Centro de Salud, Santo Tomás (and Somodo Canyon)

This week we took up residence at Centro de Salud in Santo Tomás, something less than an hour away from our place by car. It’s a lot smaller than the hospital – they do blood tests and treat some things but nothing major – but there’s a lot more work to do here because there are no technicians to be seen and as a result it seemed that inside every cupboard door in the laboratory there was another piece of out-of-service equipment. In total, over the four days (Monday we stayed at the hospital and fixed some blood pressure cuffs) I think we put 4 centrifuges, 3 microscopes, 3 nebulisers, 2 baby scales, 2 blood cell counting thingos and a thermostatic oven back in service, which I dare say is more than we would have accomplished at the hospital even despite our efforts to snatch each piece of damaged equipment out of the technicians’ hands.

Capillary centrifuges are turning out to be quite a confidence boost for us – we’ve fixed four so far by replacing the lining where the tiny tubes hit the wall with tyre inner tube. This includes the one from last week which we called them about to make sure was still doing alright, as the lady from the lab in Santa Tomás came to tell us that one we’d tested with her hadn’t quite been fixed after all. I felt awful at first because she said it was full with 24 capillary tubes and they’d all broken… we got a relief to learn, however, that the tubes that are used are in fact disposable, so it was ‘just’ their time that we’d wasted, and we wouldn’t have to improvise tubes anytime soon… a bit more lab experience and that probably would have been obvious to us, but we don’t look so bad next to the refrigeration technician who is kind enough to be (got roped into?) taking us around to different health centres in the region. I knew we had learnt some stuff about medical equipment during our month of training in Granada, but it became even clearer when, after being told that the tubes were breaking in the centrifuge, we were headed straight for gloves while the man tries to wipe the rubber clean with his fingers, cutting himself with blood-covered glass in the process :/ We learn a lot of things from him, of course, we just have to warn him of things a few times because he’s less familiar with the equipment. He also does a great job of finding us lunch spots and introducing us to which pig will be Friday’s lunch.

Fixed capillary centrifuges (right one also had a burnt motor connection and a missing prong on its plug) and a thermostatic oven.

Fixed capillary centrifuges (right one also had a burnt motor connection and a missing prong on its plug) and a thermostatic oven.

Rabbit not for eating.

Rabbit not for eating.

Horse ‘dancing’ is a big thing around here (but rocking chairs bigger). regrettably turned down an opportunity for a horse pic in my scrubs.

Reastorse ‘dancing’ is a big thing around here (but rocking chairs bigger). regrettably turned down an opportunity for a horse pic in my scrubs.

One of the most interesting pieces that we’ve come across this week has been the sterilisation oven in the picture above. It was old enough (acquired 25 years ago) to have a mechanical temperature control system instead of what would these days be a much less exciting soup of barely serviceable circuits and sensors. When you select a temperature with the dial at the front, a tube with a bit of mercury inside gets tilted to the left based on the value. Inside the tube, to the left, there are two circuit connections, and if mercury is joining them then the circuit will be closed and the heating element will be on (this is the starting state regardless of temperature). As the element heats the oven, the mercury expands and eventually causes the tube to tip over because of its shift in centre of gravity. This will happen later if the tube was left-tilted a lot originally because of a high set point, and the effect is that the mercury doesn’t close the circuit anymore so the heating stops. Eventually the mercury will tip the vial backwards and heating will begin again, and the process will continue so that the temperature of the oven is maintained around about the set temperature. Our fix involved fixing a previous fix and making sure it didn’t suffer the same fate of getting cooked by (presumably) touching the mercury tube. We also adjusted the dial so that the readings corresponded to the correct temperatures again, which conveniently meant we got to spend ages watching the mercury make sparks as it tipped back and forth while we calibrated it.

Mercury thermostat.

Mercury thermostat.

Cable ties have come in handy quite often.

Cable ties have come in handy quite often.

