Empowering Students to Change Local Lives With Technology: What We Have Learned So Far

By Dr. Dorothy Okello and Paula Reinman 

“While technology is important, it’s what we do with it that truly matters.”
Muhammad Yunis – Founder, Grameen Bank

Two years ago, the Marconi Society Young Scholars, led by Dr. Joseph Kakande, created the Celestini Program to encourage undergraduate engineering students in developing countries to use technology to solve problems that are important in their local areas. The Program started in Uganda, expanded to India in 2017 and will launch in China, Colombia, Ghana and Rwanda in 2018.

With mentoring, support and global connections provided by the Young Scholars, the Marconi Society and other supporters including Google, IEEE, Nokia-Bell Labs, the Samueli Foundation and Vint and Sigrid Cerf, the Uganda project is now entering its third year. To date, 22 students have engaged in the project, as well as local OB GYNs and midwives.

Based on the positive feedback and results we have seen in Uganda and India, the Marconi Society will implement solutions and expand the program to benefit more people. Here are some of the most important things we have learned so far.

Makerere University and Maternal Mortality

The Uganda Celestini Project is hosted at Makerere University through netLabs! Uganda (netLabs!UG), a research Centre of Excellence in communications and networking technologies that is led by Dr. Dorothy Okello. NetLabs!UG is hosted by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering under the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT). NetLabs!UG’s goal of a balanced mix of basic research, applied research and commercialization is a perfect fit for the Celestini Program’s strategy of incubating technology to solve critical local issues.

When Dr. Kakande approached her about the idea of starting a Celestini Project at Makerere, Dr. Okello was immediately enthused. “I loved the idea,” she says. “I want to expose students to international partnerships and collaboration. I was excited about applying telecommunications to a health care problem in a developing country. It is not enough to be good at programming – our students need to think about how their technical prowess can help othersand healthcare is a great application area for that.”

The netLabs!UG team selected a potentially life-changing issue: identifying and treating pregnant women with hypertension.

Uganda has the 37thhighest maternal mortality rate in the world. Hypertension, a condition that is easy to identify and treat, is the second most common cause of maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the cure is known, the mortality rate is caused by lack of awareness among pregnant women and the fact that many of these women live in rural areas far away from health centers.

Dr. Okello has run this program twice with students and is now gearing up for a third time, applying what she has learned in each new session. “One of my main expectations was for students to be able to work on a real problem that is important to Ugandans. We have been able to do that – twice,” she says.



How it Works

After selecting maternal mortality due to hypertension as the problem to solve, the students in the first year program moved immediately into developing applications and tools to address the issue. They quickly created and iterated on a mobile application to track the health of pregnant women and identify the potential for hypertensive disorder, as well as a database to track patients, generate reports for doctors and store patient data.

In the second year, Dr. Okello focused on integrating user input into the entire process, starting with the solution design. The second year session kicked off with a design-thinking workshop with 33 participants from local women’s health groups and from the University, including students beyond those in the Celestini Project.

“I opened the design-thinking workshop to additional students because I believe that all students can benefit from this problem solving approach,” says Dr. Okello. “The workshop provides the front-line practitioner perspectives that help students test and refine their assumptions and it gives students contacts within the stakeholder community that they are serving.”

For example, students decided to use a smart bracelet to allow health care professionals to remotely monitor pregnant women for hypertension. The design-thinking workshop surfaced the high costs of the smart bracelets, along with the extra work for medical staff created by the reports from each smart bracelet. Based on this, the team decided to provide bracelets only to high-risk patients, containing the cost and generating a level of data that the health care professionals could review in a timely and high quality way.

Students are also developing a nationwide telemedicine assessment to quickly analyze a given clinic or hospital setting to determine whether it has capabilities to support telemedicine. From the design-thinking workshop, students learned that telemedicine is an extremely broad term and that they need to understand the type of facilities available based on the five-level health center model (with options ranging from village health teams to urban hospitals) used throughout Uganda. The level of each health center determines the medical support and capacity for testing and treatment that it has.

Dorothy and her team complemented this work by collaborating with another Marconi Society project in Guatemala that focuses on creating tools and techniques to assess Internet connection capabilities in remote and rural areas. This collaboration helps the Makerere students assess the connectivity capabilities for telemedicine at various clinics.

