Research Spotlight

Undergraduate Engineering research contributes to developing a sustainable irrigation project in Tanzania

As part of her undergraduate studies at St Hilda’s, Kirsty Gouck (Engineering, 2016), spent eight weeks in the summer of 2018 working for the Nasio Trust in Oldonyosambu Village, North Tanzania. Kirsty found this placement through the University of Oxford Careers Service.

Kirsty was responsible for researching and conducting out a feasibility and scoping study, including drafting a business and structural plan, for a sustainable social enterprise irrigation project. The long-term goal was to help improve educational outcomes for local primary school children. Kirsty was the project manager, researching solutions to overcome the food shortage at the local school through increased crop production. This required an understanding of fluid dynamics and civil engineering principles, alongside the ability to apply these to practical problems. Once delivered, the project would become a demonstration site for the Maasai tribe, who are culturally nomadic.

Project Objectives

The Nasio Trust’s mission is to protect vulnerable children, through removing or reducing the causes of problems facing them. Kirsty was one of two interns from the University of Oxford who used their knowledge of engineering and science to research new ways to address the food and water shortages in the area, with a concentration on irrigation. Kirsty spent her placement working closely with the community committee and staff in a mixed primary school in Oldonyosambu Ward, for children aged between 7 and 13, with 1129 pupils registered – although no more than 800 attended daily. The children were not doing well at school and the Nasio Trust had identified their lack of food as one of the main reasons for this. The children were not getting lunch and this was affecting their ability to concentrate and learn – many would drop out of school and become trapped in poverty.  Kirsty visited the school many times, where numerous concerns were raised about the school facilities. For example, the rain water harvesting equipment had fallen into disrepair and hand-washing facilities were non-existent.

Analysis of the Issues

“The biggest problem is the lack of food for students and teachers. The performance of students is bad because of food. They would be here on time more if they had food”. Teacher from the Primary School in Oldonyosambu Village

Kirsty and her colleague Jed, a Biochemistry undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford, were tasked with surveying the area to identify potential water sources to be used for irrigation purposes, as a sustainable solution to the food shortage. The next priority was to complete a report with recommendations for the charity. Kirsty was responsible for the engineering tasks associated with the project, while Jed led on the agricultural aspects including assessing crop growth. They worked with government officials, members of the local community, and representatives from other charities to carry out their assessments. One of their objectives was to improve coordination and communication between the groups. Another was to come up with solutions in partnership with them, so that the local groups would have ownership over, and be committed to, maintaining new initiatives.

Kirsty began her assessments by conducting out a land survey of the area to analyse the water availability, and thus the feasibility of irrigation. She met with drilling companies to consider the viability of drilling a borehole in the area. The risks associated were deemed too great, due to the low probability of hitting water. She met with another charity to find out about sustainable projects already implemented and to consider the option of damming. The feasibility of introducing a new pipeline to increase water flow was explored with the Village Executive Officer, however this was abandoned due to insufficient funds. She researched the high fluoride village spring water source, to study its quantity, current use, and reliability. Due to negative findings regarding drilling and damming, focus was placed on this spring water source.

The Nasio Trust had already identified lack of food as the major problem for the community, which led to Kirsty investigating irrigation as a solution. As part of her research, she analysed the flow of water from the source to the school, measuring the flow rate of water at various distribution points to compile data in order to determine a suitable method of irrigation using the spring water. The extremely low flow rate being diverted to the school meant water efficiency was crucial.

Kirsty and Jed found growing maize with widespread crop disease was exacerbating the community’s food shortage. Farmers with a lack of understanding of effective farming practices were leaving crops susceptible to pests and disease. The school collects maize and beans from parents, to be stored in the school kitchen. Once the few bags they had were full, maize was left on the floor. About one third of their harvest was being lost, as the crop is susceptible to insect infestation and was not being stored safely.

Project Impacts

‘The exposure to real engineering problems was incredibly valuable and working towards improving the quality of life in an area in the developing world was extremely worthwhile. I have not yet decided what engineering discipline I would like to go into but this has reaffirmed my interest in engineering that can be used to solve global problems.’ Kirsty Gouck

1. Improved sanitation

As part of her ongoing communication with the school’s Head Teacher, Kirsty identified the lack of hand washing as an issue and encouraged him to introduce facilities. It was felt that supporting them implementing this internally would ensure longevity. With her input, the school built tippy taps (hand-washing devices with hanging water containers that can be tipped over by foot to release water). This could reduce student illnesses and improve school attendance. Meeting with the Head Teacher to monitor the project while the school built their own tippy taps meant that the school took initiative and will hopefully be more committed to maintaining it in the long term – a step towards sustainability.

