Drive to the Field (video)


I filmed this short video of our drive to the field site on my last trip to Orissa. Things are a bit different here – but this at least gives and idea of the thing.

Leaving Jagdishpur, Uttar Pradesh

I’ve left Jagdishpur, the dusty, smoky village that I’ve called home for the past month. Already I miss the company of Alyssa, Dave, and Omkar – and the daily adventures of fieldwork, data analysis, and life in a small town in rural India. I’ll miss our team of 12 enumerators that we trained and drilled and trained and drilled – if nothing else comes from this research project, I will be proud that we gave a employment and opportunity to the group of women in this group, most of whom have not held another job. Half of our team is shown below, since we travel in two separate groups to cover more ground. The woman in the pink salwar in the front right was part of the village council (the panchayat) who acted as our very kind guide as we selected households in the village.


I will miss our dhobiwala, or washer man, who washed my clothes and had them ironed (or outsourced the ironing) for 4 rupees (8 cents) each. Everything came back in a beautifully folded pile. A true luxury! I still washed many of my clothes (always underwear, which was inappropriate to send to a laundry man) and hung them to dry every night – but the dhobiwalla was good at what he did.


The power outages won’t be missed. Two nights ago the power deserted us for the entire night, and I tossed and turned and sweated so much I would wake up for stretches and just fan myself. Twice I awoke with a start because sweat was dripping into my inner ear – I’m still not sure how that was possible.

Train from Lucknow to Delhi is AC, teal seats and teal window shades, a power outlet by my side. I’m at the window and next to me is a muslim woman in a black hijab with sky blue and pink rhinestones along all borders. There are three seats in a row, and in the center seat she sits with either her ~3 year old daughter or 8 year old son. When she swaps with her husband (a row behind) to take the boy, she shoves against me to make room to have him sit next to hear in the seat. Again, I’m struck by how accepted personal contact is here, while I feel uncomfortable with a stranger touching me on a long train ride.The woman looks younger than 25, perhaps, and her husband as well. She feeds her daughter water out of the water bottle cap just like Stewart Little and places Lay’s chips in her mouth. She tries to raise the window screen to distract her child but the man in the seat behind us pulls it back down. She points at the translucent screen and talks to her daughter – the only words I discern are elephanta and tiger. There are no elephants or tigers outside this train.

She wipes her daughter’s face and nose with a Huggies’s baby wipe, and watches this screen as I type. There are six hours left of this train ride.

We’ve done some great work this month. Well over a quarter of the surveys we will be collecting in Uttar Pradesh have been collected. We’re still finalizing the fuel weighing, temperature and aerosol sampling plan – but that will launch soon.

Now, I’m off to the state of Uttarakhand in the farther north of India. To mountains. To the coming monsoon. To training an entirely new group of ladies (and perhaps men) in the survey. To new types of stoves and potentially new types of solutions. To another 6 weeks in India.

Some flashbacks from the field:

All of the enumerators received an ID badge with their name and photo that said “Stove Researcher”.


Ankita particularly requested that I wear my hat in this photo. I think she was in awe of it – she also asked to wear it for a photo. My otherworldly florescent glow is especially prominent in these photos – perhaps because my skin was literally dripped and reflected more light?!



Omkar the fearless field leader.



Tall wheat.


Field Dave.


Beautiful field Alyssa (looking at this picture you’d never guess she sweats, too!)


Simply a photo


Photo: I’m conducting a test on our temperature sensor equipment.

Things you cannot see in this picture:

I am in a very small room, perhaps 10 by 10 feet. There is a small grate in the ceiling where air can escape, and a small door by which I entered, 6 feet tall and less than 2 feet wide.

This is not someone’s home – it is a laboratory where a small team designs some truly promising stoves. This is the same room where they build the stoves from a silica based absorptive cement-like material pressed into molds, and the same room where the stoves are tested.

“Testing” sounds innocuous, but it involves endless cooking trials with names like the Kitchen Performance Test, Water Boiling Test, and Controlled Cooking Test – standardized to record the efficiency of a stove (through amount of fuel burned).

This tiny room is always full of smoke. It’s hard for me to handle physically – my eyes water, sometimes I start coughing, and my clothes are drenched almost instantly, sweat pouring down my arms.