What We Have Learned at Makerere

In addition to the specific findings about the solutions noted above, Dr. Okello and her students have discovered some organizational and logistical truths that drive program success:

  • Summer time is the right time. At Makerere, it is better to run the program during the summer than during the academic school year. Since this is an extra-curricular activity, not a scheduled class, work on the Celestini Project slows down significantly during the school year due to other academic commitments. Engaging third year students during the summer also lets them identify a program-related capstone project for their senior year. They work on the capstone project during the school year, giving them adequate time to design a strong solution.
  • User perspectives are critical for designing the right solutions. The design-thinking workshops are imperative in helping students create solutions that solve the users’ problems, rather than cool designs that may not hit the sweet spot. As students experience these interactions, user-inspired design becomes a standard part of their problem-solving toolkit.
  • Faculty flexibility is key for success. “We are fortunate to have a lot of latitude to introduce new programs,” Dr. Okello said. “When faculty are introducing a new idea, they need time and a place to experiment before they turn it into a formal program or coursework.” Success of the program depends on the latitude that faculty has for introducing new initiatives without significant administrative overhead.
  • International collaborations are motivators. Students and faculty enjoy getting the perspectives of and leveraging the research of people in other countries who are doing complimentary work. Collaborating with the lead for the Marconi Society-sponsored project in Guatemala is a highlight for faculty and students since they get to learn new approaches to solving problems in other developing countries.
  • Leveraging the program contributions with other departments will ideally drive more university support.  By sharing information about the Celestini Program and the equipment and resources that netLabs!UG has gotten from its participation, Okello is working with colleagues to leverage these new resources to serve other parts of Makerere. Leveraging the resource from the program will ideally drive participating universities to put more resource behind it.

We look forward to another year of learning with netLabs!UG and Makerere students so that together we can reduce maternal mortality in Uganda and lay the foundation to scale the impacts of the Celestini Program.

Doubling Wireless Bandwidth: Just the Tip of the Iceberg

By Negar Reiskarimian and Paula Reinman

“I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes … because they’re harder. They’re much more stressful emotionally. And you usually go through a period where everybody tells you that you’ve completely failed.”

— Steve Jobs

The Marconi Society stands for creativity, vision and change that benefits humankind.  Marconi Fellows have pioneered the Internet, wireless communications, security, GPS and other technologies that make today’s connected world possible.

The Marconi Society Young Scholars (nominations are open now!) show the potential to develop the next generation of ground-breaking discoveries.

So when 2017 Young Scholar Negar Reiskarimian decided what to focus on, she was not satisfied with developing integrated circuits that performed incrementally better. She wanted to find a fundamentally different way to design new circuits to power upcoming 5G and IoT applications.

Direction From the Intersection

As tomorrow’s applications diverge – from uses that will require more data and lower latency to support technologies such as the next generation of wireless communication systems (5G), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to Internet of Things (IoT) applications demanding lower power, smaller sizes and flexibility to tag everything – design ideas can come from many places across the scientific and engineering spectrum.  Negar’s research focuses on the intersection of fundamental physics, applied electromagnetics and nanoelectronics to design new integrated circuits (ICs) for these applications.

One key concept in overcoming current network design constraints is to create “full duplex” communications, enabling transmitters and receivers to function at the same time on the same frequency band. Full duplex capability doubles the capacity on existing networks and opens the door for 5G applications (click here for more information about full duplex and the ICs being developed at Columbia’s CoSMIC Lab).

Most of the prior full duplex demonstrations either used antenna pairs or nonreciprocal magnetic circulators to route the transmit and receive signals, which exist concurrently at the same frequency band. This is not the most efficient approach in terms of the area and cost of the overall system.

Negar’s challenge was to achieve non-reciprocal behavior without magnets.  She investigated prior approaches using modulation of material properties.  However these attempts could not meet the stringent requirements of full-duplex systems.

Combining her skills in IC design with her knowledge of the prior art, Negar created a different approach and a new modulation scheme based on switching transistors that is on a much smaller scale than anything that has been done before.  The intersection of this newly developed concept and CMOS platform produced a totally new type of design.

Beyond Doubling Capacity

While much of the initial interest around this innovation stems from its ability to double wireless network capacity, Negar believes that there are more fundamental and far-reaching applications for her work.

There are a number of government-funded programs to investigate and enhance the performance of nonreciprocal devices. DARPA’s SPAR (Signal Processing at Radio Frequency) program includes various groups working on nonreciprocal devices and circulators designed for high-performance wireless communication systems.  Negar and her team at CoSMIC Lab also have funding from the NSF to continue creating compact and low cost nonreciprocal devices that will support tomorrow’s applications.

Many of applications that seem to be right on the horizon will benefit from breaking reciprocity in a light, inexpensive and scalable way.  Most optical and electrical systems require nonreciprocal devices for protection against reflections. Self-driving cars need nonreciprocal devices in their radar systems to see objects and sense where they are on the road.

At a broader level, there is more that can be done with spatial and temporal modulation schemes beyond achieving nonreciprocity.  Since it is difficult to analyze and build these time varying systems, this work is just the beginning of endless opportunities.

