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Turkana Basin Institute

Sam Aronson. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Sam Aronson, the retired head of Brookhaven National Laboratory, has set his sights on a new project far from Long Island.

Teaming up with Acacia Leakey, the project management and engineering consultant of a company called SOSAED and a member of the famed family that has made seminal discoveries about human evolution in Kenya, Aronson would like to stimulate the growth of businesses through the use of solar power that provides products and services.

“This [part of Africa] is an area where there’s really little infrastructure,” Aronson said. “We’re looking to help people get up on the economic pyramid.”

The people Aronson and Leakey would like to help are representative of the one billion people without access to electric power. Two-thirds of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Through SOSAED — which stands for Sustainable Off-grid Solutions for African Economic Development — Aronson and Leakey are working with the Turkana Basin Institute of northern Kenya, Stony Brook University, Strathmore University in Nairobi and other Kenyan educational institutions and businesses to integrate business creation in off-grid areas into the larger Kenyan economic ecosystem.

The group would like to create a business model, using local workers and managers, for a range of companies, Leakey explained.

SOSAED plans to start with a small-scale solar-powered clothing production business, which would create affordable clothing for the heat, including skirts, shirts and shorts. SOSAED expects to build this plant adjacent to the TBI research facility.

Ideally, the manufacturer will make the clothing from local material. The clothing business is a pilot project to see whether the model can work for other types of projects in other areas. The Turkana Basin Institute will provide some of the infrastructure, while SOSAED will acquire the equipment and the raw materials and training to do the work.

SOSAED hopes the project will become “self-sustaining when it’s up and running,” Aronson said. “To be sustainable, it has to be the work of local people.” He hopes what will differentiate this effort from other groups’ attempts to build economic development is the commitment to maintenance by people living and working in the area.

“To an extent, the suitability of technology is rarely rigorously considered when humanitarian or generic development projects are implemented,” Leakey explained in an email. “Not only are the skills required for maintenance an important consideration, the availability of spare parts and the motivation and ability to pay for these are also important.”

Developing a system that includes upkeep by people living and working in the area could “make a project move ahead on its own steam,” Aronson said. The area has limited infrastructure, although some of that is changing as new roads and government-funded water projects begin.

Leakey suggested that a long-term project would need extensive participation of the users in every step of the development and implementation. “The project will likely look very different once complete to how we envisage it now, and part of our success (if it comes) will lie in working in a way which allows a great degree of flexibility as it is unlikely we’ll design the ‘right’ system the first time around,” she explained in an email.

In areas with mature systems, Leakey suggested that some organizations had difficulty changing direction, retrofitting existing systems or adapting new technology. New York, she explained, is struggling to adopt sustainable technologies to the extent that it could. “Legislative and physical infrastructure imposes unfortunate roadblocks in the way of clean technologies,” she wrote in an email. “We’re fortunate that with electricity provision we have a fairly blank slate” in Kenya and that the “Kenya government also recognizes the value of off-grid initiatives.”

Leakey appreciates the support TBI played in helping to create SOSAED and is grateful for the ongoing assistance. Through Stony Brook University, SOSAED is beginning to engage business students on economic questions. In the future, the group may also work with engineering students on technological challenges.

“Research may include developing new productive uses of solar power, optimizing the existing system and using the site to rigorously test technologies developed at Stony Brook,” she explained.

Aronson’s initial interest in this project came from his technological connection to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he retired as the director in 2015. He has been eager to bring new technology to a population he is confident they can help in a “way that makes sense to them and addresses their needs.”

With the support of the Turkana Basin Institute and Stony Brook, Aronson hopes to have a functioning solar hub and factory near TBI that serves a few surrounding villages within the next 18 months. “That’s a very ambitious goal,” he acknowledged. “We’re working in an environment that, because of the history and development, people you’re trying to serve are somewhat skeptical that you’re serious and that you have the staying power to make something that looks like what you’re talking about work.” 

While Aronson and Leakey are continuing to make connections in Kenya with government officials and residents interested in starting businesses, they are searching for ways to make this effort financially viable.

SOSAED is raising money through philanthropic grants and foundations to get the project going. Eventually, they hope to approach venture capital firms who are patient and prepared to invest for the longer term in a number of projects.