You may not notice – but there are actually four stoves in this picture:

count the stoves

Three of them are in use. There is another stove out of sight, also in use. Imagine crouching in front of three lit stoves in an unventilated room in a concrete building in near-120 degree heat. The stove directly in front of me is a mithai ka chulha, or mud stove, made by the family of the cook at the guesthouse where I am staying. He brought the stove to the lab on the back of his bicycle.

The work being done here on stoves is incredible, and much of the intuitive creativity goes to Lokendra-ji, below:


I cannot help but be overwhelmed imagining the occupational exposure that these cookstove pioneers accrue on a daily basis – how unfair that from their sincere efforts to reduce indoor air pollution for millions across India they themselves inhale such a significant dose.

And finally – the first picture showed but could never do justice to the instrument in my hand – a cell phone (or a “mobile”, as it is called here). This normal mobile has a program designed by Nexleaf Analytics that records the temperature every few seconds using a temperature sensor attached through the headphone jack. “It’s a kind of magic”. 

We are deploying these sensors throughout our study to test (over 24 hours) how often the stove was used. And once our intervention is complete, we’ll return to the same households to test how many adopted an improved cookstove and whether it has had an effect on the usage of their traditional cookstove.

Ultimately, this mobile device may become even more powerful – I hold in my hand a potential source for generating carbon credits for black carbon. If these phones can show a reduction is use of a traditional cookstove, this represents a similar reduction in black carbon released by the stove. If a household wirelessly uploads this data showing they are generating less black carbon, suddenly millions of poor households could be part of the carbon market, receiving payments (perhaps even in the form of cell phone minutes) for reduced stove emissions.

Though this laboratory is densely clouded with smoke, it’s illuminated by the light of possibility.

Exceeding Expectations

My teammate, roommate, Duke classmate (etc.) Alyssa just posted an excellent write-up of the actual status of our field work compared to theoretical expectations. Please check it out:

I thought I’d add a few of my own observations:

In Theory: We are staying in an AC room.
In Practice: We only have AC a few hours a night (if we are lucky), and a fan (if we are lucky).


In Theory:In case of a power outage, the building has a bank of batteries and an inverter, so that power will continue to be supplied to fans, lights, and the modem.

In Practice: The power is out so often that the bank of batteries is always running low (since it gets very little power to charge). Therefore, when the main power supply runs out the backup will follow after some time, leaving us to sweat (sometimes in darkness) and consider the meaning of still air.


In Theory: We are in India for field work, and will explore India on our days off.
In Practice: There has not been a single day off in one month.


In Theory: We ask a community questionnaire to the village leader, or pradhan, in every village or hamlet we visit. This allows us to understand infrastructure, nearby industries, and many other characteristics of a community rather than repeating these questions for each household.

In Practice: It can be hard to find the pradhan, or elected village leader. Instead, it is often necessary to group together several knowledgeable men in the community, frequently teachers (who laugh extensively about the fact that they are the most learned men in the community, including in English, but cannot understand a word of what you are saying). Also, they may not actually know anything about the village.


In Theory: I absolutely, positively love Indian food. I could eat it all the time and never get sick of it! In fact, I’ve never come close to getting sick of it on any previous trips to India, and miss it when I’m home (true).
in Practice: I got sick of having the same things for breakfast, lunch and dinner after about a week. Turns out that yellow dal, rice, roti, and some sort of veg actually can get old all by themselves.

Variety is priceless… particularly in the form of Honey Loops, my new favorite treat when I need variety. I’ve found a local shop with soymilk and the two together are unbeatable. Honey Loops are a somewhat less sweet and less-chemically colored version of Fruit Loops.


In Theory:
We are very well hydrated after drinking well over 5 liters of water a day
In Practice: Our urine is constantly a shade of dark yellow/brown that it has never been in the USA. I often go 8-9 hours without needing to use the restroom after being in the field and drinking this much water – we are sweating out almost every drop of the water we drink.


In Theory: 120 degrees is very hot.

In Practice: 120 degrees is like living inside of a hair dryer. You are being baked from the inside out. If there is any time during the day that I am not sweating, it is a rarity. This is not hot – this is like living in an inferno. Somehow, even in this heat, people spend hours a day cooking (top pic) and scientists we are working with spend long hours in an enclosed room testing stoves (bottom pic).