New Rules for Building Game-Changing Technology

Solving the complex problems that will enable the next generation of connected communications and applications is an interdisciplinary sport.  Researchers need to look at how expertise in different fields and connecting ideas from these domains will result in new approaches to solve these problems. Scientists and engineers need to understand enough about the work and language of adjacent spaces to identify the promise of relevant ideas from other disciplines.

As basic scientific research continues to power consumer and business experiences, we will see more recognition of this research.  The 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 List included two Marconi Society Young Scholars, Negar Reiskarimian and Dinesh Bharadia, who are creating big impact through fundamental research.

We hope to see more of this kind of innovation in the 2018 Young Scholar nominees.  Please click here for more information on nominating a deserving young innovator.

Six Ways Bright Young Researchers Will Make Your Life Better

By Paula Reinman

Each year, the Marconi Society is honored to present the Paul Baran Young Scholar award to a small number of promising young researchers who exhibit the exceptional intellectual, creative and entrepreneurial capabilities needed to advance the Internet and communications.

We are always amazed by the quality of the nominations we receive and the nominees for the 2017 awards continue to set an extraordinary standard.  Thanks to the many leading universities and professional associations who helped us get the word out about this opportunity, we were able to consider an incredibly diverse and accomplished set of researchers. Our nominees came from ten countries and four continents. One-third of them were women. Virtually all of them were award-worthy, and narrowing the field was challenging.

Our nominees give us a bird’s eye view into the issues that the best researchers in the world are addressing right now. Some of these issues are on-going and some are new – all are intriguing and consistent with Guglielmo Marconi’s vision of supporting scientific achievements in communications and the Internet that significantly benefit mankind.

Here are six areas that young researchers are focused on to make our lives better:

Building the Wide New World of Wireless

There are nearly as many cell phone subscribers as there are people in the world, and even in landline strongholds like the US, there are now more cell phones than land line phones. This demand and the growing capacity and capability of wireless networks are driving high levels of interest in all things wireless among Young Scholar nominees.

Whether by enabling new wireless applications by breaking Lorentz Reciprocity and removing its limitations, developing ways to better use existing spectrum or creating the metrics and models that show that 5G will work everywhere, young researchers are creating the wireless world that consumers demand.

Delivering on the Internet of Everything Promise

We’ve all heard the numbers before: By 2020, we expect billions of devices to be connected to the network. While it’s predictable that there is plenty of Internet of Things action by young researchers, there are specific areas that pop out.

“Location, location, location” is the mantra in real estate, but it could also be the IoT chant. We expect accurate locations for all people and things in all places, from finding a restaurant to locating a buddy on the battlefield. Young researchers are working to improve efficiency, accuracy and ubiquity of wireless location detection systems.

Others are focused on the IoT infrastructure, including improvements in resource allocation and scheduling algorithms in wireless networks.

And still others are addressing critical security issues that Internet pioneers, including Vint Cerf and Leonard Kleinrock, are consumed with today.

Redefining the Laws of Physics

In 2013, Young Scholar Salvatore Campione was honored for his work in changing the basic physical properties of materials to support new applications in areas ranging from medical diagnostics to solar cells. As he continues this work, we see more young researchers changing the very nature of materials to enable different applications or to overcome fundamental limitations.

This year’s nominees continue this trend through innovative work to use the unique properties of metamaterials in order to manipulate and sculpt electromagnetic fields and design novel devices to support different applications. Some are developing new methods for wave shaping that can be used in many applications from glasses to microscopes to imaging devices in healthcare and optical data communications.

Expanding the limits of learning

By identifying and pushing the boundaries on data processing, young researchers are developing ways to improve deep learning.

These innovations underpin improvements in areas like natural language processing, enabling sophisticated applications to work in low bandwidth environments with simple devices.

Satisfying Our Insatiable Appetite for Bandwidth and Speed

Whether you’re trying to stream the latest episode of Game of Thrones or run a network for any size of business, bandwidth is a universal pain point.

A number of young researchers are working on continued advances in data signal processing (DSP) to meet our infinite demand for bandwidth, including improving the flexibility, speed and reach of access networks and developing fiber optic parametric amplifiers for applications in ultra-high capacity communications systems. Other approaches include addressing the upcoming bandwidth crunch by creating ways to scale information capacity without relying on DSP.

Extending the Infrastructure

Continuing a trend from last year and likely extending into the foreseeable future, there is a focus on augmenting and extending the existing core, long haul, metro and access networks to support the ongoing onslaught of devices and applications.

Techniques to ensure backward compatibility with legacy networks continue to be a hot topic as all network providers look to extend their capital investments.

Other researchers are focused on the optical networks of the future, including new optical plane architectures that allow flexible, low latency and scalable next generation all optical intra data center networks and high performance computing interconnection.

We look forward to honoring the 2017 Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholars and cannot wait to see what next year’s nominations bring.