Innovation for the public good
Educating leaders. Creating knowledge. Serving society. At Berkeley Engineering, that third element of our motto is often what separates the careers of our alumni from those of other engineers. Serving the broader public is baked into the educational programming at UC Berkeley, and the College of Engineering takes that mission seriously. The stories below offer four examples of how our alums are using their technical training to benefit their local communities, make health care screenings more accessible, build safer infrastructure and provide disaster relief.
Using tech to bring relief
In 2013, Dustin Li (B.S.’07 EECS) was living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) while working on his doctorate in bioengineering. When he read about the Typhoon Haiyan — which severely damaged many areas in the Philippines — he felt compelled to apply his engineering skills to the relief efforts. He connected with the United Nations’ Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST) in the UAE and soon became the first volunteer it ever deployed. Armed with an old laptop and a little cash, he was flown to the Philippines. Thus began an unexpected new trajectory — one that Li remains passionate about today.
“My guiding star has long been to maximize my positive impact on people around the world,” Li said. “My time in the Philippines showed me the tremendous impact of relief efforts, simply by providing emergency communications infrastructure and technical consulting.”
Li caught his first glimpse of how engineering could be channeled toward public good while an undergrad at Berkeley. After working on a biomonitoring device at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he was inspired to attend graduate school in bioengineering. But by the time he’d returned from the Philippines, he had decided to change his career path to focus on disaster relief.
Since that experience, Li’s many global deployments have included relief support for West Africa’s Ebola virus crisis and Vanuatu’s Cyclone Pam. For three years, as an operations coordinator for Cisco Tactical Operations (TacOps), he coordinated efforts in Antigua, Barbuda and Guatemala, as well as in the Northern California areas struck by wildfires.
In 2016, Li began volunteering with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) to direct disaster responses across the U.S. and Caribbean, and three years later he joined the team full-time, leading teams responding COVID-19 and to last year’s earthquake in Haiti. Since its founding in 2008, the ITDRC has responded to hundreds of requests from government agencies and nonprofits — it now averages about 30 disasters per year.
Li coordinates thousands of tech assets — including routers, Wi-Fi access points, laptops, radios, satellite terminals and other equipment — to be used and installed by 3,000+ volunteers across the country. To determine if they’ll respond to a request for support, the team considers whether it benefits the whole community. If the answer is yes, then there’s surprisingly little time or paperwork needed to get their boots on the ground.
“I’m so glad that I found disaster relief because it allows me to use my skills as an engineering geek to make a hugely positive difference in people’s lives in a very direct way,” Li said. “I hope to help other engineers find ways that they can do good for the world, too.”
Interested in learning more about ITDRC and possibly volunteering your engineering skills for disaster relief? Check out its volunteer page.
Prescreening for COVID? There’s an app for that
During the past two years of the global pandemic, certain symptoms, such as a cough, have come to feel fraught: Is it an allergy? A cold or flu? Or is it COVID? Now those symptoms could be the very things that enable us to diagnose the coronavirus.
The nonprofit research organization Virufy is using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze cough and speech patterns to screen for COVID-19 with a smartphone — quickly and for no cost. Founded in 2020 by Amil Khanzada (B.S.’12 CS, MEng-M.B.A.’23 EECS), Virufy is powered by a team of researchers from more than 25 countries, 30 partner organizations and about 250 volunteers, including faculty and alumni from Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT and CMU. By collecting cough recordings from people around the world, Virufy is constantly strengthening its AI algorithm to recognize COVID’s unique sound pattern.
“The technology works through advanced audio signal processing,” Khanzada said. “AI can classify certain characteristic breath sounds, such as wheezing and rhonchi, even over a smartphone. COVID creates a unique, dry respiratory signature in the throat and lungs — distinct from respiratory infections that produce a wet cough.”
Khanzada’s idea for the company was inspired by his late father, an immigrant from Pakistan who died while trying to save the life of another motorist on the freeway; the accident occurred when his son had just entered UC Berkeley at 18. As a child, Khanzada had accompanied his dad to regularly volunteer at soup kitchens and in support of the local homeless community. When the pandemic hit, Khanzada was infused anew with his father’s giving spirit and became intrigued by the idea of helping to test for the contagious virus.
“My vision was to democratize healthcare by providing anyone — particularly underserved areas — with access to free COVID-19 prescreening,” said Khanzada. “This would help us control the current pandemic and prevent future outbreaks, especially as we adapt the technology for future variants.”
Khanzada’s “giving spirit” has been further cultivated at Berkeley Engineering. “It’s a socially focused community — and it taught me that impact is the goal and money is a tool for that,” he said. “That mindset helped me to attract the support of many kind people for my project.”
