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Posted on May 30, 2014

A Sustainable Solution

In the developing world, the absence of affordable sanitary pads is more than a health and hygiene issue — it’s an economic and educational problem, too.

The solution to that problem is a cheap, sustainable, locally sourced sanitary pad. Researchers at NC State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with nonprofit partner Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), developed such a solution for deployment in Rwanda.

But Raleigh and Cambridge are a long way from the Rwandan capital of Kigali. It took a particular set of skills to cover the distance between success in the lab and results in the field, skills that 32-year-old NC State junior Tyson Huffman acquired as a Marine, a construction worker, a farmer, a restaurant manager and a process engineer for a paper mill.

“He’s a prototypical example of ‘think and do.’” — Med Byrd, NC State paper scientist, on Tyson Huffman.

For most of the last year, Huffman has been in Kigali, leading the effort to build a facility that can manufacture 1,000 sanitary pads a day.
“This guy went over there and did what I don’t think any faculty member or any student could have done,” said Med Byrd, associate professor of paper science and engineering at NC State. “In the space of about three months, with no tools, he took them from two machines in the middle of a parking lot to a dedicated crew making fluff pulp.”

That pulp is the heart of the project. In 2009, SHE founder Elizabeth Sharpf and a group of MIT students set out to find a sustainable, inexpensive way to make sanitary pads from agricultural byproducts local to Rwanda. They developed a two-step process for turning banana fibers and water into a fluffy pulp and making pads from that pulp. The chemical-free material is more absorbent than anything commercially available, Byrd said.

SHE turned to NC State to take the project from the research lab to the real world. Textile and biomedical engineering professor/director of Global Health Initiatives in the Office of International Affairs Marian McCord, Byrd and others refined the process and then sought someone who could go to Rwanda in 2013 and scale the project up. Several recent chemical engineering graduates applied, but none of them had Huffman’s unique skills.

“He’s a prototypical example of ‘think and do,’” Byrd said.

Huffman has served as a “MacGyver-in-residence,” said Connie Lewin, director of marketing and strategic partnerships for SHE. When the disappearance of Huffman’s luggage on the way to Rwanda deprived the project of needed washers, he replaced them with bottle caps. He designed a process that sped fluff-drying time by 400 percent and worked with his team to build a system for recycling wastewater.

“He’s creating new tools and spending time with our staff there so when he leaves they’re fully equipped and empowered to run the production facility on their own,” Lewin said.

NC State junior Tyson Huffman (right) and a team member repair equipment at a facility producing sanitary pads in Rwanda.

NC State junior Tyson Huffman (right) and a team member repair equipment at a facility producing sanitary pads in Rwanda. (Photo by Huffman)

Eventually, SHE plans to manufacture 250,000 pads a year and distribute them cheaply to local schools, Lewin said. That could be a game-changer for Rwandan girls and women. On average, a Rwandan woman loses $215 in annual income due to work days missed during menstruation, according to SHE estimates. The average Rwandan earns $578 a year, according to the United Nations.

Success would also create economic prosperity in Kigali. Huffman manages a team of 12 Rwanda employees, and they’ll continue producing pads after he leaves. The potential for a lasting, sustainable impact drew Huffman to the SHE project.

“The word ‘sustainable’ has become a buzzword and is thrown around too loosely,” he said. “I don’t really believe in charity. Throwing money at a problem is certainly not sustainable. However, creating a business employing local people, using agricultural waste and breaking even is the definition of sustainable.”

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Posted on Oct 21, 2013

Grand Finale

Editor’s note: This story is from Red and White for Life, the NC State Alumni Association’s blog. For information on how to join the Alumni Association, visit

While Justin LeBlanc didn’t come out on top in the final round of “Project Runway,” he earned a standing ovation Oct. 17 from hundreds of students, faculty and fans who gathered in the Hunt Library auditorium to watch the final episode of the reality show.

LeBlanc, an assistant professor at the College of Design, was one of four contestants who survived from the original 16 to make it to the runway of New York Fashion Week. In the finale broadcast, LeBlanc presented a 10-piece collection that included a stunning, full-length gown made of tiny pipettes (referred to on the show as test tubes) sewn onto mesh fabric, giving it the look of white fur.

LeBlanc’s theme for his collection was his transition from a deaf person to a hearing person (he received a cochlear implant when he was 18), and he used 3D printing to create neckpieces, belts and other accessories that were reminiscent of sound waves.

As Chancellor Randy Woodson congratulated LeBlanc on making it to the finals, he noted the choice of materials. “If it was made with 3D printing and test tubes, it had to be from NC State,” Woodson said.

Lope Max Diaz, a retired professor of art and design, remembers when LeBlanc took his studio class in fashion in 2008. At the time, LeBlanc was a senior in architecture, but when Diaz saw a dress he was designing for Art2Wear, he realized he had to speak up and told him, “Justin, you are a fashion designer.’’

