UB students travel to India to help town create sanitation plan

University at Buffalo students Vasikan Vijayashanthar and Connor Hannan (middle) talk about their work with Greeshma Joy Kallingal (far left) and Sreelakshmi C J (far right), both from the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, in India as part of an interdisciplinary spring studio offered through UB's School of Architecture and Planning.

Interdisciplinary studio offers unique opportunity to contribute to solving a major public health problem

Release Date: February 26, 2016

“This has been a rewarding, real-life public health experience for me. It’s immersed me.”
Sucharita Paul, studio student
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The world’s most pressing problems can’t be solved with one approach, or seen through a single lens.

That’s the thinking behind a spring studio course offered at the University at Buffalo, which aims to help a community in India develop a much-needed public sanitation plan.

Thirteen graduate students in this interdisciplinary studio offered through UB’s School of Architecture and Planning joined two faculty members and two teaching assistants in India for three weeks in January, interviewing local residents, government officials, staff and engineers in Maradu, a municipality of about 50,000 people in the state of Kerala, located in the southwestern tip of the country.

Over the next few months, they’ll process all the data they collected to develop a report that will inform a public sanitation plan for Maradu.

“The systems we’re going to recommend have to be dynamic,” said Vasikan Vijayashanthar, a master of science in civil engineering student from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who is in the studio. “Implementing a waste management plan isn’t going to solve all of these issues. It’s going to require a bunch of solutions and little behavioral changes that can have smaller impacts, which will lead to larger change.”

The need for a public sanitation plan is great: 774 million people in India lack household toilets, according to a November 2015 report by WaterAid. Open defecation is common, causing severe public health issues such as the spread of disease.

While Maradu has better infrastructure in place than some parts of India, the municipality needed assistance in developing its sanitation plan.

“The students’ report will help contribute to the Maradu town council’s plan and advance that process,” said Korydon Smith, associate professor of architecture and a co-leader of Global Health Equity, one of several new “Communities of Excellence” UB launched last spring to help address major global issues in an interdisciplinary way.

Smith is co-leading the spring studio with Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning and principal investigator of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab at UB.

The interdisciplinary nature of the studio — the 13 students come from architecture, urban planning, environmental engineering and public health — mirrors a real-world approach to solving major public health problems in developing countries. That’s intentional.

“This is unique. To our knowledge, this is the only civically engaged, multidisciplinary study abroad studio of its kind,” said Smith.

Adds Raja, “Students have been part of the full planning process — from survey development, to data collection, to precedent research and proposal-making, including collaboration with partners and stakeholders.”

An eye-opening experience

The students’ time in India was particularly impactful. The need they saw for better water and sanitation systems is precisely the reason Sucharita Paul, who received her MD in 1995 from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, decided to return to school after working eight years as an attending physician in the emergency department at Buffalo General Hospital.

“I’ve been a practicing physician for several years and part of the reason I decided to do a master of public health at UB was because I wanted to get more focused on the importance of preventive care and good health,” said Paul, who received her bachelor’s degree from UB, where she also did her residency in emergency medicine.

“This has been a rewarding, real-life public health experience for me. It’s immersed me. Instead of being in the classroom for the past year and learning a lot of theory, it’s been rewarding to actually touch other human beings and feel like you’re making an impact, not person-to-person at the bedside, but on a much broader level,” added Paul, who is also a clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine in UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“A lot of us were thrown into roles that we never normally have and that our education wouldn’t normally cover,” said Kenzie McNamara, a master of architecture student.

International and community partners

The India-focused studio developed from a chance conversation between Raja and Bharat Singh, a UB alum and planner with international experience, at a conference.

Singh mentioned the work of Suresh Rohilla, an environmental planner who heads the Water Department for the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), an India-based research think tank leading the public sanitation effort for the entire country.

Last summer, a two-person team from Raja’s lab traveled to New Delhi, Kerala and Kashmir to visit potential sites for the studio, and to meet with potential partners, including Rohilla. “We were quite impressed by CSE’s work, especially in Kerala,” Raja said.

Other partners include GIZ, a German organization similar to the U.S. Agency for International Development; the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram located in nearby Kerala; and K. Vasuki, executive director of the Suchitwa Mission, a state sanitation agency.

The UB students paired with students from Thiruvananthapuram and split into teams. One group conducted surveys with approximately 75 households to learn more about water usage and storage, food systems, disease in the area, and general health and sanitation behaviors.

Other students, through diagramming and photography, documented the built environment, including basic floor plans of homes, as well as water and waste-management systems.

In addition, students developed a GIS database that links physical and spatial information to demographic and statistical data.

Throughout the remainder of the spring semester, they’ll consolidate and synthesize all the data they collected to develop their report, which will be sent to Maradu city leaders. The studio ends this semester, but Raja noted there will be additional opportunities for students to continue their work in Maradu.

Media Contact Information

David J. Hill
News Content Manager
Public Health, Architecture, Urban and Regional Planning, Sustainability
Tel: 716-645-4651
davidhil@buffalo.edu