Virufy is currently at the breakthrough stage of bringing its algorithm to production with a target of delivering free COVID-19 pre-screening to a billion people in developing nations by the end of 2022. The organization has been featured in the media including Forbes, CNN and MSN, and is collaborating with the One Young World ambassador network across 198 countries. It’s currently looking for volunteer support in the following roles:
- Associate Data Scientist
- Associate Software Engineer (Machine Learning)
- Machine Learning Engineer (Models)
- DevOps Engineer
- Audio Signal Processing Engineer
Beyond the technical
In 2008, after the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan, China, that killed 69,000 people, Lizzie Blaisdell Collins (M.S.’05 CEE) realized that she wanted to help bring seismic safety to more vulnerable locations. The following year, she came across an article in Berkeley Engineering’s Forefront magazine about Build Change, the nonprofit founded by Elizabeth Hausler (M.S.’98, Ph.D.’02 CEE) with the mission to prevent housing loss caused by disasters.
Collins had spent the first eight years of her career working at a San Francisco engineering firm, but she later joined Build Change as a lead structural engineer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti — three years after that country’s own catastrophic 7.0 quake. Today, she is the company’s vice president of engineering, where she leads an engineering, design and technology team to develop technical solutions while considering a larger picture that addresses policy, funding and culture. The organization works across platforms and people to change systems of regulation, finance, construction and other issues affecting the resilience of housing.
“What I love about working here is the systems-level approach that we take to looking at vulnerable and inadequate housing,” Collins said. “When I first started in this area, I was really focused on the technical side of the problems and solutions. But I quickly learned that in many cases the technical side, although critical, is one of the more straightforward things to address. The bigger challenges often lie in building demand, through people and policies, and in increasing access to the money needed for improved housing.”
As a master’s student at Berkeley, she built a solid base for understanding and evaluating how buildings perform in disasters, which has enabled her to analyze the different structural systems used around the world. By studying how building codes evolve as research and other events occur, she learned that codes and standards aren’t static but should be considered living documents that need to be maintained, supported by the community and effectively enforced.
To those interested in pursuing careers that serve the public good, Collins has this advice: “There are many paths to serving the public good, so look for one that you’re passionate about and for which your skills are best suited. And be open to learning from others — especially those you’re serving.”
To learn more about Build Change, check out its website.
When the mayor is an engineer
There are countless ways to apply one’s Berkeley Engineering education to public service — and in the case of Yan Zhao (B.S.’90 EECS), it has led to local politics in the town of Saratoga, California. In 2018, Zhao was elected to the Saratoga City Council, becoming its mayor in 2021. The opportunity to serve her community, she said, has brought “the greatest joy and satisfaction.”
That commitment to giving back was first instilled when Zhao came to UC Berkeley as a first-generation immigrant from China. In addition to her university scholarship, she was granted a private scholarship from a couple she had never met. “Because of their generosity, I was able to complete my college degree,” she said. “I’ve wanted to pay back that kindness ever since and to help others whenever I can.”
Zhao completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Santa Clara University before launching a 23-year career in the semiconductor industry. As she and her husband raised three children in Saratoga, she also volunteered countless hours for local organizations and boards.
While applying her energy and talents to such widespread causes, her Berkeley Engineering education was never far from her mind. “As an engineer, I always want to apply the latest and greatest technology to help improve our city services and to enhance people’s quality of life,” she said. Just one example: an application on the city’s website that enables residents to check the status of their planning applications or review the city’s infrastructure projects.
Because Zhao’s 2021 term as mayor fell during the COVID-19 pandemic, among her goals was to be publicly accessible, to make the city more transparent and to increase engagement between the city council and Saratoga residents. She initiated “mayor’s office hours” at the farmers’ market and started monthly “power lunches” at which she held 30-minute webinars with experts to talk about current Saratoga events.
Social justice was also on her agenda. When hate crimes against Asian American Pacific Islander communities increased, she organized a rally in front of city hall; more than 1,500 residents attended, along with a congressmember, state representatives, the county sheriff and district attorney, and mayors and councilmembers from nearby cities. “It was a great moment for the community to stand together and call for a stop to Asian hate,” she said.
Zhao hasn’t discounted the possibility of a future role in politics, should the opportunity arise. “We need more female representation,” she said. “Just 27% of the U.S. Congress is female. Even here in California, only 32% of the state legislature are women.”
Zhao feels she has what it takes. “The education I received from Berkeley not only helped me master my technical skills in the semiconductor industry but also taught me to cultivate integrity, think critically, respond to injustice and take a stand on important issues,” she said. “I truly love what I do.”
You can contact Zhao or visit her city council webpage.
UC Berkeley Launches Newsletter for Black Alumni
A new email publication, the UC Berkeley Black Alumni Newsletter, launched in April, according to Rhonda Kinard, associate director of Alumni Engagement Programs. The quarterly communication is designed to create a welcoming space for all of Berkeley’s Black alumni by presenting relevant university and community content into a purposeful email newsletter. It will include opportunities for alumni to speak directly to peers about initiatives, fundraising priorities and events on campus. It also aims to lift up career development, volunteer, mentorship opportunities and other resources for Black alumni. Subscribe today.