Joshua Shubert didn’t have much time to celebrate graduation. On May 28, the new Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) alumnus flew to Rwanda with Engineering World Health (EWH) for a two-month project, where he used his talent to repair medical equipment.
During the first month of the project he was in the city of Kigali, where he underwent training to on how to repair medical equipment, while learning the local language and brushing up on the French he learned in high school. The second moth proved to be “the ultimate test of [his] engineering knowledge.”
“My partner, Jeff Chininis from the University of Missouri, and I were able to do a substantial amount of work at Gihundwe Hospital, where we ended up getting placed,” said Shubert, of Lemont, Ill. “When we arrived, they had a ton of equipment waiting for us. We repaired centrifuges, oxygen concentrators, suction machines, power tools, a maternity bed, and even a coffee machine.”
One of the first tools to be repaired was a broken jigsaw. After troubleshooting why the tool wasn’t working, Shubert faced a new problem. How is he going to fix it?
“The problem was the motor needed new carbon brushes,” said Shubert. “The problem was we didn’t have any carbon brushes. But the old centrifuge they had in the corner had carbon brushes. So we removed those, cut them in half, and stuck them in the jigsaw. And it worked perfectly.”
The power tools they fixed allowed maintenance workers and technicians to perform their day-to-day tasks. With this one tool repaired, the technicians were able to continue making prosthetic limbs for patients with missing limbs.
While the easy-going engineer is modest about his work at the hospital, there is one project that he gets excited about and is proud to discuss in detail.
“I was able to design and build a control circuit that automated the pump that maintained the hospital’s water supply,” said Shubert. “They had a large underground reservoir of water that they pumped into a tank about four meters above ground.”
The above ground tank supplied the entire hospital with water, which posed several problems. The pump had to be manually turned on and off to fill the tank. No one knew the tank was empty until a faucet was turned on and water didn’t come out, which wasn’t ideal in emergency situations. It also meant the hospitals maintenance staff were on call 24/7 to turn the pump on and off. The staff told Shubert about being woken up at odd hours to go to the hospital for the bothersome task.
“Our control box resolved this problem, and it was done for less than $15.” said Shubert. “When we presented it at the end of program conference, several of the technicians from other Rwandan hospitals expressed interest in having one of their own.”
To accommodate their requests, he developed a PCB file that they could use to print their own circuit boards at a new makerspace in Kigali. He also provided a technical manual detailing how the circuit works, instructions for installing the system, and how to troubleshoot it if a problem arises.
“Overall the trip was very challenging, but a very rewarding experience,” he added with a smirk. “The long days coupled with the unfamiliar culture and really bad to non-existent internet connectivity were a stark contrast to what I was familiar with in the States.”
This wasn’t his first time working on medical equipment. Before graduating, Shubert served as the electrical lead for the UIC-EWH chapter’s “Laminar Flow Hood” project. The project is based off a one-week site assessment in Vietnam, where two team members visited local pediatric hospitals and medical facilities in order to improve healthcare delivery using low-cost solutions. During the evaluation of the sterility of one of the hospitals, it was discovered that the infection rates were extremely high due to medications being compounded in an open air environment. To change this, the UIC students decided that a laminar flow hood was needed in order to provide the hospital staff with a sterile environment for mixing medications. Apart from improving hospital conditions, the project won the Maurice Prize Competition, which included a $5,000 monetary award.
“I joined Engineering World Health because I felt like there was a lot of room to grow,” said Shubert. “There are not many ECE students in the program, and when an electrical problem came up, I had to solve it. If I didn’t solve it, it didn’t get solved, which forces you to learn.”
“Also, the things we made help people directly,” he added. “What we build will go to a hospital and get used.”
The UIC student chapter of EWH inspires and mobilizes the engineering community to improve the quality of health care in vulnerable communities of the developing world. The students achieve their mission through innovation and strong alliances with partners. EWH is a global organization serving engineering students, healthcare professionals, communities around the world, and patients in need. It inspires, educates and empowers young engineers, scientists and medical professionals from more developed parts of the world to use their skills to improve global health. EWH offers young professionals an eye-opening, life-changing experience that encourages life-long engagement with global health, and enables them immediately to provide meaningful service to patients in the developing world.
Shubert has been part of two major extracurricular engineering experiences at UIC, one which was made possible with support from the ECE department. Now, the alumnus is at Johns Hopkins University for graduate school, where he plans to continue working with medical devices.