Category Archives: Study Abroad

Study Abroad: Designing Water Systems in Rural Panama

A community woman uses buckets to carry water for her family in Nidori, in the province of Bocas del Toro, Costa Rica
A community woman uses buckets to carry water for her family in Nidori, in the province of Bocas del Toro, Costa Rica

In Panama much of the population is without access to clean water. Organizations including Panama’s Ministry of Health, the US Peace Corps, and now Michigan Tech through its International Senior Design Program (iDesign), have increased technical support to rural communities in Panama to help solve this problem.

A student team from Michigan Tech traveled to Panama to improve the water system in Nidori, in the province of Bocas del Toro. The team, comprised of civil and environmental engineering majors Adam Tuff, Madie Martin, Logan Anderson, Kellie Heiden and Tia Scarpelli, worked with Peace Corps volunteer Colleen Hickey to assess the needs of the community, gather data on existing water sources, and complete a survey for a new water distribution system.

Michigan Tech students L to R: Kellie Heiden, Tia Scarpelli, Madie Martin, Logan Anderson, and Adam Tuff
Michigan Tech students L to R: Kellie Heiden, Tia Scarpelli, Madie Martin, Logan Anderson, and Adam Tuff

“It was very difficult just to make it to the community,” says team member Adam Tuff. “To get there we flew into Panama City, took a bus to David District and stayed  there for the night, then in the morning took a bus to Chiriqui Grande, then a small boat. The community is definitely off the grid.”

The rural area is part of the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, one of the areas set aside by the government for the various indigenous groups of Panama. The Ngöbe people rely on water transportation throughout the community, often by canoe, due to the location of the homes and schools, as well as the rough surrounding terrain.

“Our project was a little complicated, as we serviced one community with two smaller aqueducts,” explains team member Kellie Heiden. “The first portion of our project came from the newly found quebrada ‘mountain stream’ water source. We utilized this source by designing a stream dam that siphoned water through PVC pipes to five homes that currently have no water distribution system at all. This  means that they carry buckets to and from a water source a few times a day to get adequate water. The second portion of our project collected water from the pozo ‘spring’ water source. This required the designing of a spring box and a distribute tion line that feeds into a concrete tank. The water collected in the tank will be used to service twelve homes that have a water distribution system only during the wet season.”

The team designed a stream dam that siphoned water through PVC pipes to five homes that had no water distribution system at all
The team designed a stream dam that siphoned water through PVC pipes to five homes that had no water distribution system at all

“It was difficult to figure out how we could design a simple system that would last,” adds Tuff. “It is not the same as designing a system in America where the people and parts needed to fix problems are readily available.” The team worked closely with the community members to figure out what they would be able to main tain.

Back on campus, they produced a report in both English and Spanish detailing the design process, technical design components, construction, maintenance, feasibility, recommendations, and impact their project will have on the community.

Implementation depends on funding, but the team is optimistic. “Our time in Panama was difficult due to factors like weather—full days of rain—and access limitations. Just getting to the sites was an adventure,” says team member Tia Scarpelli. “But the field experience was very rewarding. The people of Nidori really wanted to know how they could help.” Adds Scarpelli: “Studying abroad and especially programs like iDesign are very helpful if a student is considering something like the Peace Corps—it will give you a great snapshot of what that sort of experience is like without the full-on commitment.”

Kellie Heiden earned her BS in Environmental Engineering at Michigan Tech in 2015. She is now a Project Engineer at August Mack Environmental, Inc. Tia Scarpelli earned a BS in 2015 and MS in 2016, both in Environmental Engineering. Adam Tuff earned a BS in Civil Engineering in 2014. He is now a Construction Inspector at HDR in Bellevue, Washington. Madie Martin earned a BS in Civil Engineering in 2015. She is now a Engineer II at Kiewit in Houston, Texas. Logan Anderson earned a BS in Civil Engineering in 2015. He is a world traveler and teacher at VIPKid and Rustic Pathways.


Study Abroad: Investigating Myocardial Graft Materials in Hannover

Michigan Tech MSE student Jacob Braykovich studied abroad at Leibniz University Institute of Materials Science.
Michigan Tech MSE student Jacob Braykovich studied abroad at Leibniz University Institute of Materials Science.

