Solver Stories: Hannah Safford

// Louise Leone // Apr 27, 2021

My name is Hannah Safford - “I was first introduced to the concept of innovation challenges and prizes during my two-year fellowship in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) under the Obama administration.”solver_12

The demand for water is growing throughout the western United States. As a result, the cost of water has also significantly increased, with the average monthly bills in some cities rising by more than 100% since 2010. The country’s aging and sub-standard water infrastructure is a leading factor for the increase in water and sewer bills. One of the ways the demand for water is being met is through water reuse, a method where wastewater is treated to be used again by the community. While advanced water treatment technologies exist to produce high quality, potable water from wastewater, improved virus detection and monitoring is needed to ensure treatment is always carried out safely.

My background professionally and academically has been in engineering and public policy. Both disciplines are about problem solving, though they use different “toolkits” to achieve solutions. Engineers use the tools of math and science; policymakers use the tools of economics, law, and communication. The open innovation platform concept is great for me because it’s all about problem solving. But it doesn’t prescribe which toolkit you use.

I was first introduced to the concept of innovation challenges and prizes during my two-year fellowship in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) under the Obama administration. After I left OSTP, I started a Ph.D. program at UC Davis. This challenge came up about a year into my Ph.D. My knowledge of prize challenges and my PhD advisor’s technical expertise made us a perfect team!

The problem we set about solving was to develop rapid and forward-thinking methods of detecting pathogens in water (virus, protozoa, and other disease-causing organisms). Our solution focused on how we can quickly and accurately identify and quantify viruses in water using a technique called “flow cytometry”. Flow cytometry involves using a fluid like water to force a small volume of a sample into a very narrow stream. The stream is so narrow that particles in the sample have to physically line up in single file. You can then pass that narrow stream through a series of lasers. Different types of particles exhibit different light-scatter and fluorescent patterns when they pass through the lasers. By analyzing these patterns, you can quickly and accurately identify the particles that generated them.

We didn’t think we were going to win this challenge when we applied since we knew the challenge was competitive and we were a pretty small problem-solving team, but we figured that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. And this shot went in! I’m especially glad for the opportunity our win gave us to showcase the unique perspectives that my advisor and I bring to environmental engineering. We’re both fairly young women—I’m in my 20s and my advisor is in her 30s—and both of us are deeply interested in policy as well as science. These characteristics allow us to bring a fresh perspective to STEM. We don’t want to do science just like science has already been done before…we want to think about the intersections of STEM with education, policy, innovation, and inclusion.

The ethos of the challenge itself was a good fit for how we approach science generally. In science, success is measured by how many papers you put out, how many classes you teach, and how many lectures you deliver, which are all measures of output but not necessarily impact. A prize challenge gets right at actionable solutions. I think it’s really important to motivate that sort of solution-oriented thinking. Scientists don’t often do a good enough job of taking research insights and packaging them into something that is practically useful.

The next step is for our solution to go from the page to the real world. When it comes to public health, there is understandable anxiety about trying new things. It’s a very “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of philosophy. But a system doesn’t have to be broken to be improved. Water regulators want to ensure that water treatment is carried out safely. Existing monitoring methods accomplish that goal, but flow cytometry could help accomplish that goal faster, more cheaply, and more reliably.

Extract from our book One Smart Crowd  - How crowdsourcing is changing the world one idea at a time. The book is available in Paperback or Kindle format here.

Topics: Solver Stories

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