Iowa State grad student spends summer bringing light to the darkness in China

AMES, Iowa -- There are many diversions for a young person during a 10-week trip to China.

Mountains to climb, trails to hike and a Great Wall to see.

But Iowa State student Nathan Johnson has a more serious adventure in mind.

Johnson, using a grant from the National Science Foundation, will spend most of his summer in China helping isolated, rural villages develop simple sources of energy for household use.

"My project is going to focus on establishing the means and infrastructure to allow rural communities the benefits of energy," said Johnson.

Johnson, an Estherville native, will spend time in the capital city of Beijing as well as in the rural areas finding out what is the best way to "create a successful and sustainable energy source," he said.

Many of the villages don't have any energy sources. Johnson hopes that will change.

"Adding even one light bulb can really change the quality of life in these rural villages," he said.

Johnson is working toward his doctorate in mechanical engineering and his master's in interdisciplinary studies including sociology, economics and anthropology.

Johnson's mix of hard science and cultural science are a good mix for the work he is doing, according to his advisor, Mark Bryden.

"The interesting part about his work is that engineers often don't consider cultural imperatives of particular situations," said Bryden, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Bryden says that in a certain culture, people believe that if, while cooking, a lid is put on the pot, the family's next child will be born with a birth defect.

"That may seem silly to us," said Bryden. "But it is important to them."

By applying the cultural sensitivities with his knowledge of engineering, Johnson hopes to make progress in areas that have been difficult in the past.

Bryden says it's frustrating to take a simple technology to some cultures only to see it fail.

"Nathan is trying to keep that from happening," said Bryden.

This will be the sixth time Johnson has traveled overseas for work or research. He has been to Latin America three times and to Europe twice.