Bringing light to the world’s poor

By Seattle University

Ayesha Pirbhai recalls the oppressive summer heat in Pakistan where she would visit her grandparents as a child.

“The electricity would stop and the air conditioning would shut off,” she recalls. The culprit: not enough power to cover the population’s needs.

It’s a vivid memory, one that begins to explain Pirbhai’s passion for finding ways to bring electricity to developing countries. Her experiences as an electrical engineering student at Seattle University sparked this fire. Even after she completed her degree in 2012 and stepped into a dream job, she wasn’t willing to step back from a cause important to her.

I studied electrical engineering so I could bring light to those who have none.

There’s thoughtful simplicity in the words Pirbhai chooses to describe her determination: “I studied electrical engineering so I could bring light to those who have none,” she says.

***An estimated 1.5 billion people are without electricity today — 800 million of them in Africa. With this startling statistic in mind, a group of Seattle University faculty and students, including Pirbhai, joined with professional engineers and electrical engineers from the U.S. and Kenya in 2014 to bring clean, sustainable energy to a rural village in Kenya.

The project centered on the community of Muhuru Bay, Kenya, and Kristy’s Cape Academy, a primary school there that serves 300 students, many of them orphans of parents who died of HIV/AIDS. To light their studies, the project aimed to replace noxious kerosene lamps with battery-powered home lighting kits. This called for a microgrid of solar panels, battery kits and wind turbines to provide some of the power needed to operate a community charging station.

Pirbhai took part in the assessment trip to Kenya to evaluate companies there that might be able to provide microgrid installation.

During the 10 days she spent in Kenya, her team assessed the land in Muhuru Bay and conducted surveys on how people there use electricity and how much they spend on it, along with many other questions. The information gathered from the trip helped finalize the microgrid design, the business models and the training material needed to raise awareness.

“I do believe it’s my responsibility as a global citizen to give back both globally and locally. I feel very blessed to have had this opportunity,” says Pirbhai. “Knowing how to do this from the ground up is a great experience. My ultimate goal is to implement community microgrids in other developing countries and in Asia as well.”

***Pirbhai’s interest in humanitarian engineering really heated up in 2010, when she transferred to Seattle U from Bellevue College. Soon she had joined a team of electrical engineering students, along with Professor Henry Louie and other faculty, focused on renewable energy for energy-impoverished rural villages in Africa. The students scouted for resources in Zambia to create inexpensive wind turbines to support widespread cell phone use there.

While carrying a full class load, Pirbhai also volunteered with after-school STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. In June 2012, she took part in the Pacific Science Center’s first Science Expo Day at Seattle Center, where she helped curious kids make “squishy circuits” from Play-Doh to grasp basic principles of conducting electricity.

Additionally, she interned at Seattle City Light in the network engineering team that routed power underground for businesses in downtown Seattle.

Her enthusiasm for her humanitarian work is impressive, as is Pirbhai’s “day job” as an equipment manager at the Boeing Company, where she is responsible for designing power panels in the 787-10 development program.

Through it all, Pirbhai has never lost sight of her global mission: Access to electricity for those without reliable power. She estimates she already has devoted more than 500 volunteer hours to Seattle U projects in this sphere since she graduated — meetings on weekends and every other week, most of her vacation time.

“I’m very passionate about giving back. Giving the essentials we take for granted is a rewarding experience that allows me to connect with a community while improving their quality of life,” she says.

Associate Professor Agnieszka Miguel, who chairs Electrical and Computer Engineering, notes that Pirbhai was very active in the life of the college and the department. As an outreach coordinator in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) student club, Pirbhai was involved in all projects and activities of the club. She continues her involvement with SWE on a professional level.

Outreach is also important to Pirbhai, who enjoys participating in panel discussions at schools where she can be a role model for girls who may aspire to become engineers.

“You never know what can inspire someone,” Pirbhai says. “Most girls think math is hard because that’s what they have heard. But if you put effort into it … you’d be amazed at what you can accomplish.”

  

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