Nearly three years ago, Christina Galitsky joined a team of scientists who had been asked an urgent question. Was it possible for researchers at California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), where she is an engineer, to devise an expedient method for the displaced of war-torn Darfur to cook their meals?
For the more than two million people uprooted by Sudan's genocidal civil war since 2003, it is a life-and-death question. "The refugee women," says Galitsky, "had long ago exhausted supplies of wood near the [refugee] camps. As a result, they were forced to move farther and farther into the surrounding country in a search for cooking fuel." When they did so, marauding Arab militias—who had attacked and raped many women in their villages, forcing them to flee—were again able to prey on them. Their gathering of wood was also ravaging the arid, ecologically fragile region.
In 2005, Galitsky and physicist Ashok Gadgil, an LBNL senior scientist, proposed a solution: a highly energy-efficient and portable cookstove, one that, Galitsky says, would "sharply reduce the need for refugees to leave the camps."
But Gadgil and Galitsky then had to persuade the refugees to use the stove—a sheet-metal cylindrical contraption two feet high and 14 inches in diameter. Galitsky and Gadgil went to Darfur in November 2005. There, says Gadgil, Galitsky came into her own. "Christie is not only an outstanding thinker who applies her mind to solving real-world problems," he says, "she's a risk taker in the best sense of the word."
Galitsky's job was demonstrating the stove to the wary women, who were used to balancing pots on stones over a wood fire, as their ancestors had done for centuries. She was able to show that in the new stove making a pot of assida, the dough-like Sudanese staple of flour, oil and water, used only half as much wood.
"The conditions were appalling," recalls Galitsky, 34. "People were living on top of each other, in little [mud huts] crammed together. You could see the desperation everywhere, the terror in their eyes and voices. Some of the women showed knife wounds."
But helping them was just what Galitsky had been looking to do. In 1999, after earning an M.S. in chemical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, she opted out of a PhD program to put her training to immediate, more practical use. She landed a job in the Environmental Energy Technology Division at LBNL, where she began to work on, among other projects, the development of an inexpensive filter to remove arsenic from drinking water in Bangladesh. "I wanted to work on problems that had a direct, profound impact on people's lives," she says, "things like clean water or clean air, things we need just to live."
The impact was even more direct in Darfur, where refugees appear to like the stoves. "We're hoping news of the stove spreads even more by word of mouth in the camps," she says, "which is the way most things like this have to work." Late last year, when 50 Sudanese families were given an opportunity to buy the stoves—at $2.50 apiece—every one of them took it.
Today, metalworkers in Khartoum, the capital, manufacture the stoves, with 200 delivered to Darfur's camps this past summer. If additional funding can be raised, aid workers in Khartoum hope to produce 30,000 stoves in the near future. An international aid organization, GlobalGiving, oversees contributions to the project. Back in her office in LBNL's Building 90, high in the pine- and eucalyptus-covered hills overlooking the Berkeley campus, Galitsky says she continues "to think about what is really important in work. I believe everyone needs to decide that for themselves. I hope the answer is less often ‘make money' and more often about contributing to society in some way—whatever way makes sense to you."
Neil Henry, a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media.