Friday September 22, 2006
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Playing locally, serving globally

Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson works on Bolivian sanitation issues

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Photo courtesy of Megan McRainey

Children wait in line to use a public sanitation facility. Poor sanitation practices lead to millions of deaths around the world every year.

By Usha Kantheti Contributing Writer

Perhaps better known for his skills as a wide receiver, third-year Management major Calvin Johnson has nevertheless proven himself to be much more than just a star football player.

This past summer, Johnson dedicated his time to service as he worked to solve sanitation problems that are currently present in Bolivia.

Living in a country where proper sanitation is not a concern, it is hard to imagine that over two billion people around the world lack access to clean toilets and over 13 million children die every year from diseases spread due to lack of sanitation.

However, Johnson met this issue head on. The decision to tackle a global sanitation concern was an obvious choice for him.

"I just get the satisfaction of being able to help somebody," Johnson said.

Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), the nonprofit research division of Tech, offered Johnson two projects to choose from this past summer: one was to design environmentally-friendly luxury condos not too far from campus and the other was to design and build better waste disposal facilities in Bolivia.

Johnson chose the latter. "I thought I [would have] more fun helping somebody," he said.

The sanitation project began as a collaboration of Tech's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, GTRI and Emory University's Center for Global Safe Water.

"We teamed up with folks from Emory and after a series of dialogues, we got together and talked about worldwide problems regarding sanitation and what we could do as a team," said Kevin Caravati, a senior research scientist at GTRI and the advisor for the project.

With a defined project in hand, Caravati sat down with Johnson and Brad Davis, a Building Construction major who also joined the team, and presented the problem to them.

Johnson and Davis got to work right away. According to Caravati, Johnson, who in addition to his Management major has a background in building construction, had ideas on paper within the first couple of days.

"That showed me that he was committed to [the project] right from the very beginning," Caravati said.

"They progressed very rapidly-much quicker than I thought. Calvin and Brad worked on the design drawings, did the research and evaluated existing systems to see what worked and what didn't and they went out into the field and built it," Caravati said.

To ensure the practicality of the unit, it was essential that they used materials that were easily available in areas where the systems would be implemented.

"We first researched the kind of materials that they had [in Bolivia] and basically used the same materials," Johnson said.

They used a variety of easily-accessible items, such as bike rubber, cement and tin foil.

While building a practical and efficient system was one parameter to their solution, they also had to address cost-related issues.

"The Emory team was a bit concerned that, being Tech, we might come up with a high-tech, costly design," Caravati said. "But we really worked hard to keep it affordable by using local materials. We came up with a system that is cheaper than the one that the United Nations is putting out now."

The team is now in the process of refining and improving their prototype, including conducting temperature and heat loss tests.

"The goal for us is to go to Bolivia and work with the villagers there to see what materials they have on the ground and then show them what has worked for our system," Caravati said.

Caravati sees a lot of potential for this project. "When we match up the engineering and innovation of Tech with the health experience and resources of Emory, the CDC [Center for Disease Control] and the Carter Center, we think that there are really some amazing things that we can do together," he said.

Caravati also believes there is great interest among Tech students to use their engineering skills to help people in countries that need it the most.

"I think that's one of the things that attracted Calvin," Caravati said.

"He could work anywhere on campus if he wanted to, yet he chose to come and help with the design of a latrine system, working in our facility outside in the middle of the day, after football practice. He didn't have to go do these things, but he did," Caravati said.

According to Johnson, this experience has had a great impact on him.

"Putting in the hard work helps you to see what kinds of things that they have to go through and how dirty the work is. I definitely have a greater appreciation for what we have," Johnson said.

Johnson will continue his work with GTRI after the football season is over and plans to accompany the team to Bolivia in January.