Evan Thomas: Fearless Inventor

Bringing cleaner water to millions

Portland State mechanical and materials engineering professor Evan Thomas works at the unlikely intersection of cutting-edge technology and some of the world's poorest conditions. And he's improving lives in the process.

The one-time NASA engineer has devoted his career to making it easier for people in Africa and elsewhere to access clean drinking water, reliable cookstoves and working sanitary facilities.

"My motivation in my career has always been, where can I make the greatest impact?" says Thomas.

That credo led him to join the first chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado. He started working in Rwanda 11 years ago.

Hired by NASA, Thomas worked on life support systems for spacecraft while also starting a social enterprise in Rwanda that was the first to be eligible for United Nations carbon credits for drinking water. That company helped establish a water treatment program in Kenya for 4.5 million people.

"That's the reason I left NASA and came to Portland State—to make this vision of financially sustainable and accountable development a reality," he says.

Thomas says the projects came under criticism because no one was accurately measuring their effectiveness. That's when he came up with the idea for a device that could be installed cheaply and monitored remotely to track how the water filters and cookstoves were being used.

Now, with an international team of collaborators, Thomas heads a program to reduce childhood illness from diarrhea and pneumonia in Rwanda by distributing water filters and cookstoves to the poorest 3 million people.

Jon Fink, PSU Vice President for Research and Strategic Partnerships, recently spent time in the field with Thomas. "I found the ambition, complexity and scale of Evan's work in Rwanda to be mind-boggling and inspiring," Fink says.

Thomas says his relationship with PSU allows him to spend about half his time in Rwanda and teach courses for the other half. In the meantime, his work and research is bringing international attention to the university.

"What we're trying to do," Thomas says, is change the way aid is delivered, to have it be more accountable and financially sustainable. We have a long path in front of us."

Learn more about Evan Thomas's research.

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