Indian American doctoral student at Berkeley Katya Cherukumilli wins top prize for designing way to reduce poverty in India

Using bauxite to remove toxic levels in Nalgonda district.

By Raif Karerat

WASHINGTON, DC: An Indian American was named one of three winners of the Designing Solutions for Poverty challenge organized by University of California Irvine’s Blum Center for Global Engagement, garnering the largest margin of votes along the way.

Katya Cherukumilli, an environmental engineering Ph.D. student from UC Berkeley, was awarded first place with her proposal to use “mildly processed bauxite,” an aluminum-rich ore, to remove “toxic levels of naturally occurring fluoride” from the groundwater of the Nalgonda District in India.

The poverty-alleviating method, an “ultra low-cost approach” that she aims to launch in India, would reduce the cost of enriching drinking water from $50 to $1 per person, Cherukumilli said.

As highlighted by her presentation, she was inspired to tackle the issue of viable drinking water due to the fact that while a small amount of fluoride leads to stronger teeth, the effects of water with excess fluoride can lead to deteriorating bones and “crippling deformities.”

Cherukumilli, who was born near the district, immigrated to the United States as a young child with the rest of her family.

“This is something that’s very close to my heart,” Cherukumilli told Daily Pilot. “Access to clean water does not seem like something people should die for.”

Cherukumilli was one of five finalists selected by a panel of judges from among 35 entries submitted to the contest, which sought proposals that could help people living in poverty, reported the Orange County Register.

While the competition had initially sought one winner, UCI professor and Blum Center director Richard Matthew told Daily Pilot that organizers were excited about several of the ideas and decided to award second- and third-place winners as well.

Second place was awarded to Erik Peterson, an Irvine resident who came up with the idea of Lifesign, a sign that could be held up by homeless individuals that could display a web address and a specific code. By entering the code at the given URL, one would be able to find a profile of the individual, “listing information such as their hometown, educational background, services needed, and more.”

Third place on the proverbial podium went to Irene Beltran, who proposed a diagnostic device for tuberculosis that could be produced “cheaper and faster” for countries that need testing. The device, called Lab on a Chip, would be able to provide a diagnosis with from a single drop of blood.

Another Indian American, Debapriya Chakraborty, was involved in a project that reached the finals but did not place, which consisted of a solar-powered stove with the ability to store power for use without sunlight.

Chakraborty, who is an economics doctoral student at UC Irvine, was part of a team that who wanted to design an appliance that would reduce the number of people who spend their lives breathing in smoke as they burn biofuels to cook, reported The Register.

Chakraborty worked in conjunction with Laszlo Kurta, an undergraduate engineering student, and Michael Bryant, a graduate engineering student, both of whom also study at UC Irvine.

The other finalist was David Gyllenhammer, an Irvine resident who proposed a medical cart that would include a cooler for vaccines, a reverse osmosis system to decontaminate unsafe drinking water, a collapsible IV pole, and a spotlight, all of which would be powered by solar energy.

Matthew said the next steps will be for the Blum Center to match the winning contestants with experts and labs needed to bring their ideas to reality, and the center is currently discussing options with the trio of innovators.

Furthermore, as part of her first-place prize, Cherukumilli will receive an all-expenses paid weekend for six at the Pelican Hill resort, a 5-star luxury spa on the coast of Newport Beach, Calif. that spans more than 500 acres.

“It’s possible that the other two ideas will be picked up later on,” Matthew told Daily Pilot. “We had a community of people who saw the ideas. Now it depends on who in that room wants to help.”

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