My most excited moment for the week came from the first all-mechanical device that we’ve seen: a thing used for counting the types of blood cells seen under a microscope. I liked it because of how I originally had no idea how it worked, and wasn’t really certain that we’d ever be about to fix it! The problems that it had were that some numbers weren’t incrementing the total, some weren’t incrementing at all, and some weren’t resetting back to 0 with the others when you turned the wheel. For a good 20 minutes or so I was just absorbed by it, clicking away, but even once we’d figured out how it was supposed to work it was an even more interesting challenge to figure out why it wasn’t working correctly. For the numbers not incrementing, they were just missing springs so I put some rubber bands there instead. For the numbers not resetting back to zero, I still don’t know for sure the process of resetting but I suspect it is something on the inside of each wheel that gets caught at a particular number by a wiper attached to the shaft through them all. I guess for the numbers that weren’t working, the bit that gets caught was either worn down or loose.. I didn’t risk pulling out the shaft to try to fix it incase it all fell to bits, but you can just increment the broken number to 0 through incrementing the counter then turn the rest around to join it. The numbers not incrementing the total was the most interesting fix, I think – it turned out that the further away from the total they were, the more likely it was that the total would skip. There’s a bar below each of the buttons which will pull down the springs of the total count if any of the buttons are pressed. After a bit of poking around I realised the hole that the shaft permitting the bar to get pushed down goes through was enlarged through wear. This didn’t affect the counts of the buttons close to the total, but pushing the ones far away would lift the shaft a bit, and that energy loss was enough to make the total skip the count – by preventing the shaft from lifting with a cable tie the bar then pulled the springs of the total down far enough that it would increment like normal. Then I found out the method that increments the hundreds digit was a bit overzealous and would increment on the tens digit’s 8 and 9, meaning the total went 89-90-100-101. It was just from wear, and I had an idea of how to fix it, but it might have risked taking the tens digit out of action completely so I didn’t bother. Anyway, the scientist lady told me she doesn’t even look at the total much and counts in her head….

In terms of outside-hospital activities, there was some sort of event for the hospital staff this week that we were invited to and even got a special mention at.. Some María got cheated out of her title of Miss Hospital Asunción by another María. A birthday party or two at our house this week so a few nights off from pizza, and we made the trek to Estelli for the weekend to join up with our friends and do the Somodo canyon lazy river/cliff jumping that the home stay family of some of our friends runs, which was incredible.

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karaoke

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To the hospitals..!

Earlier this week my partner and I have arrived in Juigalpa, a few hours by car from Granada where the EWH Summer Institute has just finished spending the first month training as a big group. Probably the pace of things will slow a bit as we adjust to the Nicaraguan lifestyle but so far I am feeling like we’ve had a pretty productive 3 days!

First day we got a tour of the hospital by the head of the maintenance department. While introducing us to everyone you could hear them all say ‘oh like the guys who have been here the previous years’ so that will probably help us with gaining acceptance at this hospital (assuming the previous guys did alright!). We set up in the maintenance shed and got to work on the incubator that had been brought in with a broken door. While the technicians crafted a brace to hold the plastic back together we opened up and cleaned all of the inside components (after visiting the neonatal department to understand the problem for ourselves since someone had [I think] told us that the heater wasn’t working well but in the end it was only the door that had been the problem). The buzzer for the alarm had come apart a bit so we fixed that but in general we were just getting experience with preventative maintenance.. I saw something new in the way the case was closed: the door was secured closed by inserting a screwdriver into the piece below and turning, like a lock and key. I’ll be on the lookout for bits like this from now on.

Bottom of the incubator

Bottom of the incubator

Magic keyhole lock

Magic keyhole lock

Ultrasound physiotherapy device success!

Ultrasound physiotherapy device success!

That afternoon, presumably prompted by our arrival, a man in a lab coat brought some things from storage such as a briefcase for which the key’d been lost, a piece of EKG equipment that I’m not sure where ended up, and another device (Exogen 2000+) that they were asking me about. It was showing an error, but beyond that they weren’t even sure what it did or what department it belonged in. Since it had a manual with it, I could tell them it was for delivering ultrasound physiotherapy for broken bones but not a whole lot else since it only described how to use the device, not why/when/where. Unphased by the crypticness of the error message ‘repair unit 32’ and the instructions in the manual to send the unit away, we opened the device hoping there would to be a fix staring us in the face. We found flawless circuit boards, but the battery pack gave us a bit of hope. After reassembling a variable power supply that had been left behind by a previous group but robbed for parts, we used it to replace the batteries and hey presto ‘add coupling gel’ error – success! Slap in some replacement batteries (different type but similar total voltage) and now we have a working device.. just with no one to use it.

Improvised 9V battery connector..

Improvised 9V battery connector..

The neonatal nurse brought us a cable for a warming bed that had been disconnected at the earth prong and, when we fixed that, a surge-protected power board that had had its power switch broken. Apparently it’s common for the neonatal department to spill stuff on the power boards so there were some spares lying around that we could salvage a button from, just getting it out was the annoying bit because we had to de-solder a few components to get the circuit board out of the way.

Dodgy cable

Dodgy cable

Inside a surge protector

Inside a surge protector

We asked about a capillary centrifuge sitting in the shed and apparently it was brought from another hospital/health centre which I assume doesn’t have technicians. It was missing the rubber lining that stops the samples from smashing when they hit the wall as the device spins. We searched for a replacement when we went to pick up the new batteries for the ultrasound device, but just ended up buying a bunny rabbit..? Later Sindora made one from truck tyre inner tube, and then we fixed the motor support so it wouldn’t scrape when spinning (after cleaning out the wasps nests).

