Marrying teaching and technology: global health solutions that start in the classroom

Anjelica Gonzalez may have grown up in Las Vegas, but cards were not her interest, water was – in particular, the filtration of water on a global level. However, she did learn some basics of logic from a blackjack dealer – her mother.
“My mom was very logical. The thought process she taught me was really impactful because she showed me that you do not need a college education to understand problems and create solutions to those problems. You just need to reason and, in some cases, understand other people,” says Gonzalez. This is the philosophy Gonzalez uses in her teaching. She says she wants to bring science and engineering “back to human.”

She also credits her grandfather with influencing her decision to pursue a path to science. Her grandfather had a farm and taught her about the irrigation process. She says it wasn’t just water filtration for fruits and vegetables that piqued her interest, Gonzalez focused her career on biotechnology for the developing world and how she could apply all she learned about farm irrigation to helping the human body. “I thought, when I grow up, I want to be involved with science that belongs to everybody and that needs everybody’s contribution,” she said. With that thought in mind, she pursued her teaching career with the particular goal of getting her students excited and involved in solutions and technology that doesn’t just work but is actually sustainable in the environments for which it would serve.

Her work takes her around the world with researchers and programs seeking to improve the health and wellbeing in low- and middle-income countries. Gonzalez’ most memorable experience was on a trip to Malawi where she was struck by the sight of a woman eight months pregnant walking miles with her children to sit outside a clinic among sick people until she went into labor. “I knew I couldn’t solve all the world’s problems, but I also knew I could help in some way. I thought maybe I can solve one problem and move the ball forward.”

Gonzalez knows that if no one is going to use a device there’s no point in developing it, so looks at problems not only from a technical point of view but also from a community belief point of view to build devices that are desirable and sustained in culturally different environments. Culturally different not only means recognizing how populations view medical intervention due to tradition or religious beliefs, but also acknowledging basic differences, such as creating solutions that work in areas where there is no electricity or water. This type of thinking has driven her class discussion and her leadership philosophy as faculty director of Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale and lead to the development of PremieBreathe, a low-cost infant respirator that delivers warmed, humidified, and oxygenated air to reduce airway irritation and keep infants breathing normally. A product now seeking FDA approval for use in low and middle-income countries.

By leading students to put problems in a global context and to create diagnostics and therapeutics devised to address global diseases, she thinks more of the classroom as an engineering lab for the development of realistic tools for human use. And, with her background in mind of learning basic engineering from farming with her grandfather, she says its diversity of experiences and thoughts among students with majors that range from art to history to economics, all working together with one goal in mind – global health – that will lead to successful scientific advancements.

She says success would be when she sees a respiratory technology in neonatal hospitals worldwide at low cost and making science something everyone can understand. She ended our conversation with the words of advice she gives her young twin boys before their baseball games and her students – “we must deal with some failure to achieve success.”