How to solve poverty? UCI contest winners have innovative ideas

Five finalists entered the Dhillon residence in Newport Coast to present their ideas on ways to provide clean drinking water, recovery programs for the homeless, portable medical stations, solar cooking stoves and affordable testing for tuberculosis.

But three emerged as winners and will have their proposed solutions one step closer to becoming a reality.

The winners were announced Sunday during the final round of the Designing Solutions for Poverty challenge organized by UC Irvine's Blum Center for Global Engagement. The competition was open to UC students and community members who submitted their ideas in May.

A review committee from the center read through more than 30 entries, technology-based ideas designed to alleviate either local or global poverty issues. The five finalists were invited to the home of Paul and Dimple Dhillon to share their ideas before a room of about 40 community leaders, scientists, business partners and potential investors.

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.

As she highlighted in her presentation, the effects of drinking water with excess fluoride can lead to deteriorating bones and "crippling deformities."

Cherukumilli was born near the district but moved to the United States as a young child with her family.

"This is something that's very close to my heart," Cherukumilli said. "Access to clean water does not seem like something people should die for."

As part of her first-place prize, Cherukumilli will receive an all-expenses paid weekend for six at the Pelican Hill resort.

The competition was initially seeking one winner but UCI professor and Blum Center director Richard Matthew said organizers were excited about several of the ideas and decided to award second- and third-place winners as well.

Second place went 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 would display a web address and a specific code. By entering the code on the web address, one could find a profile of the individual, listing information such as hometown, educational background, services needed and more.

Those interested could donate money through the site to help provide the services he or she would need for recovery. Homeless people wanting to participate would create a profile by registering on the site.

UCI engineering undergraduate Irene Beltran was awarded third place for Lab on a Chip. The diagnostic device for tuberculosis that could be produced "cheaper and faster" for countries that need testing. The chip would be able to provide diagnosis with a drop of blood.

Matthew said the next steps will be for the Blum Center to "match" the three contestants with experts and labs needed to bring their ideas to reality. The center is in the process of discussing these options with the winners.

While arrangements are being made for the top three, Matthew predicts that the other two finalists may also have their proposals implemented.

"It's possible that the other two ideas will be picked up later on," Matthew said. "We had a community of people who saw the ideas. Now it depends on who in that room wants to help."

Paul Dhillon, who got involved with the competition after seeing a similar UCI event for which Matthew had presented, has already agreed to host the second year of the competition, Matthew said.

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