2. Introduction of drip irrigation

After measuring the flow rate of incoming water at the school, it was found to be insufficient to irrigate a significant portion of school land. Kirsty decided to introduce drip-irrigation kits to the school, to be used as a demonstration site for the community. They could be used to grow vegetables as cash crops, to be sold in order to buy more maize than the land would produce. These kits target the plants’ roots, so water is not wasted on other parts of the soil profile, resulting in a very high water efficiency (around 90%). Additionally, the herbicide requirement is reduced because less water is applied between crops.

Kirsty used local materials to develop the kits, sourced as cheaply as possible to enable members of the community to reproduce them. They held a demonstration for Oldonyosambu Primary School Committee and Village leaders using both English and Swahili, the local language,  so that everyone was made aware of how they work and general repairs that may be needed. The focus was on producing something that the local farmers could easily replicate, with the aim of providing each family with access to food year-round. A substantial increase in food production community-wide would increase the amount per school child, without relying solely on the inadequate school land.

3. High Fluoride Water

Water quality is another significant problem in Oldonyosambu. Fluoride content in the water is very high, at 17.5 milligrams per litre; the Tanzanian limit is 4 milligrams per litre, while the WHO limit is 1.5 milligrams per litre. The two interns carried out research to establish if this would impact on growth of the new crops. They found that it would not be significant enough to be harmful. The Nasio Trust has made progress on this issue, introducing rainwater harvesting tanks to community bomas, with plans to expand this. and the government aims to bring safe drinking water to the area within two years.

4. Crop storage

The interns found that two out of the five bags of maize collected from parents and stored in the school kitchen had been completely infested by insects. They then investigated solutions to this. Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags offer a cheap and easy solution to cut down on post-harvest losses of crops such as beans and maize due to insect pests. A PICS bag consists of two layers of polyethylene and one of woven polypropylene, each of which is tied individually. The polypropylene layer adds mechanical strength, while the double layer of polyethylene creates an airtight, hermetic environment in the bag when sealed. As oxygen levels in the bag drop, insect pests contained within are effectively killed. Another advantage of using these bags is that farmers are less likely to use a large amount of pesticide, reducing student pesticide consumption. Twenty 100kg bags were given to the school and posters were displayed in the kitchen, with diagrams showing how to seal each layer.

As a result of the project, the school has started growing vegetables as cash crops and is using the drip-irrigation kits. There is now a source of information providing a detailed description of the local agricultural practices and water network, to aid further projects in the area. Kirsty and Jed’s research findings also led to the Nasio Trust providing the school with PICS bags for the maize, which has reduced post-harvest losses. Long-term, they hope that this will greatly improve the students’ well-being, health, and ability to receive an education.

St Hilda's undergraduate, Kirsty Gouck, studying Oldonyosambu village spring water source inlet point at the schoolSt Hilda's undergraduate, Kirsty Gouck, demonstrating the drip kit for the school committee in Oldonyosambu Ward, TanzaniaSt Hilda's undergraduate, Kirsty Gouck, delivers PICS bags to the school committee in Oldonyosambu Ward, TanzaniaMaize storage in the school kitchen in Oldonyosambu, TanzaniaThe centre of Oldonyosambu ward next to Mount Meru, Tanzania

DANSOX

Professor Susan Jones, our Tutorial Fellow in English and Professor of English Literature at the English Faculty, is also founder of Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX). DANSOX provides a major forum for dance scholarship in Europe, promoting dialogue between prominent academic disciplines and the worlds of dance theory and practice. The DANSOX series of events explore the ways in which the role of choreographic practice makes an essential contribution to innovations across academic fields, theatre and performance. Find out more about DANSOX's aims and achievements from Professor Jones.