After they have an initial example, they will approach other financial backers with more than just a good idea, but with a model they hope will work in other locations.

Aronson lauded the effort and knowledge of Leakey. “We wouldn’t be making much progress right now for a variety of reasons in Kenya if [Leakey] hadn’t come on board,” Aronson said. “I value in the extreme her ability to get the work done.”

SOSAID would like to submit proposals to funding sources that can drive this concept forward.

If this effort takes root, Aronson believes there is a “tremendous market out there.” That would mean this would “become a much bigger organization.”

Above, Alesi, the skull of the new extinct ape species Nyanzapithecus alesi. Photo by Fred Spoor

By Daniel Dunaief

They were in a terrible mood. They had spent an entire day searching for clues about creatures that walked the Earth millions of years ago and had come up empty.

“We were not finding even a single bone, nothing,” recalled Isaiah Nengo, who will be an associate director of the Turkana Basin Institute and an assistant research professor at Stony Brook University this fall.

Alesi after attached sandstone rock was partially removed at the Turkana Basin Institute, near Lodwar, Kenya. Photo by Christopher Kiarie

One of the fossil hunters in the group, John Ekusi, started rolling a cigarette. Nengo told him to move away from them so that they didn’t inhale second-hand smoke. Walking ahead, Ekusi made a spectacular discovery that Nengo called a “freak of a fossil.” Ekusi pointed out a bone sticking out of the ground that looked like the femur of a large animal. When they got closer, they could see that it had brow ridges. Pushing aside dirt, they saw the outline of a primate skull.

“We knew we had found something unique and we started celebrating right there,” Nengo said. “We were dancing and high-fiving. The thrill was unimaginable.”

Nengo and his team discovered the fossil on Sept. 4, 2014, in northern Kenya. This week, a team of researchers from the United States, France and England are unveiling three years worth of research into this remarkable find in the prestigious research journal Nature.

For starters, the researchers had to confirm the date of their fossil, which was about the size of a lemon. Rutgers University geologists Craig Feibel and Sara Mana studied the matrix around the fossil and the area around it.

Akai Ekes and John Ekusi watch as Isaiah Nengo lifts the sandstone block with Alesi after six hours of excavation. Photo from ​Isaiah Nengo

“There was no doubt that [the fossil] came from this deposit and hadn’t rolled in or washed in” during some later period, explained Ellen Miller, a professor of physical anthropology at Wake Forest University.

Next, they had to figure out what kind of primate they had: It could have been an ape or a monkey. Fred Spoor, a paleontologist at University College London, did an initial CT reading using a medical scanner. He found intact molars that were characteristic of apes.

The researchers wanted to do a more thorough analysis of the three-dimensional shape of the skull, so they called Paul Tafforeau, a paleoanthropologist specialist of X-ray imaging who works as a beamline scientist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. Typically, such research centers require scientists to wait a year or more.

As soon as Tafforeau saw the photos, Nengo recalls, he said, “You can bring it in anytime.” Tafforeau used a technique called propagation phase contrast–X-ray synchrotron microtomography. In an email, Tafforeau described it as being close to a medical scanner, but 1,000 times more precise and sensitive.

Over the course of three or four days, Tafforeau analyzed the teeth that hadn’t erupted from this young primate, which indicated that this individual died when it was only 16 months old. The teeth also demonstrated that the toddler, whose gender is difficult to determine because of its age, belonged to a new species, called Nyanzapithecus alesi. The name Alesi comes from the Turkana word “ales,” which means ancestor.

Tafforeau said the thickness of the tooth enamel suggest a classic hominoid diet, which would be similar to that of a modern gibbon, and would consist mostly of fruits and leaves. Researchers estimate that an adult of this species would weigh about 20 pounds.

Turning their attention to the fantastic creature’s ears, the researchers found that it didn’t have a balance organ. That means it couldn’t move as rapidly through trees as a gibbon. The ears of this primate, however, did have fully developed bony ear tubes. These ear structures “absolutely confirmed that these were apes,” said Miller. “We had no specimens between 15 million and 10 million years ago.”

