Team designs potential solution for ‘India’s dangerous walk to the toilet’

A diverse team of engineering students horrified by violent attacks on Indian women taking long trips to toilets came up with a safe alternative.

Their project won first place in the School of Engineering’s Senior Design class – and it has the potential to change lives in nations where plumbing is considered a luxury.

Biomedical engineering majors Siji Oluwadara and Julia Dmowska, electrical engineering major Caroline Henley and mechanical engineering major Jeremiah Afolabi, all fourth-year students, arrived at Vanderbilt University from across the nation and overseas. They teamed up for their required Senior Design course, led by Associate Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering Matthew Walker, a former Merck & Co. head of technology transfer and drug development.

Siji Oluwadara

From the start, Walker encourages students to consider their work more than a class project – to think about taking it to market to solve real-world problems. Then he schedules a series of lectures from experts covering the challenges of sustainability, cost, marketing, safety and ethics, among others.

This semester, after teaching assistants whittled down 49 team projects to eight finalists, professors from all the disciplines ranked those, and the toilet-inventing team prevailed.

The team incorporated everything learned in the lecture series, made changes based on new information, and ultimately addressed global health in nations with limited resources, Walker said.

Caroline Henley

“I want them to get used to the idea of iteration and design, which is different than the scientific process,” he said. “They can take off with it, but we don’t require them to. If they want to, we introduce them to the Vanderbilt Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization.  In this case, we recommended the winning team look to the Gates Foundation.”

The Gates Foundation recently awarded a university in The Netherlands a grant to design toilets for developing nations. Vanderbilt’s winning Senior Design team may already have the solution – an affordable toilet that requires no plumbing, sucks away waste with a vacuum pump, traps odors, and features a detachable, easy-to-carry container for disposal.

Jeremiah Afolabi

The June BBC report “India’s Long, Dark and Dangerous Walk to the Toilet” inspired the team, Oluwadara said. It told of the women of Kurmaali walking 15 minutes each way, twice daily, to a field outside of town. It’s their only opportunity to toilet, and because they’re so removed from the city, they’ve become easy targets for sexual predators.

“It’s literally just a field. There’s no plumbing or anything like that,” said Oluwadara, a student from Boston who founded the university’s Volunteers Around the World chapter, focusing on preventative care in developing nations. “Currently, 30 out of 3,300 homes have indoor toilet facilities, and it’s cost prohibitive to add more. Schools have chosen not to have toilets – of course, they’re run by men. If you’re not well off, why spend money on something you don’t consider a need?”

Julia Dmowska

They learned aspects of design they wouldn’t necessarily consider, group members said, such as searching India’s patent database to make sure they could market their work there. But the assignment didn’t just teach the design process, they said. It also built their appreciation for team dynamics.

“We got to work with members from different backgrounds and produce ideas, meeting weekly, bouncing ideas off each other,” said Dmowska, who is from Knoxville and founded the Russian, East European and Central Asian Club on campus.

Done alone, the project would have been too daunting, said Henley, a native of Columbus, Ga., who has spent 10 years volunteering for Girls Inc.

Their prize was $400, and they have different ideas how to spend it.

Afolabi wants to invest his portion back into the project. A native of Lagos, Nigeria, he’s enrolled in a cooperative program with Fisk University and will graduate in May with his Vanderbilt bachelor’s plus a physics degree from Fisk. He completed the five-year program in four years.

“Because there is a market for it and a need out there, we hope it can contribute to people’s lives everywhere, not only in India,” he said.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering