Editor's note: This is part one of a three-day series that looks at technologists who are working to assist the world's poor. Click here to read part two, "Finding clean water for the slums of Buenos Aires" or here to read part three, "Plugging Africa's kids in to $100 laptop."
Jaspal Sandhu isn't in Mongolia for its vast, windswept scenery or historic monasteries.
The 30-year-old engineer has technology on the brain--specifically, the 50 personal digital assistants Mongolia's government hopes will help puncture the country's inflated maternal death rate. Although maternal deaths occur throughout the country, which is nearly the size of Alaska, the nomadic herders who make up one-third of Mongolia's population are difficult for health workers to reach and care for.
As a possible fix, Mongolia's National Center for Health Development is implementing a pilot project funded by Japan's Asian Development Bank, and part of that project focuses on making high-risk rural patients easier to treat. Acer PDAs preloaded with case management software have been handed to 50 rural field nurses, who digitally log case details of the patients they visit during their far-flung monthly rounds. The same nurses upload the stored data onto computers at the nearest county health center, often a half-week's journey away by motorcycle, horse or camel.
Sandhu's self-appointed task is to discover firsthand exactly what the PDAs can--or can't--accomplish. "We don't know if they will help," he said. "We need to understand how to integrate the technology into local systems to figure out if they make sense in the first place."
With his mechanical engineering credentials and corporate experience, Sandhu could be swiveling a mesh-backed chair in a comfortable Silicon Valley office and collecting a six-figure salary.
Instead, he lives frugally on the $25,000 a year his university allots its research assistants. Sandhu's prestigious Fulbright scholarship pays for his basic needs in Mongolia, but it's not the comfortable lifestyle of many college peers who have long since traded burritos for foie gras.
Yet Sandhu isn't alone. More than a few engineers are either walking away or taking a break from traditional tech careers to work with the world's poor, and top tech universities like MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley are increasingly encouraging their students to think about how the proverbial other half lives.
In a three-part series, CNET News.com will profile Sandhu and two other foreign-born engineers who chose hands-on international development work over the cubicle lifestyle. Their perspective among tech do-gooders is unique: they came to the United States either as children or for education, and carried with them an ingrained understanding that in many parts of the world, Web surfing, social networking and gadget craving take a back seat to the basics of fighting childhood disease and drinking potable water.
Their career decisions come at a personal cost--months at a time away from loved ones and salaries as low as one quarter of those offered in Silicon Valley. Yet, as Khaled Hassounah, featured in part three of this series, stresses, "Very few people can say that their job will help change the world for the better, on a global scale."
Of course, the contributions to the world's poor by people like Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who made his fortune in tech and intends to give a sizeable portion of that money away, may well be incalculable. But it's young engineers like Sandhu, Hassounah and Rebeca Hwang, profiled in the second installment of this series, who are putting that money to work while overcoming difficult conditions and language and cultural barriers. They're the feet on the street, bringing technology moguls' lofty philanthropic ambitions to people who may never have heard of those tech billionaires.
From Tucson to Ulaanbaatar
Sandhu packed his bags in June 2006, kissed his girlfriend of two years a temporary goodbye, and boarded a plane for what will be a yearlong stint in Mongolia.
Once in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, Sandhu settled into a furnished apartment and began contacting everyone he could who was centrally or peripherally involved in the initiative. He spoke with health ministers, toured facilities and stayed with field nurses in their tent-homes in the countryside. He improved his Mongolian (khalkh) through intense classes, read up on social graces, and realized that as a vegetarian, he would have to creatively and politely decline any meat offered by his nomadic hosts.
At UC Berkeley, Sandhu's identity is defined by his work. In Mongolia, it's by his foreignness. Mongolians constantly ask about his ethnicity, some guessing him to be Indian or Cuban.
In fact, Sandhu's "differentness" partly accounts for why he wound up in Mongolia. Born in England to Indian (Punjabi) immigrant parents, Sandhu moved with his family to California for his father's electrical engineering career before they settled in Tucson, Ariz. Sandhu's studies took him to Boston, and his fieldwork to India, Uganda and Guatemala. "I think that growing up between cultures has given me a different outlook on the world," he said.
He has an uncommon perspective for a mechanical engineer, added Alice Agogino, Sandhu's professor and adviser at Berkeley. "There's a saying in the engineering community that the civil engineers make the targets and the mechanical engineers shoot them down," she said. With many mechanical engineers working in the defense industry, Sandhu's educational projects are "very unusual."
But Sandhu has always been willing to roll up his sleeves, Agogino said. When the lab was working to protect migrant workers in central California from repeated pesticide poisoning, Sandhu decided to stay the night with a family in the affected town to fully analyze their real-world situation.
Exiles' technology mesh-up
Yahel Ben-David quit his Silicon Valley job to build a wireless network for banished Tibetans.
Benetech uses radio waves to identify landmines for quicker, safer removal.
Net gain: clean water
FogQuest's polypropylene nets efficiently convert fog to clean water in arid environs.
Portable technology by PointCare tests the blood count in rural HIV/AIDS patients.
Changing lives through
Former Microsoft exec John Wood teams with developing nations to build schools, libraries.
Student's new business model brings affordable electricity to rural Brazil.
Biometric identification enables microfinance banking options to the illiterate poor.
grains feed poor
Light technology from start-up Dr. Seed boosts grain production to feed China's hungry.
Stoves save wood
Researcher Christina Galitsky helped design low-fuel cookstoves in war-ravaged Darfur.
Reporter: Jessica Dolcourt
Editors: Jim Kerstetter, Leslie Katz
Copy editor: Emily Shurr
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Jessica Kashiwabara