McCormick Magazine

Student Profile: Jason Sandberg

Back from study abroad, Jason Sandberg reflects on Africa


jasonAs a participant in the study abroad program in global health technologies, Jason Sandberg (biomedical engineering '09) spent spring quarter 2008 working on design projects in Cape Town, South Africa. A year later, Jason reflects on the experience — one that he says will stay with him as he heads to medical school this fall.

For three months last spring I called Cape Town, South Africa, my home. South Africa is a diverse country with 14 nationally recognized languages spoken among descendants of native African tribes as well as European settlers. Solving engineering problems in the context of such diversity was refreshing, but also challenging: refreshing because I never knew what to expect during a given field visit or client interview in an environment so different from what I was used to; challenging because South Africa's diversity required our engineering team to think about how human factors and varying demographics might affect adoption of our device.

While in South Africa, I worked on a team with other McCormick engineers to develop a neonatal apnea monitor that is compatible with Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC). KMC is a practice in which premature infants are nursed back to health not in incubators, but by keeping them in skin-to-skin contact with their mother's chest for hours at a time. While this technique has proved to be an effective solution for the care of premature infants, it does present problems. One major issue is that during KMC the babies are not monitored using traditional methods (checking pulse ox, heart rate, and other indicators that would be measured in an incubator), and there is no current apnea monitor compatible with this therapy's physical peculiarities. Sleep apnea is the primary cause of death for infants undergoing KMC, but an effective monitor could trigger early treatment and improve survival rates.

Some of my favorite days in Cape Town involved trips to local hospitals. We were granted incredible access to mothers and infants. We conducted interviews, collaborated with nurses, and even tested the device on neonates. We later presented our results to students, professors, and doctors at the University of Cape Town.

But my stay in Cape Town was not all work and no play. The program coordinators did an exceptional job ensuring that we experienced everything South Africa had to offer. We took wine-tasting tours through the country's renowned vineyards, went bungee jumping in the Eastern Cape, attended rugby and cricket matches, and enjoyed Cape Town's thrilling nightlife. Perhaps the most impressive experience was a five-day road trip through Namibia, South Africa's northern neighbor. Three other students and I climbed some of the largest sand dunes in the world, took a safari through Etosha National Park, and camped along Africa's western coastal beaches.

I have to admit I was anxious when I first arrived with friends and classmates in Africa. I came with only a cursory knowledge of South Africa, a shortcoming I was not particularly concerned with in the beginning. But three months later, I departed impressed and humbled by a people still striving for a unifying identity among the lingering effects of apartheid. And in the end I realized it wasn't just about designing technology to help people; it was about understanding what it means to be South African. It was about understanding what it means to be part of a culture different from my own.