Capillary centrifuge

Capillary centrifuge

what

what

Serious winds atop Cerro Negro

Serious winds atop Cerro Negro

For the weekend we headed to León, just a few multi-hour bus trips away, to reunite with the rest of the group and head volcano boarding. I really enjoyed the views of and around the volcano.. some cool craters, a mix of colours from the lava, and phenomenal wind speeds… just about got pushed off a tiny edge we were walking along at the top once the boards we were carrying got picked up by the wind. Hung out at the pool in the arvo and made our debut at the local karaoke/salsa bar before the night was up.

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Returned to our pizza shop/home stay in Juigalpa for some hand washing in preparation for whatever our first full week has in store..

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Ometepe as our month in Granada comes to a close

Thai food in Nica

Thai food in Nica

Raina and I made red curry for our host family earlier this week which went down a treat despite a few mishaps (turns of cream of coconut is definitely not the same as coconut cream). The rain was so loud I even had a hard time understanding the other english speakers properly, but it was still the most people we’d ever had at the dinner table at once I think. They commented on how healthy the meal was with all of the vegetables.. I’m not sure why we don’t see more veggies around, if they have money to buy new furniture every other day and build new rooms.. a cultural thing perhaps, or maybe there’s more to the financial situation than I understand.

Instead of visiting a hospital this week our half of the group went to the offices of service crew for the public hospitals in Nicaragua. And then, as it happened, we split up into groups and went to different hospitals… we ended up at maternity hospital and managed to fix an infant incubator just by looking at it, just about. Guess sometimes fixes are perplexingly simple.

Just a temperature sensor, fan and heater to this incubator.

Just a temperature sensor, fan and heater to this incubator

Over the weekend we headed for the island of Ometepe and had groups hike each of its volcanoes. I opted for a waterfall hike (finally got to see a glass-wing butterfly by chance) and a lot of lazing around otherwise, enjoying the nice food and playing bananagrams.. it was fantastic.

La Cascada de San Ramon

La Cascada de San Ramon

Finca Mystica, Ometepe

Finca Mystica, Ometepe

It’s sad and a bit of a shock that we’re already wrapping up the first month of the EWH Summer Institute.. feeling like there’s a lot more left to learn but I guess it’ll have to be done on the job once we hit the hospitals. The spanish school hosted a wrap up party for us which was great fun, and each group gave a performance (ours was Let It Go in spanish). Of course we had our own farewell party after winning one last round of pub trivia, but I think we’ll still manage to see each other despite being scattered throughout the country next month.

Party at NSLS

Party at NSLS

Poste Rojo for our 3rd weekend in Nicaragua

Writing from atop a tree house on the side of a volcano a bit out from Granada. It’s been a pretty relaxing weekend and it’s only Saturday arvo.. got here yesterday around lunchtime and for the most part have been in a hammock ever since (the rest of the time being spent either dancing or making the climb between the sleeping hammocks and bar). I’ve been enjoying watching the animals.. butterflies, hummingbirds, leaf-cutter ants trails from start to end, monkeys, and squirrels even. Still haven’t seen a scorpion but that might be for the best. Overall though it’s just a nice vibe here.. people just hanging out, chilling in the rain, or watching the silent electrical storms which I’m still wrapping my head around. The rest of the group arrived at dark and left in the morning but I’m making 48hrs out of it with no regrets (especially given the relief from the heat!). Have plans to make red curry for the host family tomorrow if all goes well.

Hammocks at Poste Rojo

Guys working on a centrifuge

Guys working on a centrifuge

This week has gone the fastest so far… perhaps because the pool/bar routine has become a bit too comfortable, so the days aren’t particularly distinguishable. Even winning rum at trivia is losing its novelty 😉 I also think going to the hospital in halves over Thursday and Friday might contribute to it, as suddenly Wednesday seems like the end of the study week. After learning about common repairs to more types of equipment we’re likely to come across in the hospital during the week we got to test out our diagnosis, repair and testing skills at Nandaime hospital this week. Last week the other group were asked to work on a microscope which turned out to have a fried lizard inside plus eggs which hatched. We returned with a replacement fuse only to further discover that the back of the circuit board had been charred to bits from (presumably) the lizard, so they weren’t too happy about that news. I think over the day though we put a reasonable amount of equipment back in service: some centrifuges, some autoclaves – pretty much all connection problems – an IV bag stand on an incubator, and almost some blenders from the kitchen. It’s a different dynamic working under such strong time constraints – I’m looking forward to being able to take time to read more and search for appropriate parts next month.