Field crew of the​ Stony Brook University-affiliated​ Turkana Basin Institute​ when Alesi​ ​was discovered​ ​at​ Napudet​ in September 2014. From​ ​left, Abdala Ekuon, John Ekus​i, Isaiah Nengo,​ ​Bernard Ewoi, Akai Ekes and Cyprian Nyete.​ Photo from Isaiah​ ​​​Nengo.

Scientists generally believe apes and humans diverged in their evolution about 7 million years ago. That means this toddler ape belongs to a species that is likely a common ancestor for other apes and humans.

Anthropologist Meave Leakey, a research professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Turkana Basin Institute, suggested that this fossil “gives us a picture for the first time of what the ancestor of apes and humans looked like 13 million years ago. It also suggests,” she continued in an email, “that the nyanzapiehecines were close to the origin of all living apes and humans.”

Leakey described the fossil as one of the most complete skulls of an ape ever found anywhere and indicated it was of an age that is poorly represented in the African fossil record.

The three years between the discovery of the fossil and its unveiling to the world in the Nature article is “actually very quick,” Leakey explained. The images captured through the synchrotron provide detailed pictures of structures that would otherwise be hidden by bone.

Gathering and interpreting these images meant traveling to Grenoble, which, she explained, “takes considerable time.”

Researchers involved in this study said this is just the beginning of the work they will conduct on this rare and detailed fossil. Nengo said they had already collected two terabytes worth of data from their scans. Much of the further study of this ape will involve a closer examination of all of that data.

“A paper coming out in Nature makes it seem like the end of the process,” Miller said. “This is just the beginning.” He is intrigued to learn more about the organization of the brain.

Nengo hopes to bring together researchers for a two- or three-day workshop in September or October at Stony Brook University to tackle the next phase of analysis for Alesi.

As it turns out, September will likely become an important anniversary for Nengo, as he recalls the memory of a day three years ago that didn’t start out particularly well, but that ended with a rare and thrilling fossil find.

Nengo recalled how excited he was to return to the Turkana Basin Institute to show Richard Leakey, the founder of the site, Meave Leakey and Lawrence Martin, the director of TBI. “I had photos on my iPad and they were absolutely thrilled,” said Nengo. “Everybody was beginning the guesswork of wondering what it is.”

Student Giancarlos Llanos Romero will be joining the SBU team on a trip to Kenya this summer. Photo by Phoebe Fornof

By Daniel Dunaief

In a region known for the study of fossils left behind millions of years ago, a team of students from Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences is planning to travel to Kenya this summer to learn about and try to solve the challenges of today.

The university will send eight undergraduates to the Turkana Basin Institute for the engineering department’s first program in Kenya, which will run for over four weeks. In addition to classroom study, the students will seek opportunities to offer solutions to problems ranging from refrigeration, to energy production, to water purification.

The students learned about the opportunity in the spring, only a few months before they would travel to a country where the climate and standard of living for Kenyans present new challenges. “We were skeptical about how many students we would be able to get,” said Fotis Sotiropoulos, the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who “didn’t start marketing this” until after he took a trip to Kenya and the Turkana Basin Institute, which Stony Brook created at the direction of world-renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey.

Giancarlos Llanos Romero, who is interested in robotics and nanotechnology and is finishing his junior year, had originally planned to spend the summer seeking an internship in the Netherlands or Germany. When he learned about this opportunity, he immediately changed his focus. “I need to do this,” Romero said. “This is much more important than anything I could do in an internship.”

On first blush, the trip is anything but ideal for Romero, whose skin is sensitive to extreme heat, which he can expect to encounter in the sub-Saharan African country. He didn’t want that, however, to stop him and is planning to travel with seven other people he met for the first time last week. Romero said his immediate family, which is originally from Colombia, supported the trip.

Sotiropoulos, who is in his first year as dean, embraced the notion of connecting the engineering department with the Turkana Basin Institute. “Before I came here” said Sotiropoulos, “I felt very passionately about making sure that engineering students became familiar with the rest of the world” and that they understood global challenges, including issues like poverty and water scarcity.

Sotiropoulos met with TBI Director Lawrence Martin during one of his interviews prior to his arrival at SBU. Martin invited Sotiropoulos to visit with Richard Leakey, the founder of TBI whose family has been making scientific discoveries in Kenya for three generations.

