Earth Clinic Translates Research into Practice

Earth Clinic Translates Research into Practice

In the face of diminishing natural resources, exposure to pollution and extreme poverty, impoverished communities can greatly benefit from interventions such as improved cook stoves or new bicycles that can be made locally and sustainably. On Thursday, March 12, 2009, the Earth Clinic at the Earth Institute at Columbia University held a conference to showcase these and other interventions made possible through Earth Clinic seed funding grants. Researchers shared their project findings, highlighting the true cross-disciplinary aspects of these projects and what they involved in terms of implementation.

Part of the purpose of this showcase was to encourage more proposals and give potential grantees an idea of what kinds of projects typically receive seed funding. The presenters also discussed ways in which Earth Clinic projects have led to further funding and have had meaningful impacts on the lives of those living in the developing world. Bridging theory and practice is a critical step in the process of effecting change in settings where time and resources are often not available to conduct pilot studies.

“The Earth Clinic is the Earth Institute's mechanism to transfer academia's immense knowledge base to problems in the field of sustainable development and it is a test bed for its research findings in real-world situations,” said Peter Schlosser, associate director of the Earth Institute and director of the Earth Clinic. As Vijay Modi, professor of mechanical engineering, said, “The distance between what you do and how it reaches people can be very far, so these projects are about reducing these gaps.”

There has been tremendous student interest in these projects as well. “Students want to engage in engineering that matters,” said Patricia Culligan, professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics. Due to the diverse backgrounds of students getting involved, these projects are becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary and increasingly successful.

Children using an arsenic-free drinking well in Bangladesh

“Students have brought in the component of figuring out feasibility and cost,” said Modi. Indeed, aspects of business are being fused with science to yield real-life applications of research to either be disseminated or brought back and re-tooled using practical lessons learned in the field if the projects face obstacles.

Lex van Geen, associate director of the Earth Clinic and Doherty Senior Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, reiterated that, “This clinic is about trying to find out if what you have done through an intervention has worked and then re-evaluating ones that don’t work. Impact evaluation components are built into the design of these projects. These projects strive to be interdisciplinary in nature and funding is often given to proposals that reach across schools and disciplines.”

Practical examples of the intersections between science, culture, business, politics and more were present in each of the projects showcased at the conference. One project, aimed at reducing arsenic exposure in Bangladesh, involved addressing underlying problems with communication and information flow regarding arsenic and drinking wells. Another project presented looked at ways to improve bicycle durability and design through the use of bamboo grown locally in Ghana as opposed to importing bicycles from China. A third project set out to examine the degree to which women’s respiratory health improved as a result of replacing traditional indoor cooking fires with closed system stoves. The final Earth Clinic-funded project presented at the conference involved increasing school enrollment among Kenyan pastoralist community children through the adoption of mobile teaching units and dissemination of cell phones.

A teacher with his camel and cell phone as part of new mobile education units being distributed in Kenya

The Earth Clinic will continue to allocate project seed funding to Columbia University faculty and research staff. The Earth Clinic fund has $150,000 to be awarded in increments up to $30,000. For more information on the competition, please click here.

List of presenters from the showcase:

Peter Schlosser, Associate Director and Director of Research, The Earth Institute; Director, the Earth Clinic, The Earth Institute

Joseph Graziano, Associate Dean and Professor, Department of Environmental Health Sciences; Professor, Department of Pharmacology

Lex van Geen, Associate Director, Earth Clinic, The Earth Institute; Doherty Senior Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Darby Jack, Associate Research Scientist, Department of Environmental Health Sciences

John Mutter, Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Professor,
Department of International and Public Affairs

Marty Odlin, Assistant Director, Education Center for Sustainable Engineering, Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics

Nikki Spicer, Education Coordinator, Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program, The Earth Institute


The more durable, more affordable and locally made bamboo bicycle engineered by Marty
Odlin as part of the Bamboo Bicycle Project funded by an Earth Clinic seed grant