As for spanish classes, we’ve been powering through some more tenses this week (given that it’s review for most of the group) so I’m learning a lot but at a rate faster than I can keep up with in terms of practice, so there’s a bit of a delay but I’m trying. I had a reasonable conversation with a German nurse in the back of the ute on the way Poste Rojo for the first time at a comparable level to my catalan, and if my new 5 year-old friend keeps coming to our house and correcting my spanish and pretty much miming games with me then I should be ready for the hospital in no time.

Second week in Nicaragua

This week started off on a high note as I, for the first time despite who knows how many attempts, have finally been on a winning trivia team! I’ll have to keep in mind that it definitely helps to have a team the same age, with the same interests, and from the same town as the host…

Classes have mainly been about different types of equipment that we’re likely to come across and case studies on the types of faults they commonly have. In labs this week we made torches and regulated power supplies and working with the instructor to get to the bottom of my originally stumping questions regarding fuses. On Friday we went back to the same hospital as last week so saw some familiar faces, and they were probably happy to have their cleaning assistants back. At least from my perspective this visit wasn’t as interesting as the last, as the equipment wasn’t actually broken. On one hand, it’s a shame to spend time cleaning equipment instead of repairing it and doing things closer to what we can expect for the second month when there isn’t such an established maintenance team, however on the other hand it’s really great to shadow the technicians while they’re available and pick up on things, which makes the experience better. The men are happy to explain processes and vocabulary to us as mentors of sorts. We didn’t really fix so much equipment this week but we worked on fans (pedestal and ceiling), a through-wall AC unit, an EKG machine (poor connection in hub), an autoclave (only good for spare parts it turns out) and a pulse oximeter (meant for babies, hence the bad readings).

Learning from the technicians

Learning from the technicians

Sunday Funday

Sunday Funday

At the end of the week there was a split of the group to either go volcano boarding in Leon or beach/partying in San Juan del Sur. I went for the party option though I started wondering if I wasn’t actually more interested in just staying at home and chilling… Usually when I push myself to go to something it ends up being worth it though (albeit at the subtle cost of the push which appears to slowly wear on me), and this case followed suit. We had a nice day on the beach that seemed to go on and on and tacos for dinner, although I kinda regret not checking out the food that must have existed at the street party for Mothers Day. Back home at our host family’s house there are five generations under one roof (including a 95 year-old) because Mother’s Day is kind of a big deal (public holiday level). Meanwhile, we ended up at a bar by the beach and of course exploited the combination by the end of the night. There’s an infamous pool crawl on Sundays which lived up to the hype – the most surprising part of the day was how we somehow managed to make it on the bus back to Granada with five minutes to spare.

First visit to a hospital in Nicaragua (as an engineer)

The Engineering World Health 2015 Summer Institute has begun!

After hanging out with a fellow participant’s family friends for a while while waiting to be picked up from the airport, around half of the 24 of us in total boarded our old US school bus and made our way from Managua to Granada (more touristy and safer), listening to two from the Spanish school’s tips on life around here. Ladies, don’t buy the cut-up mangoes in Parque Central, and men, don’t follow sexy ladies who invite you down to a particular area of town because you’re gonna have a bad time. Don’t bother avoiding ice in drinks etc, you’re going to get sick (he said it also happens when he goes back to the US after a while here. Interesting.). Already happy to have come here because of the opportunity it’s given me to reflect on how I might have changed since leaving Australia 3 years ago. For example, this is the first (and possibly last) time I’ve ever been the lightest packer…

Feliz cumple Santi

Feliz cumple Santi

The house (for my roommate and I) is wonderfully modest, as anticipated, but luxurious compared to my time in Zambia. Personally I’m happy to be forced to sit and read or whatever instead of wasting nights on the internet. I’ve met 10 people at the house so far, including baby Santiago who celebrated his 1st birthday this evening, my host mother Irene, and a volunteer from Denmark Louise who told her tales of public transport dramas on the way back from Ometepe island that weekend.

Granada

Our street

I showed them my catalan book in an attempt to at least have them understand why I am not understandable sometimes when I think I’m speaking spanish..  I didn’t completely bomb the placement test for spanish classes so my attempts to switch from catalan to spanish before arriving haven’t completely failed, but they must have found it strange to mark the test of someone who can manage past perfect tense but not the numbers… Here’s hoping my spanish improvements don’t come at too much of a cost.. One of my goals is to one day be able to speak multiple foreign languages at the *same* time, without them interfering with/overwriting each other, as catalan did for french, and probably now spanish for catalan. Hopefully one day I’ll manage – and then the other latin-based languages will be low-hanging fruit.

