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GHI Interns Gain Real-World Experience in India

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

If you ask GHI’s interns from University of California, Berkeley about what they did this summer, you may hear an earful of technical jargon, or you may see stunning photos of a city on the other side of the world. They traveled to Aizawl, India to conduct earth science and engineering research with GHI’s staff, local geology students from Mizoram University, and local engineers and architects. Adventures ensued.

Introducing students to real-world disaster mitigation: GHI’s COO Dr. Janise Rodgers and Aizawl Mitigation Specialist Lalrinpuii Tlau with interns Sarah Welsh-Higgins, Aurora Smedley and Carly Schaeffer.

Undergraduates Aurora Smedley and Carly Schaeffer of UC Berkeley had the opportunity to work with GHI’s Dr. Janise Rodgers and UC Berkeley faculty and graduate mentors on a GHI project. Sarah Welsh-Higgins, a graduate student in Engineering for Developing Communities at University of Colorado, Boulder also joined them. Aurora’s and Carly’s summer work forms the core of a new program, created by GHI and funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation, to provide under-represented students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with real-world experience in emerging countries.

Aizawl sits atop several ridges susceptible to landslides.

Aizawl is the fast-growing capital of Mizoram state in northeast India. Most of its buildings are constructed on steep, landslide-prone slopes. Even a moderate earthquake would trigger hundreds of landslides all at once and endanger thousands of people. GHI’s work in Aizawl, funded by global reinsurer Munich Re, is developing practical solutions to address the city’s extremely high earthquake and landslide risk. For their fieldwork, Aurora and Carly mapped cracking and drainage at a fast-moving slide that recently failed, as well as at slow-moving sinking areas that have been noted for some years. But their work was not only technical. They also learned how GHI helps Aizawl city staff mitigate risk by creating regulations to control excavations and construction.

Completely inadequate to hold back rock layers, a small retaining wall has moved outward as the slope moved, evidenced by the crack with filler stones. The pipe is an attempted brace.

Aurora and Carly experienced firsthand the need for such regulations. Any construction excavation on Aizawl’s densely packed slopes can impact neighboring buildings. Large excavations made without sound technical guidance from geologists and engineers can create truly dangerous situations. The wall shown above appears in the lower left of the photo below.

June 12, 2014: An excavation where rock layers dip approximately parallel to the slope. Cutting away rock at the toe of such a slope makes it unstable, and large layers of rock can easily slide down after an earthquake or heavy rain.

June 14, 2014: A rainfall-induced landslide buried construction where the slope had been compromised. For reference, the same structure appears at right in both photos.

An unsafe construction excavation that they observed on June 12 triggered a landslide two days later. Fortunately, no one was injured, though homes were threatened above the slide. The event confirmed the importance of developing local technical expertise as well as effective policies to safeguard people from natural disasters—which is the heart of GHI’s work. After returning to UC Berkeley, Carly and Aurora reflected on what they did this summer:

“I saw how my civil engineering studies can have humanitarian applications.”-- Carly Schaeffer “I realize now that I want to work on projects that make a difference in peoples’ lives.” -- Aurora Smedley

How about that for a summer experience?


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