Women and children in Kenya searching for, and drinking from, water found beneath the dry riverbed. Photo by Lynn Spinnato

This program quickly came together after those meetings. The two courses will teach students about design thinking, said Robert Kukta, the associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Stony Brook would like to help students develop “the ability to think broadly about solutions and boil it down to the essence of the problem,” Kukta said. This, he said, will all occur in the context of a different culture and local resources.

Students will start their summer experience in Nairobi and then they will travel to Princeton University’s Mpala Research Centre, Martin said. “The journey through Kenyan towns opens visitors’ eyes tremendously to how different peoples’ lives are in different parts of the world,” Martin explained by email. “The goal is not so much to contribute immediately but to understand the challenges that people face, the resources available locally and then to improve their ability to think through possible solutions.”

Once students arrive at TBI, they will have an opportunity to see fossils from many time periods, including those from late Cretaceous dinosaurs. “Every visitor I have ever taken to TBI is amazed and in awe of the abundance of fossil evidence for past life on Earth,” Martin said.

A distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry at SBU, Benjamin Hsiao, who traveled with Sotiropoulos to Kenya in the spring, is a co-founding director of Innovative Global Energy Solutions Center. Hsiao has been developing water filtration systems through IGESC, which brings together TBI with universities, industry, international governments and foundations. He is well acquainted with the challenges the first set of students will face.

“Once we bring technologies over to Kenya, [sometimes] they do not work for reasons we have not thought of,” which include dust or a broken part for which it’s difficult to find a replacement, he said. “Those failed experiments give us tremendous insight about how to design the next-generation systems which will be much more robust and sustainable and easier to operate by local people.”

Acacia Leakey, who grew up in Kenya and is Richard Leakey’s grandniece, recently completed her senior design project as an undergraduate at Stony Brook. Her work is intended to help farmers extend the life of their tomato plants when they bring them to market.

About 32 percent of the tomatoes go to waste from the extreme heat. Acacia and her team developed a vegetable cooler that employs solar panels to reduce the temperature from 32 degrees Celsius to 15 degrees Celsius, which should extend the life of the tomatoes. Her classmates were “surprisingly supportive” of her work, she said, as some of them hadn’t considered applying their skills in a developing country.

Leakey, who will train for her master’s degree at Stony Brook this fall, will continue to provide insights into Madagascar, another developing African nation where the university has an internationally acclaimed research center. This summer, she will produce a video that will record information from villages near Centre ValBio in Madagascar, which she will bring back to Stony Brook in the hopes of encouraging others to use that information to create their own design projects next year.

As for Romero, who is raising money for the trip through a GoFundMe page, he is prepared to discover opportunities amid the challenges of his upcoming trip and is eager “to be able to actually help a community and say I left a mark.”

Fotis Sotiropoulos and Chrisa Arcan with local children in the village of Ileret.

By Chrisa Arcan

Led by Dr. Fotis Sotiropoulos, Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS), a group of Stony Brook University faculty and administrative personnel visited the Turkana Basin in Kenya in March with the goal of setting the stage for the 2017 CEAS Global Engineering Field School (https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/ceas/news/2017/march/global_innovation.php).

The trip was organized by Dr. Lawrence Martin, Professor at Stony Brook University Department of Anthropology and Director of the , (TBI) (https://www.turkanabasin.org), a Stony Brook University affiliated institute established in 2005 in Turkana, Kenya, by world renowned anthropologist and Stony Brook University Professor Richard Leakey.

Fotis Sotiropoulos and Chrisa Arcan with local children in the village of Ileret.

Under this newly established CEAS summer program, a group of undergraduate engineering students will visit TBI for an immersion education on global issues and needs that are different from what they are familiar with, in order to develop engineering solutions to address the survival challenges of people in rural Kenya and other places facing similar issues.

TBI facilities were developed with the purpose of offering a permanent infrastructure to enable year-round paleoanthropology and related scientific research in this remote area of sub-Saharan Africa. The Turkana Basin is a region where abundant evidence documenting the history of human evolution has been uncovered.

