skip to content

Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology


Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is a not-for-profit organisation driven by the inequalities that exist both within and between countries and the knowledge that engineering can be a tool for people to escape from the cycle of poverty. It is a charitable organisation based at British Universities and run by students with the backing of expert academics and professionals.

The Cambridge branch was the first in the UK and is very active. Three Chemical Engineering students have carried out projects recently and two of them describe their experiences below.

Alice Piggott, Shelter Centre, 2004

Alice working on a refugee hoop-tent

There are an estimated 20 million refugees and 25 million internally displaced persons worldwide, from the Balkans, to Chad, to Afghanistan. As part of an international aid network, the health, food and water sectors have been developing over many years and are now well established, recognised, and funded. However, little information, policy, or guidelines exist for programmes for transitional settlement and shelter for displaced populations, although all major donors and agencies support and implement such programmes.

Shelter Centre is a not for profit group, created specifically to address this need. They are devoted to consolidating expertise in responding to the transitional settlement and shelter needs of populations affected by conflict and natural disasters. This is an innovative and ground-breaking venture, and is currently growing and evolving rapidly.

I was given the opportunity to volunteer for Shelter Centre for 12 weeks this summer, a placement organised by Engineers Without Borders – UK. Although technically unpaid, I was supported by EWB with a grant for £800 and very reasonable accommodation, and due to the exciting and unusual nature of the work I was able to apply for many grants within my university.

I was working alongside six other volunteers, a culturally diverse and determined group of young people, committed to humanitarian relief work. We were set a variety of projects, ranging from: refining the frame design and the liner of a refugee hoop-tent; creating a set of training modules to be used by agencies in the field; and building up an on-line database of reference and training materials, accessible through low-bandwidth connections as are often found in the field.

The impact of each of these projects is huge: the training modules will be produced in hard copy, on-line and on CD to be distributed as widely as possible. All work done by Shelter Centre is completely free of charge and distribution is encouraged. It is hoped that these materials will help increase the efficiency and cut bureaucracy of humanitarian work abroad which often hinders agency productivity.

It was fantastic to be a part of what happened at Shelter Centre this summer. I was able to use my skills as an engineer and my enthusiasm about humanitarian work to create some essential resources, and make a significant contribution to the development of a new generation of refugee tent. I have been inspired to look into development work more seriously as a career path, especially now that I am aware of the broad variety of positions in which my skills as an engineer could be invaluable.

Adam Fairman, India, 2003

Adam surveying in India

In the summer of 2003, I spent 9 weeks on an Engineers Without Borders placement working for a small Indian NGO (Non Government Organisation) called ORSED (Organisation for Social and Environmental Development) in Pondicherry, Southeast India.

I was there, along with a fellow Cambridge student, to produce a report that estimated the volume of rainwater landing in a particular area that flowed into the Bay of Bengal each year. This involved some walks around the watershed area and some surveying work in a canyon in this area. This wouldn’t have been particularly strenuous were it not for the 30°C+ temperatures high humidity. I didn’t come back with much of a tan though; most of our time was spent in the ORSED office reading textbooks and reports to gather methods and data. This gave the project a more academic focus than I had expected. However, our work did have a practical purpose. ORSED hope to use the report as a basis for future work on how to conserve this water. One area that we did some work on was the possibility of building a small dam in the aforementioned canyon, which most of the rainwater runs through. From our estimations, the runoff is far greater than the volume of this canyon so it is important that other methods of reducing runoff are looked at.

Once the project was over, I was able to spend just over two weeks travelling independently around South India, visiting Nellore, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mysore and Chennai. This was an excellent opportunity to sample the varied culture and food of some other parts of India. I was also able to do some networking on behalf of Engineers Without Borders with a view to arranging new internships next summer. It was encouraging to see some of the other work that is being done, particularly in Chennai where I visited a rainwater harvesting centre that educates the urban population on the need for water conservation. This eventually led to a placement the following summer for fellow chemical engineering student, Anita Goyal!



Latest news

From PhD student to CEO

15 August 2019

Alumnus founds microcapsule start-up for the product industry

July paper of the month: Christie lab discovers two new enzymes responsible for spore germination

9 August 2019

Researchers from our Molecular Microbiology group have identified two new enzymes responsible for breaking open bacterial spores when they germinate.

Dr Marta Serrani through to semi-finals of the Postdoc Business Plan Competition

8 August 2019

Dr Serrani’s start-up, Polivalve, will look to bring the prosthetic heart valves developed by our structured materials research group to the market.