Laura Stachel
Laura Stachel with a portable “solar suitcase” being prepared for Nigeria. This equipment was used to power headlamps and walkie-talkies at a municipal hospital.

Laura Stachel is a doctoral candidate in the School of Public Health. She’s also an M.D. — an obstetrician who earned that degree at UCSF.

In 2003, she left private practice to pursue public health. She earned her M.P.H. at Berkeley in maternal and child health. Two years ago she was doing dissertation research on emergency obstetric care in Nigeria, where the maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world — one in 18 women there dies in childbirth. While observing, she quickly saw a contributing factor: electric power is rationed and sporadic.

One of the first cases she saw was a C-section, “during which the lights went completely out and the physicians had to finish by flashlight.” And there were other situations, for example “where midwives were taking care of women who were bleeding to death and needed emergency surgeries, but there was no phone system to call a doctor.”

She transmitted her dismay to her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar educator (and a Cal grad with a UCSC Ph.D.). He said, in essence, when you come home we’ll design a solution, and that’s what they did. Not surprisingly, the solution was sun-powered. It had to be portable, simple to set up, easy to use, robust, durable, and nearly maintenance-free. What they came up with, exploiting Aronson’s quarter-century of solar experience, is a sheet of plywood with a few electrical components, all of which could fit in a carry-on bag. Self-contained, it could go anywhere in the world and provide power. Back in Nigeria with the prototype feeding LED lights and walkie-talkies, Stachel found that no one at the hospital wanted her to take it away, and she soon had requests for more solar suitcases from all over Nigeria and beyond, and the couple found they had set a whirlwind in motion. “We didn’t mean to turn our house into the solar suitcase factory,” says Aronson, “but it happened. It’s been fun.”

They also designed a photovoltaic system to power lighting, medical equipment, a blood bank refrigerator, and communication equipment, initially installed for a municipal hospital in Northern Nigeria.

They founded a nonprofit group called We Care Solar to enlarge upon what they could do as individuals. The academic members of their dozen-plus core team are all Berkeley grad students (Christian Casillas, a Ph.D. candidate in the Energy and Resource Group, Melissa Ho, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Information, Terrence Lo, who already has his public health master’s degree and is going for a doctorate, and Abhay Nihalani, an MBA/MPH candidate at the schools of business and public health). In addition to community and industry members, the group has many volunteers, including a class at Cosumnes Oaks near Sacramento, which has helped construct solar suitcases. The devices are now at work in the field in countries around the world, among them Tanzania and Mexico and, in direct response to the earthquake there, Haiti.

Among a number of recent honors, in April Laura Stachel was given the Graduate Student Award for Civic Engagement at the Chancellor’s Awards for Public Service ceremony, and in May she was featured as a Bay Area winner of the Jefferson Award for public service.

Stachel’s advisor, public health Professor Meredith Minkler, evaluates Stachel this way: “Maybe once or twice in your career you run across a student whose work is so important and so transformative, and whose commitment is so great, that they could actually change the world… Laura is one of those people.”

Minkler, with a 1975 home-grown doctorate, is another product of Berkeley’s public health school, and she was honored at the same April ceremony with the Research in the Public Interest Award for, among other achievements, her project investigating the health and working conditions of restaurant workers in San Francisco’s Chinatown, her national leadership in community-based participatory research, and for transforming the Dr.P.H. program on campus.

Meredith Minkler
Meredith Minkler surrounded by her grad students, with her award for research in the public interest (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)