex Worker Population in ThailandPosted 08/17/06
By Andrea Arco
While other ambitious undergrads across the country may be inspired to go to a coffee shop for discussion after viewing a thought-provoking documentary, Eliah Shamir (BME) and her friend, Shi-Shi Wang, were inspired to act.
This documentary, by Dr. David Feingold, was titled “Trading Women” and investigated the trade in minority girls and women from the hill tribes of Burma, Laos and China into the Thai sex industry; it was the first film to follow the trade of women in all its complexity and to consider the impact of this “faraway” problem on the global community. After watching this film, both students began to set plans into motion.
Eliah, a rising third-year Engineering School student majoring in Biomedical Engineering, and Shi-Shi, a rising third-year in the College of Arts & Sciences majoring in foreign affairs, decided to travel to Thailand to research HIV education and prevention methods among the female sex worker population. The process began by connecting with various agencies and organizations dedicated to educating this marginalized population and securing funding. Eventually, Eliah and Shi-Shi contacted the Center for Global Health and the Global Public Health Society and even connected with the director of the documentary that sparked the idea, Dr. David Feingold of UNESCO. In addition, funding materialized in the form of a Goldwater award, a $500 Raven Society grant, a $3,000 Center for Global Health Award and a $1,850 Pfizer award.
Once the connections were made and the funding secured, Dr. Brian Helmke, Eliah’s academic advisor in biomedical engineering, helped her formulate her research proposal: “The biomedical engineering program at the U.Va. Engineering School has equipped Eliah with a unique combination of skills — a breadth of knowledge for understanding human health and physiological problems and an engineer’s problem-solving approach. These skill sets enable Eliah to think through each problem logically, considering all risk factors as she addresses this critical health problem.”
While in Thailand, Eliah and Shi-Shi will distribute the surveys they developed to organizations involved in the health of sex workers in Thailand — organizations like UNAIDS, UNESCO and the Population Development Association. They will also conduct countless interviews with key people within these organizations to gather in-depth information about specific services provided, methods by which they coordinate and communicate with similar organizations and the challenges they face. Once the data is collected, Eliah plans to compare the organizations’ different service offerings, distinct challenges and organizational communication issues. Eliah says, “Most of these organizations do not communicate with one another, and if they could they would be better able to help each other and those for whom they are working. After analyzing the data, I hope to create a Web site that would become a forum for interaction between these organizations.”
While there, Shi-Shi and Eliah are also working with a D.C.-based NGO called Project Hope International and Chulalongkorn’s College of Public Health to develop and conduct a workshop to educate Thai students about the complexity of the trafficking issue at Chulalongkorn University in July.
Eliah knows that this experience will be life changing. She says, “Engineers try to identify and solve all sorts of problems that exist throughout the world. I wanted to better envision what kinds of problems I could help solve so as not to lose myself in the technical details. The human components of scientific research — the needs of the individuals, the societal impact, and the capability of implementing a solution — are often lacking in a purely scientific education. I feel strongly that knowing the people; the history behind a problem; and the cultural, economic or societal barriers to addressing the problem are some of the most important factors in forming a solution. This is an amazing opportunity to do just that.”
In fact “Engineering for the Common Good,” or applying core engineering principles to better conditions globally, is a current thrust throughout the University. James H. Aylor, dean of the Engineering School, says, “Here, we equip our students with the technical skills and analytical capabilities they need to excel in business, medicine, law and activism on an international scale. Eliah, through her work with HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Thailand, is a prime example of this.”
Article originally appeared in E-News Online