Motivated to Help Save Lives
Interview with IdeaConnection problem solver Alison Daube
By Paul Arnold
IdeaConnection problem solvers have been working on a series of challenges to help the people of Bangladesh who are facing “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.
According to a report by the medical journal The Lancet, up to 77 million individuals have been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in drinking water. Innovative solutions are needed including cheap water testing kits, water filters and water treatment kits.
Alison Daube, an adjunct professor at Georgia Perimeter College and co-founder of UIPST, a company that solves scientific issues, is one of those who gave their time for free to develop novel solutions. Her team worked on the Arsenic Penny-per-Test Challenge, designing an easy-to-use arsenic test kit that is cheap to produce and can be made locally in Bangladesh.
In this interview she talks about using challenge team dynamics to arrive at the best solutions, and her motivation for taking part.
I got involved because of seeing and hearing of people blinded, dead and sick from drinking tainted water. That includes babies and children. It’s just so disgusting and a lot of people don’t realize it is a problem.
Was this your first common good challenge?
I started out doing medical research in college as a work study student, so in a way you could say I was a do-gooder, because at four bucks an hour you’re hardly making anything. But this was my first nonprofit challenge.
How did your team develop the solutions?
We were a group of four experienced scientists and we had one junior member. Our team worked very hard and my contribution was chemistry based.
We came together for a weekly meeting and everyone put forward their ideas and how they saw the situation. The whole team got behind the solutions they thought were the winning ones.
And the seeker, Chemists Without Borders accepted a couple of your solutions?
Yes. The most promising one is something that is currently being used in some applications in industry but has not been used to test for arsenic poisoning in water.
Did your own idea change through the process? Was it helped by the input of others on your team?
I sent out a document detailing my idea and the other team members made comments on things they thought the seeker would attack and things they thought the seeker would like. So we were like little lawyers trying to punch holes in the argument. That wasn’t to be mean, that’s just how science is done.
So the ideas went through a mini peer review to maximize the potential of each one?
Yes. It’s not meant to be critical or hurt someone’s feelings although it does sometimes, especially junior members who are not used to it. They think that they’re being hammered by a senior member, and they’re not. Sometimes ego gets involved but that causes people to lose. Everything has to be maintained on a logical emotionless plane or people do trip.
And you are able to do this, divorce your ego from the process?
And finally, please tell me a little about your background.
I have my own company now and it’s called UIPST – United Intellectual Property and Science and Technology Incorporated – and that’s what we do – innovation. We have innovators, technical experts and we solve problems.
I’m also an educator. I teach chemistry at Georgia Perimeter College. I enjoy teaching to young people and trying to get some enthusiasm going for chemistry again because there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm there. A lot of people are frightened off by chemistry. It is a physical science that does require knowledge of math, and some people find the math challenging, not because the math itself is challenging but because they have to think logically through problems and solve them. It’s technically challenging for some until they learn the process.
My approach is to get them to read the text book because all the facts are there, and then I show them how to apply them.