Seminar Series: From Desalination to Kidney Disease, Engineering Design in Resource-Constrained Contexts

Most drinking water treatment projects in resource-constrained contexts focus on microbial contamination. That makes sense, due to its large disease burden and high associated childhood mortality. However, drinking water is also a source of chemical exposure. Saline groundwater, for example, underlies 60 percent of India’s land area, negatively impacting the health of those that drink it, and often leading people to reject what would otherwise be an acceptable source of potable water.

When: October 14, 2020, 12 Noon ET

Dr. Natasha Wright, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (USA), presents this seminar on academic research that advances engineering science and global development goals in the area of desalination, including field pilots in India and Gaza.

Drawing on learnings from her research, Natasha will highlight two projects in the early stages of the design trajectory. The first is related to the development of brine management strategies for small volume desalination and industrial waste. The second is the treatment of end-stage kidney disease, a diagnosis with an estimated 88 percent mortality rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. Using these examples, the seminar will highlight the process the Wright Lab is exploring to address technical challenges in global development, the group’s initial steps into the world of structured design ethnography, the continued need for innovative interventions for managing chemical contamination of drinking water sources, and how, by going back to the fundamental physics of desalination, the research group has ended up investigating the remarkably similar challenge of treating kidney disease.

E4C’s Seminar Series features academic laboratories researching solutions to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. The world’s cutting edge research deserves a platform with a global audience. Join us for presentations of new findings from investigative teams around the globe each month. And researchers, we welcome your applications to take part in the series. Please send an email to


Dr. Natasha Wright is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Her research and teaching interests include membrane-based separation processes, desalination, photovoltaic and solar thermal water treatment, design ethnography, and the role of engineering in global development. She completed her PhD in the Global Engineering and Research Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2018 and developed the semester course Engineering in Development at Tufts University. She was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Award for graduate inventors (2017), was listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 in Energy (2016), and led the team that won the USAID Desal Prize (2015). Natasha received her B.S.M.E. from the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN.


Dr. Jesse Austin-Breneman is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering in 2014 from MIT. He also holds a S.M. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and a B.S. in Ocean Engineering also from MIT. Previous to his academic career, he worked as a development engineer in Peru, working with rural communities on alternative business opportunities and with local doctors’ groups on medical device development. He also spent two years as a high school mathematics teacher in Boston, MA. He currently is the director of the Global Design Laboratory. The group focuses on developing design processes and support tools to help multi-disciplinary design teams think at a systems-level when performing complex system design tasks. This includes investigating the best way to incorporate system-level interactions between stakeholders in emerging markets into the design decision-making process.

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