In Theory: Hats are a useful way to protect one’s face from the sun.

In Practice: Without this hat, I would be a burnt piece of matzoh.


In Theory: Peer reviewed publications explain the challenging living conditions and environmental concerns in developing countries like India.

In Practice: These are experiences for which there is no substitute.


Daily tales

There’s a reason I’ve barely been posting on this blog, and have only had 2 conversations with my parents and less than five with my sig oth. The reason is that I may be working harder that I’ve ever worked in my life, which is a bit remarkable. Wake up at 5:30, either go for short run/walk, or start working. Stop working for meals, and then keep working until sometime between 11pm and 1am. It’s grueling. Sometimes it’s made me quite sad, and sometimes I feel so much adrenaline and enthusiasm for the work that the entire day just flies by. I often feel sick of sitting, so the past few days I’ve gone out for a brief evening walk just to stretch my legs.

Vasu, Dave and I went to check out the local sewer. It’s apparently quite an attraction and a place the kids go to play. At dusk, it was curtained by mosquitoes and bats.


Vasu and I were not enjoying the incredible levels of smoke on the walk.


I wish I had time for a lot of things – exploring nearby Lucknow, reading, shopping for a few new outfits that I could keep cool in, cooking a bit, taking photos, blogging, and calling dear ones back home. But there’s tremendous pressure to do a million things and I’m trying my very hardest to keep up. I had to make the decision to work – and not think about everything else I could be doing.

A few other stores of somewhat amusing daily events:

It’s hot here – you’ve heard that before. Women must cover their entire legs in villages like mine – I know this. However, when I wake up at 5:30 every day to start working, I tend to work in my long shorts in the bedroom. I think they count as decent for around the house clothes (they come to the middle of my knees) and they are infinitely cooler than pants. However, I know they should NEVER be worn outside the house. One morning I was working hard in the bedroom and went upstairs to tell other teammates about something – and when I walked in the room (still early in the morning) the driver Dinesh was sitting there. There was such pure shock on his face. He got up and walked out of the room, and went to sit in the car because he was so shaken (as Vasu told me when I pushed her, sensing something was very wrong).

I felt horrible that I made him so uncomfortable – and worried that he’d hold my “indecency” against me. These calves, ankles, and knees are too much for Jagdishpur… sigh. 

IMG_2270(Men, on the other hand, can run around in skimpy shorts like these on the Muffin Man. Ram swears he would be laughed at if he wore them out of the house – but at least he can wear them around inside without making people flee!)


Thankfully, I think Dinesh has forgiven me, forgotten, or just filed the incident away in the catalogue of our oddities.



Vasu told us about about an Indian joke:

“Theres this popular saying… ‘You’re in heaven if you have an american salary, chinese food, european job, and an indian wife. You’re in hell if you have indian salary, european food, chinese job, and an american wife.’ The joke is that she would demand equal rights.”

“Well, that would be hell. Definitely.” – Alyssa

Well said, Alyssa. Indians definitely have a thing with Chinese food (or indo-chini as they call it, I think). It’s nothing like the chinese food I love back in the USA, which is surely nothing like authentic chinese food. Our favorite dish to order at the only restaurant near where we live is “Singapore Noodles”- a completely made up dish with nothing to do with Singapore consisting of stir fried ramen and veg (veg in this case = onion, chili, and some cabbage if you are lucky).

And an Indian wife is preferred because she is known to worship her husband as a god – we americans may not always be counted on to do the same (!).


“Is David a fighter?” the field boys ask. David bhaiya (David brother) as they call him is fit but slim with the look of someone who may have recently completed P90X. To them, he’s something magical. Part of it is because of the muscle-obsessed culture India is becoming (see this video proving my point, if you can handle it!). Part of it is also, I think, that he is American – and of course, part of it must be that he is friendly. Dave goes to play cricket with the field boys a few times a week – and I’m determined to join some day soon when I can find the time! I’ve now started calling dave “the fighter” in my best indian-english accent, and Ram posed with us Americans to prove the point.

IMG_2278-Now Ram’s back in Bhopal, Vasu has migrated to Delhi, and Omkar is our one remaining companion.