Jacob Braykovich, a materials science and engineering major at Michigan Technological University, had spent two years working in the Michigan Tech Surface Innovations lab, helping to develop biodegradable zinc-based cardiac stents. He had a summer internship at start-up InPore Technologies, working on polymeric water filtration systems. But he wanted to do something different during the last summer before earning his undergraduate degree. 

Braykovich thought about going overseas, and began looking into options. That’s when he discovered the RISE program, or Research Internships in Science and Engineering. The RISE program is for students in the USA, Canada, or UK who want to spend a summer researching science or engineering at German universities. Braykovich applied for and won a scholarship to attend Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany.

Braykovich joined a team of researchers at Leibniz University Institute of Materials Science working on myocardial graft materials. Myocardial grafts, both biological and synthetic, are used to help restore damaged myocardium, or heart muscle. Whether from heart attack or disease, damage to the myocardium can result in scar tissue, which can diminish the heart’s ability to contract and pump blood effectively.

“The Liebniz team, led by Hans Jürgen Maier, has developed a biodegradable magnesium alloy scaffold designed to mechanically support a myocardial graft and then gradually lose its function as the graft develops its own strength,” Braykovich explains.

Biodegradable scaffolds are cut with a water jet at Leibniz University Institute of Materials Science
Biodegradable scaffolds are cut with a water jet at Leibniz University Institute of Materials Science

“The work was similar to my research here at Michigan Tech, so I was able to hit the ground running,” he says. Braykovich worked on perfecting the abrasive water injection jet cutting strategy employed to produce the scaffolds—analyzing design, cutting-edge roughness, and burr generation. “I ultimately determined the optimum pressure, flow rate, abrasive size and material, traverse rate, and orifice diameter of the cutting technique,” he says.

He started each day with coffee and a pastry from a local bakery and headed to work on the train. His tasks at work ranged from cutting samples in the manufacturing facility to using the 3D laser microscope to take images of the cuts, which he then analyzed.

“Through the experience, I found the hierarchy of the education/research system at Liebniz to be much different than what I have known, and with that the expectations were much different. But through making mistakes, I gradually began to understand and appreciate the diverse culture,” he says.

Leibniz University Institute of Materials Science
Leibniz University Institute of Materials Science

Outside the lab each weekend Braykovich traveled solo to a new city or country. Berlin, a short 90-minute train ride from Hannover, was his favorite city. “There are people living in Berlin from almost every country you can possibly imagine, making the cultural dynamic something unlike I have ever experienced,” he says.

“Ultimately, working in a foreign country has allowed me to see past my current horizon onto new ideas and experiences,” adds Braykovich. “It taught me how to take a leap of faith into any unknown situation.”

Jacob Braykovich earned a BS in Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Tech in 2015. He is now a PD Quality Engineer at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, where he is responsible for delivering quality of all interior functions for future Ford F-150 trucks.


Volunteering Abroad: A Change of Plan in Cartago, Costa Rica

Michigan Tech mechanical engineering student Alexandra Tateosian volunteers in Cartano, Costa Rica through for the non-profit organization UBELONG.
Michigan Tech mechanical engineering student Alexandra Tateosian volunteers in Cartago, Costa Rica through UBELONG, an international non-profit organization.

As a mechanical engineering senior at Michigan Tech, Alexandra Tateosian left campus for Cartago, Costa Rica thinking she would be assisting with the construction planning of a center for disadvantaged youth as a volunteer for the non-profit organization UBELONG. 

Tateosian wanted to spend time abroad before beginning a full-time job at 3M. After tutoring many international friends in English while studying in Australia, she began considering living abroad to teach English or for other volunteering opportunities. Her experiences as an intern for two international companies, Bemis Company and 3M, also sparked her interest in working abroad at a future point in her career.

The day she arrived in Cartago she learned that instead she would be working at a care center for the elderly. “The drastic change in projects was a good lesson in the nature of volunteerism as well as the importance of flexibility and adapting to local needs,” says Tateosian.

“I was able to make the most out of the new experience and learned a lot by approaching it with an open mind.”

