UST grad leverages engineering skill to help Senegalese women farm

| Anne Fredrickson | August 23, 2018 | 0 Comments
Bridget Gerenz in a meeting with women from a village near Diouroup in Senegal’s Fatick region to discuss thresher performance and their desired improvements.

At right, Bridget Gerenz, a recent graduate of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, shakes a child’s hand during a meeting with women from a village near Diouroup in Senegal’s Fatick region to discuss thresher performance and their desired improvements. Courtesy Bridget Gerenz

For many college seniors, the culmination of their studies is acing an exam, presenting a research paper or creating a capstone project. For 2018 University of St. Thomas graduate Bridget Gerenz, it was traveling to Senegal in May to see her engineering work in action in farm fields where women thresh millet.

Gerenz, a mechanical engineering major and peace engineering minor from Ankeny, Iowa, graduated in May. As a student, she connected with St. Paul-based Compatible Technology International, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families in developing countries access innovative farming tools that enable them to produce food sustainably and bring their crops to market.

Gerenz began working with CTI through her studies with research professor Camille George, associate dean of engineering at St. Thomas. After completing an internship, Gerenz worked with CTI during school and full time throughout summer 2017, taking on the project of improving a tool called the Ewing grinder to make it more efficient and user-friendly.

“Our goal is to improve the machines to help lighten the load for farmers and help them feed their families,” Gerenz said. “Farming in Senegal is small scale, and women do most of the agricultural work, which informed our design. Machines have to be able to be used by a woman working most of the day with a baby on her back, possibly with other children in the field. We want to make sure when we design machines, we involve both men and women, and that there is collective ownership by the whole village.”

Gerenz, 23, was responsible for drafting the drawings for the technology and communicating with manufacturing about the product. Her trip to Senegal included visiting the local manufacturers to see the changes made to the technology, and visiting farmers to learn how they experienced the tool and determine possible further improvements.

Gerenz’s education and character have been assets to CTI, said Don Jacobson, the nonprofit’s technology advisor.

“Bridget prepared all the drawings for our tools, which saves us a significant amount of money and adds an engineering dimension we didn’t have before,” said Jacobson, also a St. Thomas alumnus and member of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul.

For Gerenz, the work experience unites her passion for engineering and her strong commitment to her Catholic faith.

“As I’ve gotten older and deeper into my faith, I’m committed to the ethics of Catholic social teaching and the dignity of the human person,” she said. “It informs my personal and professional life. Especially working in agriculture, we see how God gave us the earth to nourish us and how we are part of God’s creation. Seeing the humanity in each person motivates much of my work.”

Her commitment to social justice motivated her to help restructure the peace engineering minor at St. Thomas. Although the program first attracted her to St. Thomas, she realized that the minor, which was created to use engineering to achieve social good, was not achievable as it stood.

So she worked with George and assistant professor of justice and peace studies Michael Klein to rework the program, bringing collaboration between two departments and crafting a mission statement that reflects the principles of Catholic social teaching. Together, they created a curriculum that focuses on collaborating with the community, empowering those experiencing injustice to create their own future, and respecting the dignity and humanity of each person.

“This is how it plays out at CTI,” Gerenz said. “We focus on design to make tools efficient, but by hearing and respecting the user, respecting the dignity of the human person, we allow them to make decisions that impact their lives directly.”

Inspired by St. John Paul II, Gerenz sees her work as a vocation, not a job.

“Pope John Paul II spoke often of the dignity of work,” she said. “It helps me to think of my own work as vocation, but also to respect the labor of work that the African farmers are doing.”

Now with a diploma in hand, Gerenz is continuing her work at CTI in her new role as a technology coordinator. Her summer plans included a July wedding to fellow mechanical engineer Adam Gerenz, a member of Epiphany in Coon Rapids. The couple, who met in a calculus class freshman year, exchanged vows at the chapel on the St. Thomas campus, where they attended Mass as students. She also returned to Senegal this month.

Jacobson is thrilled to have Gerenz, whose maiden name was Carey, as a permanent member of the CTI team. “She’s an absolutely wonderful person,” he said. “Bridget is one of the strongest Catholics I’ve ever met, yet she doesn’t preach. Her example and behavior are indicative of it. She always sees the positive and genuinely cares about her human partners. She’s sparked my faith just by being around her.”

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