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Engineering News Winter 2017

Photo: Joanne Lee, SCU Photographer

Photo: Joanne Lee, SCU Photographer

From Argentina to Santa Clara: Finding the Path to Social Justice

Fr. Guillermo Blason, a Jesuit priest from Argentina currently enrolled in the School of Engineering’s graduate Frugal Innovation certificate program, jokes about the intersection of his calling and his lay education: “I liked to help people go to Heaven, so I studied aeronautic engineering,” he quipped.

In fact, engineering was his first choice for his career path. “I always liked the topic of engineering more than the particular field of aeronautic engineering. I like to create and develop new things. As a child I lived in the countryside; my relatives were farmers so I came in contact with a lot of technical and mechanical things.”

Before receiving his engineering degree in 1999, Blason considered a religious life, but says he “did not have enough courage at that time to take that path.” When he later learned that some Jesuits are involved in scientific work or in universities, he entered the Society of Jesus in 2000. “Becoming a Jesuit and going through the formation process—11 years of study and ministerial work—was a kind of parentheses in my life as an engineer. I was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2009, received a master’s degree in theology from Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara at Berkeley in 2011, and then was sent to Universidad Católica de Córdoba in Argentina where I was assigned to Campus Ministry and to teach in the School of Engineering. When I met again engineering, it was very nice, but I had a different kind of feeling of how to be an engineer now that I was a priest. I was enthusiastic to do social projects with my students,” he said.

Working for the university’s Social Responsibility Department, Blason was tasked with promoting social justice with students through careers, projects, and courses. He became involved with immersion experiences in Patagonia, where students brought solar installations to people living in the desert. In northern Argentina, he found wells contaminated with arsenic, so chemistry students developed a cheap, simple homemade filter. “The students were very enthusiastic to bring the solution,” Fr. Blason said, but when they returned four or five months later, they discovered few families using them. The filters changed the water’s taste, and residents also did not connect poisoned water with health problems such as cancer. “Working on these types of projects led me to think this could be my path. I talked with my superior about doing a more focused study on sustainable engineering, and I found Santa Clara’s Frugal Innovation graduate certificate. Last quarter I have taken three courses and my advisor, electrical engineering professor Alex Zecevic, put me in contact with [bioengineering associate professor] Ashley Kim. I was invited to join her research group which is working on a portable electrochemical sensor for arsenic in water. They are expanding the scope of this project by testing not only contaminated water sources but also hair from the people in the affected area to study long-term exposure of the poisoning. This could be very important for the project in north Argentina, which is 500 miles away from Córdoba where testing would normally be done.

“Here at Santa Clara, I’m reading different articles, doing my part, and am very happy. I’ll finish my studies by June and return to teach in the School of Engineering in Córdoba. I am very enthusiastic to go back with different ideas and start more projects like this one about arsenic. In Córdoba we had different opportunities to help communities but couldn’t. Now I feel more confident to say, ‘yeah, this is a good path to go.’”

Learn more about the Frugal Innovation Hub at scu.edu/engineering/frugal