Recent research on DNA shows that every human being alive today can be traced to a common ancestral population that lived around that area 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. It is literally the birthplace of humankind. Today TBI, with its two field centers, one on either side of Lake Turkana, is a global center of excellence in paleoanthropological research.

Women and children dig deep into the dry river beds to find their daily water supply.

Our first stop was a two-day stay at Mpala Research Centre. The center is affiliated with Princeton University and conducts research in conservation and wildlife with a focus on benefiting the surrounding communities. Thanks to the director of the center, Dr. Dino Martins a former TBI postdoc at Stony Brook, our stay at Mpala was absolutely memorable: We toured the research facilities, the surrounding areas and dry river beds and brainstormed on opportunities to harness the local resources and develop programs that would benefit the local communities, and we marveled at the amazing landscape and its rich wildlife.

From Mpala we boarded a single-engine Cessna Grand Caravan airplane and flew to TBI to start our next journey in the northern-most region of Kenya to Ileret, a small remote village in northern Kenya, in the east side of Lake Turkana, close to the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

As we took a tour of the local clinic, Beatrice, the nurse of the clinic described the multiple health conditions of the locals, especially the children, and the limitations under which she works. The majority of children suffer from at least one type of malnutrition with a large percentage of them being stunted; the latest prolonged drought has exacerbated their condition and increased their deficiency of multiple essential nutrients.

The clinic we visited, a stand-alone small structure, consisted of only a few rooms and of bare medical essentials; everything was in dire need of repair: broken windows, cracked walls, limited medical supplies and a nonfunctioning fridge meant to store drugs, to name a few.

Yet, despite all this, Beatrice and her assistants work tirelessly to perform medical miracles (and always with a smile), from prenatal care, to deliveries, albeit their complications in need of serious surgical procedures, to child nutrition supplementation, to treating any communicable disease, to community education for family planning, vaccinations and many more. My discussions with the nurse brought to life my education on global health and nutrition.

We had the opportunity to see firsthand the local needs and current community projects supported by TBI, like the clinic, school and teachers, and appreciated the opportunities in alternative energy solutions, food systems and health.

We visited the local villages and witnessed the devastating effects of the worst drought in 60 years on peoples’ survival. We saw women and girls digging by hand deep into the ground to find a little bit of precious water, which they also had to carry back to their homes.

Needless to say the water was contaminated with organic and inorganic material, and the apparently clean water from boreholes had fluoride at dangerously high levels. The drought and scarcity and poor quality of water took a devastating toll on food production and livestock for people in that region. Thus food quantity and variety are extremely limited and the signs of food insecurity are apparent in every child and adult.

Village houses

We visited the village homes, single-room domelike structures, built by women from tree branches and corrugated metal sheets that serve as both a cooking and sleeping space for the entire family. Cooking inside the structures creates dangerous air pollution, and as the nurse in the clinic pointed out, respiratory problems are the most prevalent health conditions, especially among children.

We had the chance to interact with the locals and best of all to play with the children; their excitement and fascination when we took selfies and saw themselves on the screen was contagious. What a joy to interact with the happiest children that I have ever seen, despite their daily hardship for survival!

Located in a remote area with scarce resources, TBI is the ideal place to serve as an incubator for inspiration and pilot testing of future engineering, agriculture and public health ideas that can be transferred to benefit the local communities.

All the facilities at TBI have been built by locals using construction materials that, for the most part, were manufactured on-site. The facilities are powered using wind and solar energy and the water is purified using reverse osmosis. It is even equipped with a small greenhouse farm, testing vertical hydroponic and organic farming techniques that can support the growth of a variety of vegetables under harsh local conditions. All these initiatives and more serve as inspirations for future sustainable programs that can benefit the local communities.

Our trip to Kenya lasted only a week but it was filled with fascinating and enriching experiences. We left with many images, impressions and feelings, but most of all with a hope and a motivation that each one of us has found a compelling reason to return and contribute. However, our trip would not have been as rewarding and fulfilling without the organization and hospitality of everyone whom we met and who contributed to our memorable experience.

Chrisa Arcan, PhD, MHS, MBA, RD is an Assistant Professor for the Department of Family, Population, and Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University.