Classes this week included how to not kill someone with electric shock from one of our repaired devices; how to engineer makeshift battery substitutes, and hands-on practice with soldering and making our own extension cords. Our host families bring us a hot lunch each day, and we’ve found some good places for after-class drinks. Other examples of how we’ve been keeping busy in the evenings include pub trivia, gelato, bananagrams, walks to the lake, homework, movies or sports on tv in Spanish, and a beach night club.

At the end of each week while we’re in Granada for the first month we’re going to be spending a day at different hospitals so we’re not just thrown into the deep end when we do this fulltime next month. Since the group in total is so large we split up into two for alternating days. The split is based on our spanish classes to give the teachers days off – level 4 went with level 1, which meant for at least part of the day it was me and another level 4 as translators (we split in half again at the hospital so we weren’t 15 following one technician). This in itself was worth the trip for me because I got to gauge how my conversion to Spanish-speaking is going. My listening level seems to be about the same as it ever was in Catalan, so I could follow and translate what the technician was saying alright, but speaking could definitely use some work.

I got a glimpse into how different the vocabulary is in a hospital and how you will have a hard time trying to explain anything technical without words like valve, leak, pressure, unplug, etc, which you’re not really going to come across in class typically. This was relevant at least for the context that we were dealing with, which was fixing a leak from the pressurised water container on a dentist chair. First thing we realised was that the dentist’s office is the place to be because for some reason they’ve got aircon on, patients or not. Then the technician went to grab a spare pressure release valve because that’s where the leaking water was coming from. Why is there a spare, though? Because the bottle on the other chair had broken from pressure one day, thought it’s not exactly clear why – the dentist said that she always presses the pressure release valve until there’s no more sound before she opens the bottle, but the technician on the other hand said it happened while no one was around… All we knew at that point was that it maybe wasn’t a good idea to put the valve from the system that broke into the one that was leaking, in case a faulty valve was the problem. Maybe they didn’t unplug the air compressor, or something else was a possibility that we didn’t realise, because the technician seemed pretty convinced the valve was fine. In the end, the leak was caused by a crack in the flexible tube the water travels through which just happened to be leaking onto the valve, so that’ll be the first thing I check from now on, but it was interesting to see how complicated the process can get by he said-she said situations, of which there are sure to be many more..

Fixing a leak 'with the valve'

Fixing a leak ‘with the valve’…

Other things we worked on for the day include an electrocautery unit in the morning which was getting stuck at particular power levels, but the behaviour couldn’t be reproduced in the lab nor operating room so we gave it back to the doctor (before a hard-earned ‘pausa’). After a super long lunch break (including the mysterious calala juice) we headed to the paediatrics unit to grab some neublisers (which deliver medicine through inhaled steam if I understood) that needed servicing. This hospital is quite special in that it has a very proficient staff base who regularly service equipment on a schedule. Two of the three nebulisers weren’t working, so we busted out the toolkits and hoped for the best. In the end, it turns out that this equipment fixing thing is not necessarily super complicated, and that one was just clogged and the other had a loose connection that needed resoldering of one of its components that was buried under some shrink wrap. As a result I don’t think I’ll be so concerned about having a crack at fixing things any more (provided I don’t suspect exploding springs or collapsable gearboxes).

The week finished up with me feeding a monkey trapped on an island in Las Isletas, and hanging out by a volcanic crater lagoon.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

An overdue thank you

In 2010, I met two people.  I imagine that they would support me in calling them ordinary people.. And yet, they ended up changing the way I thought about my life. In fact, they continue to make me check myself every time they pop up on my newsfeed! Because they’re my definition of ‘do-ers’. There’s nothing more… I don’t know the word.. invigorating? than when I see what INCREDIBLE things they’ve just gotten out and DONE, in the times that I’m sitting at home thinking about what I could do. I returned to my usual life after that pivotal conference week in 2010 and straight away the things that I’d been putting off because “no one has been there before and it’s all a bit unknown,” I did. And I did. And year after year I use them as my inspiration, as I watch the the things that they do become more and MORE incredible.

In the past month, the equivalent of over 968 years of scholarships for girls in Sierra Leone has been raised for One Girl through Do It In A Dress. Thank you, Chantelle and Dave.

