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Haiti Center Helps Make Positive Change

Physics Prof Leads Educational, Academic Research Program

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A young girl fetches water from a community well in Les Cayes, Haiti.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

It’s a sight that keeps Prof. Robert Giles up at night: a young Haitian girl, barely 6 years old, walking on the side of the road, her tiny, frail body carrying a large, heavy container of water she had fetched from the community well. It’s a task that children in this impoverished Caribbean country must endure every day so their families can have water for drinking, cooking and washing. 

“It is a fairly common sight in Haiti to see young girls fetching water and doing other hard labor — Haiti is the poorest country in our part of the hemisphere,” says Giles, chair of the Department of Physics and Applied Physics and director of the University’s Submillimeter-Wave Technology Laboratory (STL). “The World Bank reports that 77 percent of Haiti’s residents live in poverty.”

Giles’s first trip to Haiti was in January 2003, as a chaperone for his teenage daughter and her youth group. 

“Jerrica was too young to travel without a parent so I was short-listed for the job,” he recalls. “I was immediately struck by the country’s overwhelming poverty and the challenge of effecting positive change. And this was well before the big earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010.”

After a decade of raising funds, recruiting people and making a dozen-and-a-half trips to the country, Giles is finally beginning to see the fruits of his labor. This year, he and his staff opened UMass Lowell’s Haiti Development Studies Center (HDSC), a modest two-story building they leased in the port city of Les Cayes, about 200 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

The HDSC’s mission is to engage faculty and students from Haiti and UMass Lowell in philanthropic research focused on solving life-threatening issues faced by citizens in the world’s poorest nations, says Giles, who is now fairly fluent in Creole.

“Education is central to our mission,” he says. “For students and teachers, the opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives are limitless. The Center is a place where research is a pathway to critical change.”

Through the Haiti Center, Bob is ensuring that our students understand technologys potential to make the world a better place  as well as the science and engineering behind that technology,” says UMass Lowell Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen. "It’s real-world education at its best, and it is making a difference for the people of Haiti.”

A Country with First-World Possibilities

“I believe Haiti has first-world possibilities by virtue of its geographical location in the Caribbean,” explains Giles. “Having a permanent residence within the community will enable visiting UMass Lowell faculty and student researchers to perform health and environmental assessments across the Southern Department of Haiti.”

The HDSC employs a full-time staff comprised of an American program coordinator, Connie Barna, who resides in the facility, and a six-member team of Haitians who are responsible for housekeeping, ground transportation, security and all in-country resource requirements.

Giles, as Center director, and Barna will advise on projects involving regional and community-based concerns and opportunities while University student interns and their faculty advisers may remain in Haiti over extended periods to gather and document the scientific data. 

Projects being undertaken at the Center include:
  • Initiating a cyber college-preparatory and teachers’ training program for select Haitian students in the physical sciences;
  • Implementing bio-sand water-filtration systems and a leptospirosis diagnosis pilot study (in collaboration with the University’s Commonwealth Honors program);
  • Developing a low-cost, spectroscopic soil-contaminate monitor to check the safety of agricultural land; and
  • Establishing safe community wells in distressed regions.
“As an at-home and abroad program, internationally collaborative research projects not only challenge the critical thinking skills of our students, but also raise their awareness of socio-economic and regional factors that hinder positive world change,” says Giles.

For more information on how to help the Haiti Development Studies Center, call 978-934-3780, or e-mail Giles at