Health, Humanitarian Engineering and Solutions for Conflicts

Petra Raad & Ragheb Raad

The Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Global Health Initiative, collaborated and organized the first Summer School on Humanitarian Engineering: “Solutions for Health in Conflict.” The three-day school, which took place from June 6 to June 8, allowed health scientists and engineers to share their work experience and knowledge focused on human wellbeing.

The first day was kicked off with an opening session, where associate professor of electrical engineering, Imad ElHajj, PhD, of the organizing oommittee highlighted that “the school was not intended to be a one-way delivery of material as even the speakers were here to learn something new.” ElHajj also noted how surprised the committee was with the attendance after more than triple the original expected amount showed up.

After the opening session, the first school-day was properly launched when Interim Dean of SFEA, Alan Shihadeh, ScD, began the discussion on human wellbeing. Shihadeh stressed that most of the health disasters occurring in the world are not due to natural causes, but they are indeed human made disasters where engineers are involved.

The summer school encouraged the audience to engage in the session, even when it came to informal talk and jokes.

Hala Ghattas, PhD and Aline Germani from FHS tackled the health aspect of conflicts which generally lead to food insecurity and to a risk of malnutrition. Both emphasized on the important role of media in assessing the problem. “[This] itself has ethical considerations,” said Germani. Ghattas made a comparison between Haiti and Yemen as an example. The media have put all of their resources to cover Haiti’s disaster but almost none of them directed attention towards Yemen’s crisis. This is mainly because politicians are one of the important stakeholders in conflicts. Germani mentioned how designing interventions in order to solve health problems can therefore be compromised due to a gap in information flow, as there will not be enough time to respond to the needs.

The first day was then pursued with a session on humanitarian engineering design by Youseph Yazdi, PhD, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, and by Muhammad Zaman, PhD, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University. Yazdi affirmed that the design process here is very similar to the design process in Public Health. “The principles are the same, [only] terminology differs,” said Yazdi. “This is why I was deleting some [of my] slides.” The two scholars elaborated on the steps of the design process which is an iterative process. One starts by assessing the problem, then by suggesting “need statements” which outline the general goal of the design in one sentence each. The need statements are then filtered until one is left. This is where one suggests the properties of the design that would fit that need statement taking into account the stakeholders.

The two speakers gave a scenario and asked the audience to apply this process to that scenario. The attendees then worked with the two scholars and thought out loud. Some of them even got intensely attached to their position. “People are becoming strongly opinionated,” said Zaman while expressing his gratitude.

The first day was concluded with the beginning of the Hackathon whose teams were formed and problem was identified.

The second day of the school kicked off with a session entitled “Digital Technologies and Tools – Enablers of Solutions” where SFEA faculty members shared their work, focused on improving and facilitating the lives of humans. ElHajj emphasized on the principles of humanitarian engineering: it should focus on people, ensure a sustainable positive impact, and promote human rights and dignity. He then described and specified the characteristics of digital solutions and concluded by saying that the presence of hardware in a system is challenging:  once you have hardware in a system, you have power. It needs to be sustainable.

Elhajj was followed by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Samir Mustapha, PhD who elaborated on how ubiquitous and beneficial sensors have become in the industry. For instance, some are being used to detect cracks and defects in massive structures such as Sydney Highway, which could avoid severe damage. He also gave examples of how sensors are used in monitoring human health such as glucose biosensors and blood pressure sensors.

Then, Professor of Electrical Engineering Zaher Dawy, PhD, highlighted how the internet has changed from the internet of people where it connects people from around the world with each other, to become the internet of things where devices are being connected one to the other. Even devices have means of communication. Likewise, nowadays, the internet has also become the internet of skills. To clarify this final idea, Dawy gave the example of AUBMC physician Ghassan Abu-Sittah, MBchB who used the internet to supervise, while at AUBMC headquarters, a surgery taking place in Gaza, Palestine and to give instructions to the physicians there.

The Hackathon was pursued in the second and third days of the school where some of the participants had to go for an overnight. After two days of hard work, Dean Shihadeh examined the prototypes and the awards were distributed.

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