This Truman Scholar is solving global health issues on a local level

Kerry Eller, a bioengineering student at Northeastern, has been named a Truman Scholar. The scholarship is a national award and the premiere fellowship in the United States for those pursuing careers as public service leaders. Photo courtesy of Kerry Eller. Photo courtesy Kerry Eller

Posted at St. Paul’s Hospital and Medical College in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Kerry Eller and her team were charged with repairing broken medical devices. But they soon discovered that much of the non-functional equipment had been donated by overseas organizations and had either arrived without critical parts or were not compatible with the hospital’s infrastructure.

“Confronted with these devices,” the Northeastern bioengineering student says, “we knew that what was needed was not a way to fix them, but a way to reinvent them entirely.”

Disheartened by the discovery that programs purporting to provide medical aid to low-income countries don’t always adequately meet the needs of the institutions in those countries, Eller and a team of students developed surveys to assess what St. Paul’s needed.

The survey also sought to evaluate the expertise of technicians in the bioengineering department at St. Paul’s Millennium Medical College. The goal, Eller says, was to support the Ethiopians in creating devices using the resources they already had available to them.

“What we found was a vast technical knowledge and ability to problem solve, but an absence of innovation training,” she says. “We spent the remainder of the trip teaching technicians, technical students, and engineers an open-source electronics platform that can allow rapid prototyping, and therefore can provide the foundation for innovative medical devices.”

The following year, 2019, was no less busy for Eller, a bioengineering student who is as passionate about science and engineering as she is about creating policies that serve the public good.  

She traveled to Santiago, Chile, where she spent six months working on the prototype for a mosquito trap that remotely monitored the spread of disease. While she was there, she began developing a low-cost wearable pesticide monitor for agricultural workers. She looks forward to continuing the project once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

Eller’s achievements have earned her a Truman Scholarship, the premiere fellowship in the United States for those pursuing careers as public service leaders.

The award recognizes exemplary academic abilities, as well as demonstrated leadership and the drive to serve the public. It provides funding for graduate study, mentoring, and connection to a national network of public service leaders. Former Truman Scholars include Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; and current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“I was, and still am, pretty shell-shocked,” Eller says. “I had absolutely no expectations of receiving the award. I feel like it is really hard to make those expectations for something that so few people receive. A bunch of past Truman Scholars have already reached out to me—including one Northeastern alumnus—so the impact of the community I am now fortunate enough to be a part of is really starting to hit me.”

Eller plans to use the scholarship to pay for a doctoral degree in bioengineering. She says she’d like to spend a year working in a community alongside researchers to develop a medical device that could help improve access to healthcare for the community’s residents. And down the road, she says she’d like to work with nonprofit organizations to develop medical technologies for low- and middle-income communities. 

Two years ago, when she was in Geneva, Switzerland, for a Dialogue of Civilizations course at the United Nations, a teaching assistant said to Eller: “We have no choice but to be optimistic.” 

The sentiment, which was uttered by the teaching assistant after a long day of hearing distressing information about the climate, still resonates with Eller two years later. Eller says that she, too, remains optimistic “not by nature, but because I want to make a change in the world.”

“If I want to make a difference,” she says, “I have to know that change is possible.”

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