Corps to Career: From robotics student to social entrepreneur

By Peace Corps
Nov. 24, 2014

As a Volunteer in rural Mexico, Sam Bhattacharyya saw the problems his community faced, experienced those problems firsthand and, as a result, truly understood them. Now he’s working to solve these problems for his community — and the rest of the developing world. 

After wrapping up his service, Sam is now pursuing an MBA at MIT with the intention of growing two of his secondary projects into social enterprises.

A few years ago, Sam was pursuing a PhD in robotics from Vanderbilt University when he realized he wanted to put his knowledge to more practical use and have a positive impact. That was when he remembered the photos his high school physics teacher, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) from Senegal, had shown him. So, he decided to leave academia and apply to Peace Corps.

A startup in Mexico
Peace Corps Mexico Volunteer Sam Bhattacharyya worked with a local NGO to manufacture low-cost prosthesis.

His technical skills made him an ideal candidate for the Peace Corps program in Mexico, even though he had no experience with Spanish. A few months later he found himself partnered with an astrophysics research center teaching students in rural Mexico. Shortly after, he began to settle in and integrate into his community.

Sam made more Mexican friends and gained more connections in Mexico. One of these connections was the director of a local non-governmental organization (NGO) that was focused on providing support and services to people with disabilities in the local area (including economic skills training, providing a support network, etc.), including making low-cost prosthesis. The director asked Sam to help because of his background in robotics and Sam became an integral part of the team. While still in the Peace Corps, he worked with the NGO to start a workshop to make prosthesis that “are functional enough that a United States veteran can use them and a Mexican middle school teacher can afford them.”

According to Sam, a project like this is extremely necessary in Mexico because there is no economic safety net for the injured or ill. Furthermore, diabetes is a huge problem and contributes to a large portion of the amputations in the country. Much of Mexico’s economy is informal, so by giving people the ability to get back to work with functional prosthesis, they are also getting the ability to recover their economic livelihood and help Mexico develop. Now, Sam and the founder of the NGO are branching out and starting a for-profit business to manufacture low-cost prosthesis on a larger scale in order to reach and help a much larger market.

As a teacher in rural Mexico, Sam also noticed that he hit a brick wall when trying to integrate technology in the classroom. He realized that online learning systems would be a great asset to his students, but also found that he lacked something critical to implementation: reliable internet. But he didn’t just give up trying to use technology in the classroom. Instead, he created a type of file that would allow his students to benefit from technology based classes without actually having to be online.

The file basically works like an MP3 file. When they have a WiFi connection, students can download a file to their cell phones and then, without WiFi, they can open it anywhere (on the bus, at home, etc.). Therefore they can watch educational videos and take quizzes on a topic practically anywhere they go.

Sam realized this is a powerful tool that could be useful far beyond the Mexican village he was working in. Giving anyone with a cellphone access to these files can be extremely useful in education and development, especially because so many people have cell phone now, and they don’t necessarily have a reliable internet connection. So, Sam is also working on bringing this program to as many people as possible.

According to Sam, Volunteers have an amazing advantage in solving important problems in the world today. But, he also recognizes that many people with the skill set and knowledge necessary to solve these problems aren’t spending enough time actually learning about and experiencing these problems. His suggestion? That people with the technical experience go out of their comfort zone and volunteer. Beyond that he also encourages RPCVs who have spent two years working to find innovative solutions and to diversify their skillset as much as possible to enter the professional world. In a society that emphasizes such high levels of specialization, maybe diversifying is actually the better way to solve the pressing issues in the world.

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