The most recent of DANSOX's groundbreaking events at St Hilda's College was 'Motion and Meaning with Ensemble Klang and Leading Contemporary Dancers', 3-6 July 2018. DANSOX joined forces with the 'Liveness, Hybridity & Noise' joined forces for this multi-disciplinary presentation of new works that stretched the synthetic possibilities of music and dance. Over the four-day residency at St Hilda’s College, three composers from Oxford and several leading contemporary dancer-choreographers (Piedad Alebarracin Seiquer, Malgorzata Dzierzon, Estela Merlos, Patricia Okenwa and Liam Riddick), and one of Holland’s leading contemporary music groups, Ensemble Klang, worked together on the project. ‘Open’ rehearsals took place 3–5 July, followed by a fully-staged performance on 6 July. You can watch the event on Livestream and find out more about how it developed from composer, and our alumna, Anna Appleby (Music, 2011) who returned to St Hilda's to take part in it.

DANSOX: Motion and Meaning with Ensemble Klang and Leading Contemporary Dancers

Extending battery lifetime: St Hilda's Fellow and students collaborate on groundbreaking research

Dr David Howey holds a Tutorial Fellowship at St Hilda’s and is an Associate Professor in Engineering Science. He teaches maths to St Hilda’s Engineering Science undergraduates. Dr Howey runs a battery management lab where he and his team build battery systems and work out how to control them correctly, so that they last as long as possible. Their main applications are electric transport and energy storage for the power grid. Their work involves running lots of tests on different battery cells and looking at how they behave in the real world, building models of their performance, and joining the dots from the technical constraints to the economic factors. They have developed a system which stops a battery pack from being limited by the worst-performing cell in the pack, allowing one to have a pack that lasts for a longer time, or is cheaper, or smaller. Dr Howey’s group have a spin-out company, Brill Power, which is working to commercialise some of this technology.

The experimental work of one of the DPhil Engineering students in Dr Howey’s team, Trishna Raj, who is also a member of St Hilda’s, has focused on characterising battery ageing. Part-funded by Jaguar Land Rover, Trishna is investigating path dependency of aging. She combines experimental testing and computer simulations to further the team’s understanding of how degradation mechanisms, and the sequence in which they occur, will impact on battery lifetime. This enables them to make accurate predictions, which allows for improved designs, asset valuation, and preventative maintenance.

Our undergraduate student, Han Zhou (Engineering, 2015), was funded by St Hilda’s for a Summer Internship with Dr Howey. Dr Howey and Han worked with BBOXX, a company developing solutions to provide affordable, clean energy to off-grid communities in the developing world. The scale of this business has grown rapidly over the past ten years, and the company spends a significant amount of money on batteries. Han helped to develop algorithms to analyse date from off-grid energy systems in sub-Saharan Africa, to enable accurate failure detection and lifetime prediction.

Dr David Howey and DPhil students, Trishna Raj, take part in the Curiosity Carnival, Museum of Natural History, © Ian Wallman

Behind the Scenes at the Library: Designing an English exhibition

Professor Daniel Wakelin, Fellow of St Hilda’s College and the Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography in the Faculty of English , has curated the exhibition Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page at the Bodleian Library in Oxford from 1 December 2017 to 22 April 2018. The exhibition illustrates the graphic design of handwritten manuscripts and inscriptions for the first thousand years of English, across the Middle Ages.

The exhibition emerges from Professor Wakelin’s teaching for the MSt. course in English and for the B Course of the English FHS course. In his classes for those courses, he introduces students to the making and design of the manuscripts in which most medieval literature survives. Several students are working as guides for short ‘taster’ tours in the exhibition gallery, especially with school groups and at the Bodleian’s ‘Library Late’ evening events. In this exhibition, as in his classes, Professor Wakelin seeks to introduce the full range of books in English from the Middle Ages.

To plan the exhibition, Professor Wakelin searched through several hundred of the medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian and chose eighty which would illustrate the variety of designs used for books in the Middle Ages, and grouped them into various aspects of medieval craftsmanship. The usual practice in manuscript studies is to move from one case study to another, but the process of searching widely, for the exhibition, revealed trends and patterns which the exhibition can bring out, and throws up overlooked curiosities that have not previously been central to medieval studies.

In particular, the exhibition covers not only the gorgeous treasures of the finest artists, as often seen in exhibitions of medieval manuscripts, but also the ingenuity of ordinary people writing for practical tasks. It shows how everyday writings – practical and scientific as well as literary – could involve ingenuity in design. The skill and inventiveness of ordinary craftspeople and amateurs have resonance today, when digital media let many people experiment in amateur design – word processing, social media, customized products.

