MICROSCOPIC FUN: The evening we arrived at the orphanage, we unpacked one of our microscopes. It became an immediate hit as we sat on the river bank and scooped up samples, showing the kids various algae and protozoa. It’s this kid’s first time looking through a microscope.
FUTURE SCIENTIST: A boy from the orphanage uses a pipette to collect water from a swamp for viewing under the microscope. From the time we unpacked the first microscope, the boys were fascinated with what they could see. We hoped to cultivate this fascination and show that science was cool, that it would make a good career. But mostly that scientific knowledge would lead to a better life.
OUR GROUP, THE CHICAS: Posing in the Peruvian village of Mazan are (from left) Frances Bell, an engineer at Bechtel Corp.; Jana Broadhurst, a medical student at UCSF; Jamie Liu, a software engineer at IBM; Sisi Chen, a bioengineering graduate student; and Mei Gao, a public health graduate student. We were visiting the village to drop off medical supplies at the local clinic. The supplies were donated through UCSF Remedy.
OUR GROUP, THE CHICOS: From left, Tyson Kim, Gautham Venugopalan, me, Rick Henrikson, and Frankie Myers, all bioengineering graduate students, mug for the camera. Bob Pollard, a high school science teacher, flew in a few days later to help with solar panel installation and science lessons.
MORNING IN THE MARKET: Mazan’s square and port bustle with activity. Boats loaded dangerously full of plantain bunches arrived to transfer their cargo, which was bound for Iquitos, the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon. At one point, a man came along and tried to sell us his sloth. We declined.
RIVER TRAVE: A guide and his banana boats ferry us up the Mazan River, a tributary of the Amazon, to several remote communities accessible only by boat. The town of Mazan is visible in the background.
TYPICAL SCENE: Palm-thatched huts on stilts line the banks of the river as we make our way upstream to the boys’ orphanage in Puerto Alegría. Most people who live in the Peruvian Amazon earn their living as fishermen or farmers; the average income is five dollars a day.
SWIMMING POOL AND WASHING MACHINE: With no running water, women wash clothes in the river while their children swim nearby. At one point, Rick observed people collecting water next to a latrine built over the river. Water-borne illnesses are a leading source of morbidity here. According to the World Health Organization, a child from rural Peru is twice as likely to die before age five as a child from Peru’s urban areas. So many of our projects focused on water-borne illnesses.
OUR DESTINATION: A view of the Puerto Alegría town center, with several school buildings in the center. In some ways, the people here don’t require outside help. “Their knowledge of local medicinal plants is amazing,” Rick observed later. “They know what each plant can do and are very self-sufficient that way. It’s not that the community lacks resources; it’s that, for some of those resources, no one has the knowledge to use them effectively.” One example is the Amazon itself, with its generous, but polluted water supply.
OUR HOTEL ROOM: Most of our team decided to sleep in hammocks in this maloca, a local type of gazebo, by the river. After some trial and error, we figured out the most efficient way to hang up the hammocks so they wouldn’t give way when we slept in them.
EVERY MORNING: At the Casa Girasoles Orphanage, the boys perform chores like sweeping leaves from the lawn before eating breakfast and walking to the nearby school.
CAREFUL SETUP: Here, Tyson prepares for one of the more advanced optics lessons in which the kids assembled a simple microscope using magnifying lenses and a homemade optical rail. Of the many strategies employed by global aid organizations, outreach in the form of a basic science education is one of the most underutilized.
TWO IS BETTER THAN ONE: Tyson demonstrates how two lenses can be combined for greater magnification.
RAPT AUDIENCE: Boys listen as Tyson and Gautham demonstrate how lenses function and how they can be used in microscopes. We used the microscopes to show how water can be filtered to remove many disease-causing germs. This first lesson of our trip was a huge success.
TEACHER AND STUDENTS: Gautham helps the boys make their own microscope mounts during the first science lesson in microscopy. By linking human behavior and sickness with microorganisms under a microscope and teaching filtration techniques, we helped fill in educational gaps.
AN EYE FOR SCIENCE: Boys look at their water samples through the microscope. They kept discovering new bugs and asking us what they were. (We didn’t know!) One day, these boys might become scientists or engineers. Or inventors, tinkerers, healers, builders, entrepreneurs, mechanics, business owners or teachers in their community.
SOLAR LESSON: I’m showing how solar panels turn light into electricity as part of a larger demonstration on how a solar panel array, which we had brought with us and later installed, will provide power for the orphanage. During our stay in Puerto Alegría, we frequently fielded questions from both the kids and the adults in the community about solar power and its applications.
SUN, THEN SONG: We were fortunate to obtain a small grant from the Clinton Global Initiative that paid for supplies such as small solar power teaching kits. Here the boys try out the panels from the kit, which they had wired to a music-playing device.
CREATIVE CARPENTRY: Installing solar panels on one of the school roofs proved to be more challenging than we expected. Aside from finding the appropriate hardware and tools, we encountered such obstacles as bat colonies in the attic and the fragility of the ladder that we used to climb to the roof.
COOL PLAY: Jamie splashes in the river during a break after lunch. The river provided a much-needed refresher from the heat and humidity.
UPON CLOSER INSPECTION: When we weren’t teaching, we got to know the kids. Here a four-year old orphan named Luis plays dentist with Rick.
JUNGLE MUSIC: Frankie (right) and Eduardo, an orphanage caretaker, jam for us in an impromptu concert accompanied by frogs, crickets and other rainforest sounds. Light at night was a luxury. Electricity in the area is supplied by generators, but the gasoline to power them is expensive for the villagers and has to be shipped in, so there was electricity for only an hour or two, if at all.
NOURISHMENT FOR THE BODY AND MIND: Tyson and the boys from the orphanage wait for dinner to be served. Starches such as rice, plantains and potatoes form the staple of most meals there. Overall, our first trip to the Amazon was a success. We left feeling more committed than ever to our mission: scientific knowledge should be available to everyone, and armed with it, these young people, regardless of their circumstances, can build a better future.