UW-Whitewater students focus on a lasting cure for worldwide blindness

May 02, 2016


Students in a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student organization are reaching far to work with a London-based eye surgeon to combat — and potentially eradicate — blindness in Botswana and around the world.

The doctor, Andrew Bastawrous, has been working with Madison-based nonprofit Combat Blindness International to create a sustainable future without blindness. Worldwide, 39 million people are blind, much of it in low-income countries, and up to 80 percent of blindness is curable.

Bastawrous is a research fellow at the International Centre for Eye Health. Previous travel to developing countries with limited access to eye care and equipment prompted him to invent a smartphone device to remotely diagnose common vision. Called a Portable Eye Examination Kit, or PEEK, the device has been used to screen tens of thousands in rural Africa for common problems such as cataracts, bridging the geographic gap between the blind and the doctors who can help them.

Once diagnosed, a simple surgical solution costing less than $25 can restore vision to many. And this is where the UW-Whitewater chapter for Enactus — an international nonprofit committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to improve the quality of life and standard of living for people in need — comes in. The campus organization has been working with CBI on the Peek Vision program to find ways to lower the cost of the procedure and to make the current grant-based funding model sustainable.

Bastawrous shared his progress on fighting world blindness with the UW-Whitewater campus at Timmerman Auditorium in Hyland Hall on April 21, 2016. He spent the day leading up to the talk in an hours-long strategy session with Enactus students, Enactus adviser and associate professor of information technology and supply chain management Choton Basu, Peek Vision colleague and former Google executive Tim Carter, and CBI representatives.

"The Enactus students give us the opportunity to do things we wouldn't otherwise have the bandwidth to do," said Melissa Kuecker Witte, executive director of CBI. "It's common when people have been working on a problem for awhile to think they know the landscape and to disregard ideas. I'm excited to see what the students — with their fresh sets of eyes — bring to the table. Solutions we've never considered, or maybe some we have considered, but approached in a different way."

Witte went on to say that while some solutions may not be practical, many will be incorporated into PEEK, reducing costs or helping to develop a sustainable funding mechanism that will in turn affect millions of individuals afflicted with blindness and the family members who care for them.

"It's important to remember that for every blind adult, a family member — usually a daughter — is taken out of school to be their caretaker," said Witte.

It is that impact that excited Corrinn Favaro, a freshman majoring in entrepreneurship and Enactus member.

"It's cool that I get to be part of a solution to such a huge problem," said Favaro. "I also enjoy working directly with people like Andrew, where I can see the impact of my work."

Favaro went on to add that her father, Keith Favaro, is a sales technician in the health care field who once sold the huge cameras that took the same diagnostic photos that the PEEK Retina smartphone device does now. Not believing the tiny device could match the resolution of the cameras he once sold, Favaro joined his daughter on campus to hear the talk and see the technology firsthand.

Ella Pelot, a junior marketing major with a minor in public relations, is the current president of Enactus. The Oshkosh native points to the level of passion in the organization's members, one that is contagious.

"Everyone in Enactus wants to make a difference," she said. "As an organization, Enactus looks for projects that can measure and demonstrate real impact and are sustainable, so eventually our help is no longer needed. As such, working on the Peek Vision program with CBI is ideal, because curing one person's blindness effectively puts two people back into the workforce."

Pelot also loves the spirit of innovation and no-stone-left-unturned approach within the Peek Vision program. When a sizable percentage of people in Bostwana weren't showing up for their appointments because they lost the slip of paper the time and date were printed on, the team looked for a solution. Bastawrous recalled the way people in the communities seemed to prize photos, giving them prominent places in their homes. They added a photo of the patient to the slip of paper, and attendance rose dramatically.

Enactus focuses on several projects at a time, with one of the desired goals being the development of project management skills, or the discipline of initiating, planning, executing, managing and completing the work of a team to achieve specific goals. According to Basu, it's the number-one skill that companies such as Peek Vision look for in university graduates.

Working with CBI on the Peek Vision program is a "legacy" project, meaning it will continue as a core effort of the group over the coming years. A portion of donations to CBI will be directed to Enactus to continue to support their efforts to help combat global blindness.


Jeff Angileri

Sara Kuhl

Written by Kristine Zaballos

Photos by Craig Schreiner and Erika Sternard