David Sengeh is no stranger to amputation. While the biomechatronics engineer — who will receive his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this spring — has all of his limbs, thousands from his native Sierra Leone are not as fortunate. (Amputation was a common form of brutal intimidation employed by the Revolutionary United Front during the country's nine-year civil war.)
That's one reason Sengeh devoted his graduate career to solving a globally applicable problem: the fact that most prosthetic sockets, where the limb attaches to the prosthetic, are incredibly uncomfortable. Last night at Champlain College, as part of Generator's ongoing BIG Maker series, Sengeh spoke about his work in that area.
But Sengeh's talk encompassed more than just his successful endeavors in biomechatronics. (Check out the Ted fellow's 2014 Ted Talk.) The designer, engineer and rapper also spoke passionately about his dedication to lifting up young leaders in Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa through Global Minimum.
Sengeh, who cofounded the nonprofit in 2006, hopes Global Minimum will inspire a new generation to find creative solutions to their communities' problems. "The question is simple," he said. "Can you, young person, tell me what problem you want to solve? Tell me how you want to solve it, what resources you need, and what mentorship you need to solve it."
Sengeh cited a few success stories from his efforts with Global Minimum. One of the most compelling is that of Tom Osborn. In 2015, Osborn was one of the finalists in a Global Minimum competition, Innovate Kenya, with his concept for Green Char, a company that provides a clean alternative to charcoal. The competition provided Osborn with seed funding, mentorship and design workshops to help him realize his concept.
The most important part about Osborn's story, however, is what happened after he began building his company. "He sent us an email last year saying Green Char is looking for interns, and I'd like to offer this opportunity to other Kenyans who have participated in Global Minimum's programs."
"[Osborn was] feeling the need to connect back to his peers who have been in a similar situation," Sengeh said.
And so the circle completes itself: Leaders beget leaders beget leaders. Osborn's story is just one of many that shows how Sengeh's initiatives inspire a rapid succession of influential mentor-mentee relationships.
And he's excited about it. When speaking about his work with prosthetic sockets, Sengeh was sometimes hard to follow. But his enthusiasm could not have been more apparent, or infectious, when he talked about "creating an ecosystem of problem-solving in Sierra Leone" and other African countries.
During the Q&A session that followed his talk, the focus on instilling inspiration became clear. Mike Rosen, a research associate professor at the University of Vermont College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, expressed frustration with admission requirements that place little emphasis on hands-on experience in engineering.
"One question I would ask applicants," Rosen said, "is 'tell me what the biggest and most difficult project is that you've ever done.'" In response, Sengeh suggested that "perhaps the question should be [focused on] not just what they have done, but what they would do with the resources available to them in an engineering school."
The message: You can't expect a young person to create, or innovate, if you don't first tell them that it's possible.
As the session ended, Generator's executive director Lars Hasselblad Torres queued up a song that Sengeh wrote with his wife, Kate Krontiris. The accompanying YouTube video, produced by Sengeh's friend and (fellow) Ted fellow Joey Foster Ellis, uses "GIFs as a way to tell the story of the song," said Sengeh.
Interested in learning more about Sengeh's work in prosthetics? He recently published a paper in the Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomechanical Materials. It's available for purchase online.
Sengeh's full presentation, along with past BIG Maker talks, will be available on VCAM next week.