Diaz said he encouraged LeBlanc to finish his architecture degree and then study fashion design. “After I told him that, I was freaked out—here was this senior and I was encouraging him to go into another field,’’ Diaz said at a pre-finale reception celebrating LeBlanc’s success.

At the Hunt Library viewing party, some technical glitches delayed the broadcast. But LeBlanc saved the day, setting up his laptop to Skype a broadcast of the show. “Some friends of mine in Chicago are having a party…..if you’ll be patient, we’ll ‘make it work,’” he told the crowd, borrowing a trademark phrase from the show’s mentor, Tim Gunn.

It did work—with a little ambient noise from the Chicago party (cheers for Justin, a dog barking) thrown in.

No one in the audience but LeBlanc and his family knew the outcome, and when Heidi Klum said the words, “Justin, you’re out,” there were collective sounds of disappointment and “Oh, no’’ from the crowd.

That immediately became applause and a standing ovation. LeBlanc, sitting in the front row with his family, turned around and blew kisses to the crowd.

What’s next? LeBlanc has already designed a tote bag in black and white featuring a stylized version of the American Sign Language sign for “I love you.” It’s available at

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Posted on Oct 10, 2013

Perfect Union

As it reopens over the next year and a half, Talley Student Union will give students a new place to learn by doing.

In the Talley Student Union, the university will have a campus hub where students learn to build community and collaborate, campus leaders said. Students will also develop skills there that they’ll need in their postgraduate careers.

“We’ve known for a long time that learning occurs in the classroom and outside the classroom,” said associate vice provost for student leadership and engagement Mike Giancola. “But the best of both those worlds is when you can connect the learning that goes on in the classroom with what goes on outside it.”

Talley Student Union will merge in-class and out-of-class learning, according to University Student Centers director Tim Hogan, by bringing together student groups, employing students to manage day-to-day operations, and working with academic departments to launch skill-building internships.

In developing the student building manager positions, “we attempt to mirror what we see in classroom projects teaching teamwork and leadership,” Hogan said. “Hopefully, that transitions students into the work world.”

Leadership is the most important skill Phillip Hardy learned as a student building manager. The May 2013 graduate in parks, recreation and tourism management remembers evacuating students during a fire drill on his first day working without a trainer.

“I had to learn on the fly how to keep calm and be able to direct people,” said Hardy, who now works in shipping and receiving at the union. “It was exciting.”

Recent graduate Phillip Hardy

As a University Student Centers building manager, 2013 parks, recreation and tourism grad Phillip Hardy has learned leadership skills.

Students were as involved in shaping the new student union as they are in running it. The Student Centers board of directors helped determine how to finance it and has been instrumental in designing and outfitting Talley Student Union, said Wesley Lo, the board’s president.

The first phase of the new union, which includes lounge and gaming areas, information desks, four restaurants and a market with a bakery and ice cream shop, will open at 4 p.m. on Oct. 23.

Later phases, scheduled for completion in January 2014 and spring 2015, will complete Talley’s transition from student center to student union. More than a name change, the transformation reconnects the facility to a campus tradition more than 60 years old.

NC State’s first student union — today’s Erdahl-Cloyd Wing at D.H. Hill Library — bears the name of the university’s first union director: Gerald Erdahl. In the 1930s, Erdahl was a student of Porter Butts, widely regarded as the “father of the college union movement” in the United States. Erdahl led NC State’s student union in the tradition of early-19th-century British college unions, which were the centers of student and academic life.

“The idea of the union, it’s more about the collaboration that’s going on inside the building,” said Kevin Rollinson, a senior business administration major and member of the Student Centers board of directors. “It’s where the building falls into the background.”

Related Information


Talley Student Union is the hub of University Student Centers, a community that supports student service, leadership and expression.

When it fully opens in spring 2015, Talley Student Union will bring together some of the university’s largest, most active student organizations, including Student Government, the Union Activities Board, Greek Life, the Women’s Center, and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Center.

The Center for Student Leadership, Ethics and Public Service, Multicultural Student Affairs and other student-support organizations will also live at the new student union as part of a Student Involvement Center that will assist student organizations large and small.

Hogan hopes the new student union will become a place where students and faculty meet and share ideas informally. Contact with faculty outside the classroom is central to student success, Hogan said.

“An easy way for a student to have out-of-the-classroom contact is to go to a faculty member’s office hours,” he said. “But if you can run into a faculty member over a cup of coffee in the student union, it’s a more comfortable, more relaxing environment.”

“It’s just going to be a crossroads for so much of what the students do on campus,” Giancola said. “And now they’ll have a state-of-the-art facility to do it in.”

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