Pratiksha Sharma is leading the development of a nationwide earthquake early warning system for her home country, Nepal.
"We were at a rest stop when the building started shaking and rocks started falling from the mountains,” said Pratiksha. "It was scary and chaotic. The bus immediately turned around and started back home.”
Pratiksha and her family lived on a relatively flat plain outside the city and their home survived the earthquake, although part of it had to be dismantled for repairs. The experience left Sharma determined to find a way to help protect people from earthquakes in the future.
The need for funds to repair the damage was urgent. She joined with two other Pestalozzi alumni, Laxmi Rajak and Abhishek Upadhyaya, as well as other Nepalese students, and organised fundraising activities.
Once relief funds had been raised, Pratiksha and another Nepalese student, returned home. They spent the first month of the summer visiting damaged areas and deciding how the money could make a difference. With the monsoon season fast approaching, they focused on providing tin roofs for damaged houses in five districts.
"Entire villages were levelled to the ground. It was heart-wrenching,” said Pratiksha. "As we toured the sites, people pointed to fallen structures and described them not by what types of buildings they were, but by how many people had died in them.”
The absence of any early warning of the earthquake had clearly contributed to the death toll, and Pratiksha realised this was an area where she might be able to help.
She was taking a double major in electrical and computer engineering and computer science and decided to undertake a project, as part of her studies, which could help the people of her home country.
Developing sensors to save lives
A professor at the university, Henri Gavin, who specialises in earthquake engineering, was interested. His advice was that Pratiksha should concentrate on creating a sensor that could reliably detect an earthquake and alert people living nearby.
Three years later Pratiksha has advanced algorithms designed to detect pressure waves that travel through the Earth’s surface. She has also developed prototype devices that provide an early warning.
Two prototypes were built and, during the spring break this year, Pratiksha was able to demonstrate the device to Dr Lok Bijay Adhikari - the chief of Nepal’s National Seismological Center - and installed one of the sensors in his office.
The second prototype is at a nearby radio station, and works so well that Pratiksha is able to track changing traffic patterns as trucks roll over pot-holes on the road outside.
The challenge now is to develop a nationwide system with up to 300 sensors spread across the country. The sensors are not expensive, but there are no government budgets to pay for installing, maintaining and monitoring them.
She knows that if the sensors had been near the epicentre of the 2015 earthquake, it would have been detected up to 80 seconds before it reached Kathmandu. A warning of even 20 seconds would have helped save lives.
Pratiksha is keen to solve the problems but, after graduating in May, she will be working with a technical team for Goldman Sachs in New York City. She plans to pursue the project, but her new job will limit the time she can spend on it.
Pratiksha reflected: "Pestalozzi gave me the opportunity to do my International Baccalaureate and, in turn, paved the way for my further studies at Duke University. Had Pestalozzi not sponsored my education, I would probably not have gone to Duke and consequently this project would never have existed.
"I feel very fortunate to have experienced Pestalozzi. The environment inspired people from different backgrounds to come together and support each other in achieving their common goal – academic and personal growth.
"The principals of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi – head, hearts and hands – instilled in me the inspiration to work on something impactful and useful to others – be it a community or an individual.
The 2015 earthquake also destroyed the Bloom School, set up by Pestalozzi alumnus Ram Rijal. Read about how he successfully rebuilt the school here (https://www.pestalozzi.org.uk/alumni-success-stories/ram-rijal)