Dave and Chantelle in Sierra Leone

And yes, this was absolutely a community effort. There’s nothing more incredible than seeing that fundraiser tally tick higher and higher with each minute because there are more than 500 do-ers wearing school dresses and asking families, friends and strangers to sponsor them. “It was definitely an amazing team affair, so I can’t take the credit!” True to form there, Chantelle. But you’ve earnt at least some of the credit: you and Dave made it happen. And even if it was through a tiny seed that looked nothing like this when it was planted back in April 2009 when you both got the crazy idea of changing the world, if that hadn’t have happened, who knows what would have. Would I be a do-er…? Chantelle’s right that they can’t take all of the credit, but it’s important to stop to think about the impact that you have through others’ actions as well as your own. When I tried this, I realised that compared to last year, I may not have raised as much money in my fundraising campaign as last year (thank you thank you, again to all of my supporters over the past three years!), but when you look at the money raised from me and the people that apparently I “inspired” (!) from last year, it surpasses it.

This is incredible, to me, on three counts.

1. I am amazed at how inspiring others to be do-ers can have a stronger effect than trying to do it all yourself.. I must keep that in mind. Invest time in people.

2. It’s not just a stronger effect, it’s a multiplying effect. Teagan, I have never been more proud of you than when you signed up for such an influential volunteer position with One Girl. You purposefully put your hand up to be influential, to invest time in people. Pariss, in one year alone you have inspired more than $1000 in fundraising through inspiring others to get involved. So, I appreciate you saying that you got your inspiration from me, but take a step back and look at what an effect YOU are making! Emily. You’re just incredible.

QUT Women in Engineering Club being nothing short of amazing.

Which brings me to point 3. This all seems really really ridiculous to me, because I started this post by telling you how inspired I was by Dave and Chantelle, right. Turns out, somehow, I am someone’s Dave and Chantelle. And, I mean.. there are just no words that I have for this. An accident, I guess.

How does it happen, though, that these people become do-ers? I can’t speak for the others, but so far it seems like it’s been because they looked at themselves and went “hey, I can be a doer”. And I guess that happened to me once too in 2010, after looking at those other do-ers, etc. But it’s definitely not always like that. Because once in September 2011, I was a watcher, or whatever the opposite to do-er is. Chantelle and Dave were setting up Do It In A Dress for One Girl. “Good on ya, guys, you’re such champions!” And that was about as far as it went, from my side of things. And then:

“One Girl is looking for some enthusiastic Brisbane based girls / guys who are interested in being featured in MX as part of our Do It In A Dress campaign! www.doitinadress.com – you need to a) be willing to wear a school dress in a national newspaper to promote the importance of educating girls b) be willing to become a part of the Do It In A Dress campaign – if you’re interested please reply, we’d love to have you onboard :)”

Hmm.. I like being in newspapers. Sign me up! We’ll worry about the dress part later…

So, two things had to happen here. There had to be something in it for me (this surprised me when I realised it, looking back..), and the main thing was: I had to be asked. Such a tiny action, that turned into something I certainly didn’t see coming: thanks to your help, my dress campaign (not to mention the aforementioneds!) has raised $7500 over three years – 27 girls we’ve sent back to school…. just because she asked. If Chantelle never had’ve asked, I probably would never have done anything. “Keep up the great work, guys!” and that’d be it. But instead, a domino was flicked, and influence was spread.

So, from all of this, I guess.. thank you to everyone who has supported DIIAD over these years. Thank you for changing lives.

Thank you, Chantelle and Dave, for giving so many people an opportunity to make a difference.

.. But, still, I guess it does sort of make me wonder.. after considering how comfortable I was with just watching until someone took the tiniest action to ask me to get involved.. what other things could I have done, if only someone had’ve asked? What am I waiting now for someone to ask me to do..?

What are you not doing just because someone hasn’t asked?!

www.doitinadress.com/deanna

(Why I almost missed) Open Source Day at GHC2013

Today was Open Source Day at GHC2013. I helped make the Android app (from scratch) for Crisis Check-in by Microsoft Disaster Relief. I almost didn’t go.

And at any other conference, I probably wouldn’t have gone. There was a waiting list, and my spot was keeping someone else from going.. someone who probably was understanding the emails that were being sent around, and had the relevant experience in order to contribute to the team. But, yesterday I went to a session that was about preparatory privilege and how teachers sometimes confuse experience with competence, thereby only allowing students with exposure to computer science, for example, into such classes – creating a cycle that is hard for the other students – those capable but under-exposed – to break.

“You know what, I’m a fast learner. Maybe I haven’t done this stuff before, but I have the right skill set and I can be an attribute to my team!” That was what I kept telling myself. And it’s not like I needed to chant it to myself over and over again, I only had to say it once, really, when my mind crossed to thoughts contemplating whether someone else could make better use of my spot. Imposter syndrome, piss off. Today I’m taking this spot because I deserve it, and because probably everyone else is going to be in the same boat. And even if they aren’t – I can learn from them, and this will be a safe and ideal environment to do so. So there! I’m going!

androidCheckIn

Woo! First app! With a list of list items!