The fighters continue – we’re launching the survey in 2 days.

Training- in the field

After about a week of training in the TERI office, we took our selected team of enumerators to the field.

Here I am with some of them – imagine the heat! It was 115-120, and I quickly learned to bring about 4 liters of water to make it through the day. I don’t know what I would do without the hat you gave me, Mom! This thing is an absolutely lifesaver. In these villages, it is essentially a requirement to wear a kurta (long top) with a duperta (scarf over chest), or a sari. Men wear long pants and either long sleeve shirts or t-shirts (more casual). Village men also wear a dhoti (I forget what it is called up north, but that is the term for it in the south).


After being placed in a household by their supervisor, the enumerator begins the survey. On our first day we quickly realized some of the complications our study would face. If our enumerator was male, when we asked to speak with the primary cook, the head of household would reply something like “You want to speak with my woman?” And often forbid it. I sat in on many interviews where the primary cook sat next to the head of the household but didn’t speak, and the head of household answered the survey questions. (We record who is the respondent for each section.)  So, it was extra clear why we had initially wanted to use female enumerators.

They can talk to the cooks so easily. Several of our stars get along so well with them, speak in the village dialect, just plop right down on the floor next to them, etc.


We don’t take health measurements in the survey other than mid-upper arm circumference, which Asha is doing here.


Many times the giant extended family observes the interview. In this muslim village, household sizes were often above 18! Asha is in the center – this was her first interview, which took almost 3 hours. Now that she’s had much more experience, she can do it in one hour.


Here’s one of our male enumerators at work, showing a respondent one of the conjoint cards (used to help us understand their preference for different stove characteristics).



I love heading to the villages with the team. We all pack lunches (to save on transit time by eliminating the need for a lunch break) and come home covered in sweat and dust. Sitting for an hour or more for each interview in the heat just feeling sweat issuing from every pore isn’t pleasant, but I’m definitely getting used to it! And of course, it’s harder for the enums, who are busy trying to keep the household engaged and responsive.

IMG_2212When return to the office, after giving a debrief to the team, there’s only one thing we want – watermelon! I don’t have any good pictures of us eating watermelon because as soon as it is cut open we devour it (usually in one sitting). We leave the watermelon in the fridge while we’re in the field, so it’s the coolest treat possible in Jagdishpur.

As Vasu says, the watermelon keeps us all from going crazy out here! Life without it would be tough 🙂


What’s it like to prepare for a survey of 2,000 households in rural India? (Start with applying for funding, receiving it, and about a year of preparation work.)

Now, we’re in India with our field partner, TERI, preparing to launch the survey. TERI found and hired a team of enumerators, who will give the survey to the households. We initially hoped to hire a team of all female enumerators, since it will be easier for them to talk to the primary cooks in the household (and we want to ask the cooks lots of questions about stoves, cooking, health, etc.). However, it was pretty tough going. The women were trying hard, but we found many of them really struggled with understanding the survey. None of them have ever done survey work before, and I don’t think that any of them have ever held a job outside the home except for a few teachers.

One of our PI’s (who has run projects like this in dozens of countries) said that he’s never seen a group struggle so much. These women all have at least a high school diploma – but it was a bit heartbreaking to see how much they struggled.  


Due to these struggles, we had to let many of the team go, and we tried training a group of men. Educational and cultural disparities in India became sharply apparent – the men as a whole caught on more quickly, and are much more self-assured than the women. As one of our group commented – perhaps we should be doing work on female education in India rather than stoves :/ … there are so many worthy causes!


All of this took place in the TERI field office. With the AC going out many times throughout the day, outdoor temps above 115, and over 10 people in a small room, training was brutal at times!




After giving the women two rounds of written tests, and then men one round, we took the team to the field for three days of pre-testing. This was pretty intense – the survey is pretty long, since we planned to shorten it after learning what questions are the most important from pre-testing. The first surveys the team did took about two hours (and sometimes much longer). But after a few days, many could do them in an hour.

Coming up next, pictures of training in the field and an explanation of why I haven’t blogged more!

Alyssa included a picture of where we are in Uttar Pradesh, if you want to see approximately where we are (and check out the blog of one of my fellow field americans).