Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Hear It from a Girl Scout: Improving Sanitation in the Developing World

Girl Scouts of the USA partnered with the Arconic Foundation to provide ten Girl Scouts with the Arconic Chuck McLane Scholarship from 2013 to 2017. This college scholarship was available to Girl Scout Gold Award recipients who completed projects related to science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Nishita Sinha from Girl Scouts of Northern New Jersey was awarded a 2017 Chuck McLane Scholarship and attends Harvard University, where she plans to study physics and computer science. Her eventual goal is to apply these subjects in solving biological and environmental research issues. Check out Nishita’s story to learn about her experience in Girl Scouts and life as a scientist.

Tell us about your STEM-related Gold Award project and your Girl Scout experience.

When I was five years old, I first visited my ancestral village in Northern India. I saw groups of villagers defecating in the open, a practice that can lead to stunted growth, contaminated water, and the spread of potentially deadly conditions like diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis A, and dysentery. I realized then that I wanted to do whatever it takes to help improve the lives of these people.

My Gold Award project attempted to address the problem of unsafe waste management in the developing world. Worldwide, 2.4 billion people lack access to safe in-home toilets, hampering health and development. Cramped living spaces without plumbing make traditional toilets infeasible in poor countries. As a result, many families in these developing countries defecate in open fields. Without proper means of disposing human excreta, stomach and intestinal germs are spread by insects such as house flies, and can also seep into well water and other groundwater supplies, leading to drinking water contamination.

I soon found out the path to better sanitation for my ancestral village was not as straightforward as determining the best alternate toilet, installing the chosen design, and educating villagers and global communities about the importance of sanitation. The toilet I chose, the Sulabh International two-pit composting toilet, is extremely economical and does a stellar job of processing solid waste, which is efficiently converted into odor-free fertilizer. But as I studied the design closely, I became concerned that liquid waste, which is only filtered by a potentially unreliable thin layer of sand, may be leaving toilet systems rife with germs. These germs can easily travel through the soil into water sources, which would again cause drinking water contamination. Looking at all toilet designs, I realized that none had a very economical way of handling liquid waste. So in addition to toilet installation and global education, I added the goal of scientifically proving that there is an issue with current Sulabh toilets and determining ways to improve liquid waste filtration given cost and space constraints.

Ultimately, I was able to create a better version of Sulabh sand filters (filtration was improved by 83 percent) and install approximately 125 toilets in my ancestral village in India, many of which included the improved liquid waste filter design. With the help of Sulabh International, I also educated villagers on the importance of safe sanitation. These people benefited from in-home toilets and education—and scientists around the world will hopefully benefit from my Gold Award project for the knowledge it provides on the filtration capabilities of many natural materials. And because the filter design I came up with is very versatile and widely applicable (with slight modifications) to regions around the world, other developing areas can benefit from my work. Additionally, government agencies and sanitation and health organizations can potentially benefit by learning from my successes and failures as they attempt to improve sanitation.

What does the Chuck McLane Scholarship mean to you?

The Chuck McLane Scholarship represents the understanding that women can do amazing things in math and science. It means the world to me that this scholarship is not only allowing me to continue my education and my research, but is also providing a pathway toward my goal of solving complex biological and environmental issues. I'm proud to be the recipient of a scholarship that encourages girls to not be afraid to try and solve the problems around them.

What advice would you give other girls who want to pursue STEM?

Don’t give up. You are going to meet people who don’t believe in you. You are going to take classes or have assignments that seem too hard for you. But just remember that as long as you love what you are studying, as long as you enjoy some aspect of problem solving, you are definitely in the right place.

What impact has Girl Scouts had on your life?

Girl Scouts has provided the perfect outlet for community service. I feel like so many people want to help their community and reach communities around the world. Girl Scouts has provided the tools, mentors, and resources that I needed to begin to do this. Also, meeting other Girl Scouts and carrying out my Silver and Gold Award projects has shown me leadership and initiative in a new light, and I think this perspective is invaluable.

What advice would you give to other girls who are in the process of earning their Gold Award?

I would tell other girls to pick a topic that really is of importance to them. Even if a problem seems too hard to solve or too out of reach, as long as you are passionate, it will surprise you how much you can do. Start small but always have a big goal in mind. So, start with simple research and small-scale community outreach, but then as you gain knowledge and contacts, keep working so that you can expand your project to a larger, more impactful scale.

How do you take the lead?

I think an important way to take the lead is to trust in your own ideas. It’s easy to not say something when you’re on a team with a lot of people, but have more trust in your problem-solving skills, and take a risk and speak up. Your ideas are not all going to be amazing, but you will never get better at problem solving or move to a leadership role if you don’t try.

Girl Scouts offers the best leadership development experience for girls in the world. Everything a Girl Scout does involves STEM, the outdoors, development of life skills, and entrepreneurship, and is designed to both meet her where she’s at now and to grow along with her. Learn more about the Girl Scout Difference.