And, we spent a few hours getting everything set up – updating our versions of the development suite, syncing our open source repository… but for the two hours-ish that we were able to actually code, you know it went well, of course. We all knew it would go well. The only person who would think that this wouldn’t go well is perhaps still the only person who thinks that it hasn’t gone well: anyone who expected us to do today, instead of learn. And I learnt many things today: design of apps based on the needs of the user (‘what will be the most-frequent use case? that should be the default page.’), setting up git repositories, xml, java and the android environment variables, how events like this are run.. Probably one of my favourite things that I learnt today was right at the end – I was still coding while everyone had just about left, and our impromptu Android team leader was hanging around out of courtesy to me, I think, but I would likely stay for at least another hour until I felt like I had achieved a bit more. Anyway, I told her how originally I wasn’t going to go to the event, because I didn’t feel I had enough skills or whatever. She herself had made a few apps before and replied – the one who was teaching us everything, pretty much – “neither was I.”

Opening open source events?

I sent a brief email around to the group I participated with at Open Source Day at GHC2013 to thank everyone and mention something along the lines of what’s mentioned in this post. I got a few emails back from people at Microsoft and Google asking more about what I had experienced and if I had any thoughts on how the day/similar events could be improved for the future. My reply went a little something like this:

Thanks for asking my opinion. I think that some of the things that might deter people in general from attending such events may happen to deter females more than males, which might lead to the low participation rates that you’ve noticed. In my case, some of the things that made the most impact were the following:

  • Having never been to an event like this or made an app before or whatever, I wasn’t sure that I would know enough to be productive. Even for someone else who did have experience in this area, she (at one point) wondered if she knew ‘enough’.. perhaps there are particular people who are more likely to feel less confident about their skills (first years, females) and are more likely to think that the event is not suitable for them
  • I wasn’t sure that anyone would help me to know enough to be productive, and that I wouldn’t get left behind (the emails which were being sent were a bit intimidating.. not for most people, I’m sure. but for someone for whom the contents of the email goes completely over their head, it can make you feel more of the feelings in the previous point)
  • There was a waitlist. I think that this is the biggest thing that contributed to my uncertainty of attending. The previous two points you can recognise are not necessarily true, and overcome to decide to sign up anyway. But once you start receiving emails about how the positions are full and there are people on the waitlist.. you end up wondering if you are more ‘appropriate’ for or ‘deserving’ of the position than the people on the waitlist. And this can make you second-guess the confidence you had to muster in order to overcome the first two points. I’m not sure how it is best to accomplish the functionality of a waiting list while keeping the pressure off the first-come registrants, but I would definitely argue that it’s necessary.

Perhaps one of the first steps that could be done to understand other people’s opinions would be, if you have their contact details, to ask the people who were registered for events but de-registered.. I mean, we can’t capture information from people who didn’t register, but there might be useful information in the people who registered but at some point decided that they wouldn’t go. And maybe it is just that they couldn’t make it, but perhaps other people found the waitlist put a bit of pressure on.

I had never particularly contemplated attending an event like this before, and so I don’t know which of the feelings that I have experienced are unique to this event. I will tell you though, some of the things that made me eventually attend the Open Source Day at GHC2013 were:

  • The way that it was in the schedule and what-not made it seem like it was the norm to attend, so I registered. In that way it seemed like it was welcoming to all participants.
  • The limit of places available gave me pressure to register quickly to secure my spot, so I did that and stopped thinking about it. I felt liable in that way, and if it were more like ‘whoever wants can come’ but there weren’t registrations, I probably would have felt less committed and would have found an excuse not to go.
  • I had been to a session the day before at GHC about ‘preparatory privilege’ and how schools sometimes mistake students with experience in computer science as the only students with aptitude for it. “Just because I haven’t done it before doesn’t mean I’m not good at it!” I said to myself to get over the ‘not sure I’d be appropriate’ feeling.
  • A lot of the sessions at GHC spoke of imposter syndrome, so I was more aware of what was going on when I was doubting myself, and was able to ignore it. Similarly I recognised that, at GHC, probably I was not the only one (or even close to being the only one) feeling concerned and so that helped me to feel stronger about attending.
  • In the end, only one person in our Android group of 8 had experience making an app! And we had all managed to feel confident to attend. For me, it was easier to feel confident about being welcomed and not left behind (skill-wise) because it was at GHC and I knew it would be a group of girls. Now, I won’t make any generalisations or gender stereotypes here because I am not trying to make any claims about female environments vs males, I just wanted to mention that for me, in my opinion, the significant reason that I felt more comfortable with my less-appropriate skill set was because I knew that I would be in a room of females.

