Saying “yes” to an unexpected opportunity can open new doors—it did for Garrett Clayton. When he agreed to fill in as a last-minute replacement on a Villanova Engineering Service Learning trip to Cambodia in 2013, he had no idea it was the start of a new journey in his research and his career.
“It was kind of a fluke thing,” Dr. Clayton says. The plane ride to Phnom Penh resulted in a chance encounter with a technician who worked at Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a world leader in research and development for humanitarian mine action.
In a country where more than 1.1 million acres are contaminated with explosive remnants of war, the nonprofit was looking for ways to develop robotic solutions to help technicians with their disposal.
“It was right at the time in my career where I was making a transition in my research and expanding my work in robotics,” Dr. Clayton says. “I knew this project would push me out of my professional comfort zone, so I said ‘yes.’ And since then, it has opened up this whole new world for me.”
Dr. Clayton has traveled to Cambodia eight times in the last six years—but a four-month trip in April 2018 took his work in humanitarian robotics to a new level. Funded by a Fulbright grant, this trip enabled him to continue his research and to teach at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
The experience gave him new perspective on real-world problems. In the classroom, he is able to help students understand practical applications of engineering that can have a significant social impact. It has also allowed him to tap into a new network and develop a different level of collaboration on the ground.
“This was an amazing opportunity for me to become part of the community of Cambodian engineers working on similar projects,” he says.
“Fulbright is really about community engagement, cultural exchange and learning, and that mission fits really well into what Villanova espouses and values,” Dr. Clayton says. “That’s what I like about it—it’s not just service; it’s about sharing. It’s a two-way street, and it fits perfectly with our ethos of learning in community.”
Commercially available robots used in explosive ordnance disposal cost about $50,000 to $100,000, which has kept these lifesaving devices financially out of reach for many countries, including Cambodia. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the US State Department, more than 75 Villanova Engineering students and four faculty members have worked with Golden West to develop a robot that costs less than $8,000.