While the center is very familiar with having volunteers come to assist staff, Tateosian was the first international volunteer to come with the objective of working on a specific project. “The first step was to identify areas of need,” she says. “We decided to focus on the Taller de Carpinteria (the woodshop).” One portion of her volunteer work she helped assess safety recommendations for the tools and equipment. She also designed woodworking projects to get more of the seniors involved, including building and painting puzzles that are used in other areas of the center as mind exercises.

“One goal was for me to train some of the seniors to be leaders for future projects after I left.” Tateosian worked closely with the staff to coordinate all the details. “It was certainly an amplified lesson in the importance of communication due to the language barriers,” she says.

“Exposing myself to different places and cultures became an important part of my life. I learned about human nature and how people interact similarly and differently and reasons for the differences,” adds Tateosian.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago, Costa Rica
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago, Costa Rica

Cartago is about a one-hour bus ride from San José, the capital city of Costa Rica, with many restaurants, museums, and other sites. Tateosian climbed to the top of Volcán Poás. She ate dinner each night with her host family and took a rock climbing and mountain biking trip nearby. On a visit to nearby Nicaragua to explore Ometepe Island she happened to meet a fellow Tech student in the Peace Corps Master’s International Program.

Her most memorable experience while living, working and studying abroad? “At the care center we ran an activity with the seniors where they reflected on what amor (love) meant to them. Afterwards, an elderly woman approached me and said ‘este es amor’ (this is love) and gave me a big hug.”

Alexandra Tateosian earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Tech in 2014. She is now an Advanced Project Engineer at 3M.

Study Abroad: Analyzing the Behavior of Light in New Zealand

Mitch Kirby at Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand
Mitch Kirby at Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand

The natural beauty and easy access to both snowboarding and surfing first attracted Mitch Kirby to New Zealand—that, and the legendary fly fishing. Kirkby was a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering at Michigan Technological University when he received a Whitaker International Student Fellowship at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

“One of my professors at Michigan Tech, Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick, told me about the Biophotonics and Biomedical Imaging Research Group at the University of Otago. As I learned more about New Zealand, everything sort of seemed to line up.”

Kirby worked with a group focused on light/tissue interaction. “As light propagates through biological tissue, the light waves exhibit different behavior based on the internal characteristics of the tissue,” Kirby explains. “Ultimately the goal of the project was to gather enough experimental data on the different light-tissue interactions so that down the road it would be possible to use a light-emitting device to make medical diagnostic decisions non-invasively. While the project was in the early stages, most of my time in the lab was spent lining up the different lenses and filters for the experiments with elliptically-polarized light. Later we began writing code on MATLAB and analyzing the behavior of the light.”

Kirby’s everyday life in Dunedin involved getting up very early, completing schoolwork and attending classes. After spending a few hours in the lab, he would finish up for the day around 3 pm. If the waves were good, he would surf. If not, he would explore the countryside. During the weekends, he traveled with a small group of friends to different locations throughout New Zealand. Trips usually involved snowboarding, backpacking, and just general adventuring.

Mitch Kirby crosses the Copeland Valley in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand
Mitch Kirby crosses the Copeland Valley in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand

“Spending time overseas definitely opened my eyes to the ability of a college education to take you places,” says Kirby. “Traveling and living abroad while studying and working in the lab showed me that it is possible to mix work and play so that each day is an enjoyable one,” he adds. “I also enjoyed the excitement of working on a research project that could potentially change the way many medical diagnoses are made. There is a great deal of potential in the continued advancement of biomedical optics. My ultimate goal is to develop new technologies through academic research.”

Working with people in the lab from different backgrounds was a high point for Kirby as well. “Everyone had something unique to bring to the table, particularly because we all came from different countries and cultures.”

Michigan Tech biomedical engineering student Mitch Kirby surfs in New Zealand. "Traveling and living abroad while studying and working in the lab showed me that it is possible to mix work and play so that each day is an enjoyable one.”
Michigan Tech biomedical engineering student Mitch Kirby surfs in New Zealand. “Traveling and living abroad while studying and working in the lab showed me that it is possible to mix work and play so that each day is an enjoyable one.”

Once back in Michigan Tech, Kirby returned to the optics lab at Michigan Tech to investigate Optical Coherence Tomography as an undergraduate researcher.

Mitch Kirby earned a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Michigan Tech in 2016. The same year he received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and is now a doctoral student in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.