By Kendall Buehl, GHI Staffer… Rebecca Alcock, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is constantly working to innovate in the field of global health systems engineering. Alcock received a bachelor’s degree (2018) and a master’s degree (2020), both in Biomedical Engineering, from UW–Madison, and started her Ph.D. process in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since her undergraduate years, Alcock’s goals have been ever-changing. In her bachelor studies, she concentrated on biomechanics and sports medicine. In her master’s, her efforts were set on product design in global health after living in Guatemala during the summer of 2018, and immersing herself in the area’s culture. And currently, after taking a class with her Ph.D. advisor, Justin Boutilier, Alcock is passionate about taking health systems engineering across the world.
“It was kind of everything I’ve been looking for- learning the tools to be able to make systems-level change for healthcare,” Alcock says. “That’s what prompted me to start the Ph.D.”
In her Ph.D. studies, Alcock is working on the Clinic Electrification Project, which aims to create a free, open-source toolkit any NGO or rural healthcare clinic can use to optimally size a renewable energy network, or microgrid, for their area. Within this toolkit, there are three steps:
- Predict what the electrical loads will be for a rural clinic that has never had access to electricity
- Choose the best size for a renewable energy system at the clinic by using the load profile
- Determine how well the clinic will be able to hold up to future issues (e.g., natural disasters, climate change) by performing a simulation of different scenarios
As part of this project, Alcock traveled to Tezhumke, Colombia with Rafael Castillo Sierra, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering also working with the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC), to do a case study on how this toolkit performs. Pending funding, Alcock and her team hope to fully implement the pilot project there to see how it functions in the real world.
Tezhumke was chosen for this project because of its network, location, and unique affordances. GHI Director Jorge Osorio initially connected Alcock to Colombia through his connection with Director General y Científico (General and Scientific Director) Juan Carlos Dib from the Tropical Health Foundation, who maintains years-long relationships with the Indigenous communities in Northern Colombia. The people of Tezhumke were very excited at the opportunity to electrify their health post and wanted to help with the project in any way possible.
Tezhumke is located on a sunny plateau in the mountains of the Caribbean region of Colombia, which makes it a great candidate for solar power. Even more, the dirt road network which joins together the school, homes, and the health post makes it easier to utilize electric transportation. This is a point of interest to Alcock because the integration of e-mobility into the health system not only augments healthcare services in the area, but also provides a backup energy source that makes the microgrid system more resilient. The community was interested and willing to use electric transportation, since the main nurse of the health post already uses his motorcycle to facilitate home visits when patients are unable to transport themselves there.
“To hear that they were already using this model was really encouraging,” Alcock says. “We took it as a sign that this idea would actually work.”
Alcock shared the importance of electrifying Tezhumke, a gateway to several other mountain communities, since the closest emergency room is located over an hour away from the region. Despite a helpful, paved road from Tezhumke to the nearest big city, the distance still makes it difficult for Indigenous communities to receive emergency medical attention.
One of the many successes from Alcock’s Tezhumke trip was the installation of two lightbulbs in the local health post. Before, Tezhumke healthcare providers would have to hold a flashlight or wear a headlamp while they worked, which would either rid them of one hand or bombard them with swarms of bugs. So, one morning, Alcock and Castillo grabbed the needed supplies and built a light system for the Tezhumke health post, which feeds off of a mini solar energy system supplied by a local non-governmental organization (NGO).
Pending funding, Alcock seeks to launch the pilot program in Tezhumke next spring or summer. This would start from scratch, providing the health post with solar power, battery storage, better e-mobility and, most importantly, access to lighting, refrigeration and electric stoves. Built-in lighting is crucial to the procedures healthcare workers do during darker parts of the day and night. Refrigeration would allow the health post to have vaccines and other medicines readily available for patients in need, and electric stoves would facilitate a rehydration solution to help the community have cleaner water and healthier nutrition overall. In addition, the project would involve working with local solar contractors to make sure all necessary supplies are locally available and offer training to the local community if they would like to help.
Alcock explains the open source nature of the project invites collaboration, and she hopes people see the toolkit as an open invitation to help continue development. “This project is 100% collaboration and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Alcock says.
From partners on the UW–Madison campus, to those in Colombia, and the community of Tezhumke itself, Alcock emphasizes the importance of cooperation. On the UW–Madison campus alone, the Clinic Electrification Project partners with the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (Alcock’s Analytics for Human Development Lab led by Prof. Justin Boutilier), the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering [Prof. Giri Venkataramanan in the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC)]; Sustainable Microgrid Partnership (SMP); Ph.D. Student Maitreyee Marathe (with local pilot development), UW Makerspace (Director Lennon Rodgers and John Lombardo; Undergraduate Student Jo Alshwaish with assistance in hardware prototyping), the Global Health Institute (Director Jorge Osorio with connections; One Health Center-Colombia with planning; Planetary Health Scholars – a partnership with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Center – with funding), Eagle Heights Community Garden and FH King: Students for Sustainable Agriculture (with local pilot support) and the Morgridge Center for Public Service (with funding for the Colombia trip).
Even more, Alcock and her project collaborate and partner with helpful groups in Colombia, which include the community of Tezhumke, Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla – Departamento de Ingeniería Eléctrica y Electrónica (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering: Prof. María Gabriela Calle; Prof. Juan Pulgarin; Prof. Mauricio Restrepo; Prof. César Orozco; and Prof. Diana Rueda), Fundación Salud para el Trópico (Tropical Health Foundation: Juan Carlos Dib, MD, PhD, Msc; Ricardo Mejía; Ana Isabel Doria, MD; and Melki Elias Solis, a nursing assistant in Tezhúmke), Organización Wiwa Yugumaiun Bunkuanarrua Tayrona (OWYBT, a collective comprised of local authorities of each Wiwa community for governance, development, and more; Indigenous Health Secretary Jose Dimas), the GHI-One Health Center-Colombia and local solar contractors and material suppliers in the surrounding areas of Colombia.
The Tezhumke community and other surrounding communities are composed of the Wiwa Indigenous tribe, whose governmental and spiritual leaders approved of the Clinic Electrification Project. Alcock loved working with the Tezhumke community and their leaders, who see the pilot as a catalyst for electrification of other mountainous communities in the region. Not only did Alcock and her team enjoy working with the Tezhumke community, but they also learned about their fundamental cultural practices.
“We made a really concerted effort to speak with the spiritual leaders and midwives in the community to learn how they incorporate spiritual healing and their connection to nature,” Alcock says. “We’re going to design our system in a way that honors that interconnection between nature, traditional medicine, and Western medicine. I think that’s my biggest goal.”
Alcock reflects on her fellowships with the Morgridge Center for Public Service and WISCIENCE as two learning experiences that sparked her passion for community-engaged research. These expanded her existing knowledge on how to pursue ethical and sustainable partnerships with local communities. Because of these fellowships, Alcock strives to be asset-focused instead of need-focused, meaning she appreciates the beauty and fullness of the Tezhumke community without ruminating on what they might not already have.
Rather than imposing her team’s ideas upon the Indigenous peoples, she works with them to understand the region and prioritize their relationships and ideologies. Alcock hopes to honor and augment the existing systems of healthcare in the Tezhumke community, and she reiterates that engaging with their ideas, efforts, and practices is her utmost priority.
“I went in with the perspective of ‘I’m here to learn and fall in love with Colombia and this community’,” Alcock says. “And I think everything we experienced did exactly that.”