To show the likeness to modern craft, Designing English is running until 11 March alongside Redesigning the Medieval Book, a display of contemporary book arts inspired by the exhibition, created through a workshop and competition. Together, the twin exhibitions show the creativity of medieval artisans in recording English and suggest ways in which that creativity might continue to inspire artists today.

 

Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page by curated by Professor Daniel WakelinDesigning English: Graphics on the Medieval Page by curated by Professor Daniel Wakelin

Watch 'Professor Bulte's Incredible Medical Machines' to learn about the machines we use in medical science.

In 'Professor Bulte's Incredible Medical Machines', a series of three bite-sized factual films, our Fellow and Tutor in Engineering Daniel Bulte takes us through the history and science of the machines we use in medical sciences.

Created by Oxford Digital Media and Dr Daniel Bulte, who also an MRI physicist and an Associate Professor in Engineering Science (biomedical engineering), the films are essential viewing for anyone interested in the various machines in hospitals. The films take us to the University of Oxford’s OxStar in the Nuffield Division of Anaesthetics at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain FMRIB, the History of Science Museum and the Bodleian Library to show us how the machines that are in daily use there actually work, how they were invented, and what is being done to improve them and invent new ones.

The series marries Daniel’s enthusiasm for science, history and engineering in a unique way. Over the last century, advances in technology have led to astounding medical advancements and we are all now living longer, healthier lives thanks to some incredible medical machines. Travelling between oak-panelled science museums to clinical environments and labs, Daniel explores the breakthroughs that led to their discovery, dispels common myths, and discovers what we can expect from future medical engineering.

In webisode 1, 'The Body Electric', Daniel explores the history of the use of electricity to treat medical problems, and how we discovered that we can measure the electricity in our bodies to check the health of our hearts. He tracks down some of the earliest examples of the 'electric cure', and attempts to make his own ECG machine with just three buckets, water and salt. Watch here.

In the second webisode, 'Super Magnetic', Daniel gives a rare glimpse behind the scenes of the MRI suite, and demonstrates how powerful these magnets really are - with eye popping results! After scanning his own brain, the images are used to create a state-of-the-art 3D computer model of his entire head and brain. Watch here.

Webisode 3, 'Robot Patients', asks how to do you train for emergencies when you're a medical student? The answer - with robots. Daniel visits a unique facility at the University of Oxford where lifelike robot 'Sims' are used to simulate medical emergencies. They have a pulse, can talk, blink and breathe. And in using them, a remarkable thing happens: the doctors forget they aren’t really human... Watch here.

The films were directed, produced and edited by ODM's development producer and St Hilda's alumna, Hannah Veale.

Professor Bulte's Incredible Medical Machines

Discovery of Novel Drug Treatments For Dementia

Dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, has overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in England and Wales, according to a BBC news report in November 2016. Last year, more than 61,000 people died of dementia - 11.6% of all recorded deaths. According to the Office for National Statistics, the change is largely due to an ageing population.

Our Associate Research Fellow Dr Stephen Wren is a dementia researcher at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Oxford Drug Discovery Institute at the University of Oxford. The Institute is part of the wider Drug Discovery Alliance, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, which also includes Drug Discovery Institutes at the University of Cambridge and University College London. The coordinated effort aims to streamline drug discovery and translate promising research into potential treatments. Dr Wren works to help develop novel treatments for dementia by evaluating different mechanisms behind the condition. His research involves the design and synthesis of organic compounds that allow entry into the brain as potential drugs/tools for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Read more about the role of the medicinal chemist in drug discovery.

 

Dr Stephen Wren, Associate Research Fellow

‘Strong leadership needed for Brexit’: How will voters respond? asks Professor Petra Schleiter

Professor Petra Schleiter, Fellow and Tutor in Politics at St Hilda's, draws on recent research to analyse how voters will react to Theresa May's decision to call a snap election on 8 June in this article on the University of Oxford's website. Professor Schleiter makes the point that ‘voters take the government’s opportunism into account, as well as policy performance and leadership’.

Professor Schleiter’s most recent research is on Fairness and Voter Reactions to Government Opportunism. Her analysis is also published on the Department of Politics and International Relations' OxPol Blog.

Professor Petra Schleiter