Live-In Labs: An Opportunity for UB Undergraduates to Apply Skills and Conduct Research in Rural India

Amrita Team at a Temple in India.

UB students Aye Bay Na Sa, Nicole, Arsalan, and Matthew, at a Temple in India.

By Lisa Vahapoglu

Published July 2, 2018

It’s this blend of interpersonal relationships and real world experience conducting research that distinguish the LILA from other overseas student experiences.

With the support of the Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE), in January 2018, Medical Sciences students Arsalan Haghdel and Aye Bay Na Sa, Environmental and Civil Engineering double major Matthew Falcone, and Architecture and Planning graduate student Nicole Little traveled to India to conduct research through Amrita University’s Live-In Labs (LILA) program.

Summarizing the experience, Arsalan –who intends to go to medical school after graduation –enthused “It’s interesting to see how even at this stage in my education I can bring something of value to health care delivery.” Which is exactly the point. The Amrita University administrators and educators who launched LILA explain that their chief aim was to find ways to integrate education into day-to-day life, and in so doing, to foster strategic planning (rather than mere survival) in rural communities.

The “labs” referred to in the program name are 101 villages in rural India where student researchers live, assess the local community’s challenges, and apply their educational training in the creation and testing of potential solutions.

Arsalan and Aye Bay Na Sa evaluated wearable medical devices for people with cardiovascular disease and diabetes who live in rural, remote villages where there are few or no healthcare facilities and providers. The wearable electrocardiogram (EKG) device and the non-invasive glucose monitor that they tested were designed by the Amrita University’s Center for Wireless and Networks Applications.

Specifically, Arsalan and Aye Bay Na Sa conducted tests in which the same patient would participate in a non-invasive and a standard blood glucose test. “The glucose monitoring device that we used was a photo sensor that emits rays of infrared light and red light to the skin, and it receives the reflected light to give electronic signals called photoplethysmography. We can subsequently get the glucose levels of the patients by analyzing the reflected light signal,” Aye Bay Na Sa explains. The same basic process was followed by Arsalan and Aye Bay Na Sa with the EKG devices: the data generated for each patient from the 4 Lead EKG devices, were compared to the data from the same patient generated by the standard 12 Lead device.

Arsalan notes that “if these devices are successful, they can be applied to health care challenges to fit the needs of other underprovided populations globally, not just in India.”

Another LILA feature is the relationship of the student researcher to the local villagers. Student researchers are encouraged to approach their time embedded within a rural village with openness to learning about—and learning from—their host community members. One of Arsalan’s most cherished mementos the LILA experience is a photograph of himself surrounded by children with whom he would play soccer each day when he was not working. For her part, Aye Bay Na Sa relished the ability to communicate with others. “While I was in the tribal village of Mothakara, I tried to learn basic Malayalam phrases so I could introduce myself and greet the villagers,” she says, adding that it was a delight “to have learned enough Malayalam to share conversations with children.”

It’s this blend of interpersonal relationships and real world experience conducting research that distinguish the LILA from other overseas student experiences.

“Though there were certainly challenges doing field work, we were able to get a lot of data collected since people here are very welcoming, friendly and cooperative. For example, when we went to a Primary Health Center to collect data, the staff there set up a table for us and brought us tea. When we needed a measuring tape people let us borrow their tape even though we were strangers. The welcoming and supportive environment from the local people and the Amrita staff contributed a lot to the great experience I had of doing research in India.”

Recent LILA projects have been pursued by students from a very broad range of schools and degree programs, e.g. Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Mechanical Engineering; Social Work; and Epidemiology.

This article was originally published in the Spring Edition, 2018 of UB International, a publication by the UB Office for International Education.