As for the event itself, everything went well in my opinion. The first person I spoke to was in the same position as me experience-wise, which immediately made me feel better (I’m not sure what difference in terms of feeling welcoming that having a mentor that is experienced would have, vs having a friend who is as inexperienced as you! They are both comforting in different ways perhaps). On the Android team for our project, we didn’t have much experience but one of us had made two apps before and became the leader. It was perhaps frustrating before to have to bring us all up to a functional knowledge level while the other teams (smaller and more experienced) were wanting to discuss details that the team leaders had to agree on, but were so far from the point that we were up to. Anyway, she did a great job, and we all learnt a lot.

Although, I felt like the day was geared a bit too much towards producing output (which is a good goal, of course). For our group, we had worked very hard but didn’t have much to show because most of the gains in our group were less tangible.. I mean, I had learnt enough that I was able to go home and finish the content that we were working on, and when we had to present about what we had done, I felt that ‘we learnt a lot’ was an acceptable answer. But, all of the other OS groups were presenting what they had accomplished (in a tangible way) etc, and it became a bit pressuring for us to make it seem like we had done a lot not just learnt a lot.. perhaps our speaker recognised this and it sounded like we were pretending like we had done a bit more than we really had, to impress the rest of the room etc. So, maybe in the future there is a way to make the show-and-tell side of things less show-offy, somehow.. so that people who have just learnt a lot can feel proud and not embarrassed. (Maybe, taking a leaf out of the Harvey Mudd CS5 class‘ book that we heard about at GHC, there could be two different streams for those who had experience before and those who didn’t, so that intimidation and pressure/embarrassment didn’t feel so present in the room).

So, perhaps somewhere in this email of thoughts/experiences there are things that can be taken and developed into suggestions for events in the future. Happy to clarify anything that anything hasn’t quite come across clearly in email! Perhaps you have some more thoughts?

The best part of GHC (is not what I expected)

What was my favourite part about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing event? I’d be interested in what other people would reply to this, and if my answer would be similar to theirs. What it seems like we (/Google in my case) paid for is to hear from dozens of talented, successful, inspirational women; to hear of successful programs in supporting, engaging, and promoting women in STEM; to develop skills such as publishing papers and leading teams. It’s almost as if there in the fine print is ‘you will have tea breaks with cool people’.. and not even in the fine print is ‘you will have an opportunity to meet with kick-ass school girls’. Indeed, just the day before the conference was to start, I came across an out-dated post on the linkedin group mentioning the final call for local volunteers for the GenConnext mentoring program. I contacted them anyway.

And so, as you might be beginning to expect, my favourite moment at GHC2013 wasn’t when I heard from Sheryl Sandberg, or when Google told me I was a good fit for their [x] division. It was when I had chats with high school students. Well, maybe more precisely it was when they came up to me at the end to say goodbye, when they could have easily just left. To make that effort, they either had parents who were particularly pushy about etiquette, or maybe I had made some sort of impact and we had become friends-ish. I wasn’t officially assigned to them or anything – in fact I had two groups of girls that I had met at different meal times. I just ate with them and whatever: learned about their interests, told them my story, and I highlighted how my story is replicable to any field, and shouldn’t be taken on purely face value. I’m not wishing for anyone to become an electrical engineer, unless that is what they want. I just hope that they can recognise that a degree/career is merely a tool for implementing change, and a mechanical engineering degree is as good as a computer science degree is as good as a nursing degree in order to do that.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t any news to some of them. “My school had an inventors fair when I was in year 4 and since then I’ve known I wanted to be an engineer,” said Elle, grade 12. Well, that’s certainly different to my story, isn’t it..! Probably one of the greatest things I heard that day (and at Grace Hopper, that’s tough!). So, these girls were doing some pretty kick-ass things. They’re in different teams of the Lego League, they’re developing technology-based tools for their siblings with autism, too (and extending it to other children!). We really had great conversations, I think. And maybe that’s the key thing, they were conversations. It wasn’t a talk – they weren’t one of 50 it was directed at. It was lunch, and we were five, and we were joking around, and it was totally ideal, in my mind. They didn’t raise their hands, they didn’t even really “ask questions” they just participated in a dialogue about what I’m doing, what they’re doing, like friends, like normal people having a conversation..

And so now I wonder, how can the typical classroom careers talk be turned into something else. How can it be turned into a lunchtime chat session? Would that ever even be legal..? Could an opt-in lunchtime in-school group-based mentoring program ever work???

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