Skip to main content

Jaspal Sandhu, PhD, is an assistant adjunct professor in Community Health Sciences and a professor of practice at the Center for Excellence in Maternal, Child & Adolescent Health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. His research focuses on human-centered design for technology and service innovation in global public health. He is a founding partner at the Gobee Group, a firm that innovates for social impact globally; founder of Pink Box Stories, a documentary project; and founding faculty of the Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley.

Berkeley Public Health: What brought you to UC Berkeley?

Jaspal Sandhu: I came to Berkeley for my PhD in engineering in 2002. I wasn’t doing any public health work at the time. I had always trained and worked as an engineer until that point. I was doing applied artificial intelligence research at the human-machine interface, specifically in intelligent building systems.

During my second year of grad school, I had a chance to go to South India to check out the Aravind Eye Care System that is known for their high quality, high volume cataract surgeries. They fit people with eyeglasses, they deal with glaucoma, they manage the full spectrum of eye health. I had an opportunity to work with a couple of graduate students from different parts of campus in a research program that was being sponsored by the Haas School of Business. One of them was a colleague in public health. I had a background in manufacturing and product development and we worked with Aravind on global health and human-centered design.

That was a great summer. I came back and I was struck by the work. I saw a big opportunity to fight these complex problems in global health and human-centered design. I decided that that’s what I was going to do. But it’s a messier process, it took probably a year, maybe a year and a half to kind of get out of one thing and into another. I finished up grad school in 2008. And a couple of years later, I got a call from my mentor Nap Hosang, who is now retired Berkeley Public Health faculty. He asked if I’d be willing to come and teach a class on design. That was my reintroduction to the Berkeley ecosystem. He called me in late 2010 and I started teaching with him in 2011.

What are some of the most important things you’re working on now? 

On my mind now is a paper on how [public health] needs to proceed with human-centered design, especially in global health. Since the mid-2000s, we have been answering the same questions over and over. What is design? Why do we need it? What’s the unique value? Isn’t this the same thing that we’ve already been doing?

Now, we have hit an inflection point where we’ve realized that maybe we don’t need to answer those questions anymore. So now we can ask a second-order set of questions that are perhaps more useful. This effort that I’ve been a part of, called Design for Health, started back several years ago, in 2017. The idea was to bring together all of these various design practitioners from around the world.

It’s a mix of design companies, some of those are for-profit companies, some of them are nonprofits, they range from tiny to huge.  I don’t consider myself a public health researcher. I consider myself much more of a design practitioner. There are true academics who really study design in global health. There are folks inside large organizations, like large nonprofits, or in some cases, private companies, that are doing the work in global health and facilitating design. There are also people from the funding side, largely philanthropy, who are also pretty invested in design in global health. This has brought us all together, which is that’s not something you normally do. You don’t get together with your competitors to share information and plot together. But that’s essentially what this community is.

This whole journal issue that came out just earlier this year in Global Health Science and Practice, is the product of the conversation that we’ve been having internally for the last three years. It’s our attempt as a community to elevate the conversation and go to the next level.

You’re one of the founders of Gobee Group, a consulting firm that works at the intersection of technology and social impact. Can you tell us more about that?

We founded Gobee back in 2009. We’ve had a lot of different players involved with the company over that entire trajectory but we’ve always kept a pretty small and compact team. Over the years, Gobee has become more and more focused on human-centered design, and to an extent futures-thinking. I think something we realized long ago, during our earliest years, was that it’s not that hard to do design conceptually, like you can put the right teams together and you can train people on the skills. What’s hard is actually making design go in organizational environments. So that’s also been a big piece of what we’ve done.

You are also the founder of Pink Box Stories, a publication sharing stories of the Cambodian families behind California’s donut shops. Where did that idea come from? 

It struck me that there’s a unique donut culture out here in California and there’s a unique community supporting it – Cambodian Americans. I’m not Cambodian, my family’s Indian. We came here from the UK. Even though we’re different, there are elements of the same. After talking with one of my former Berkeley Public Health students, Michelle Sou, whose family had worked in the donut business, some ideas started percolating. We wanted to elevate these stories — stories about family donut businesses, immigrant-owned businesses, and tell this meta-story that this is a part of California culture. This is a part of California, modern California history. It should be known and celebrated within the community, but beyond the community as well, especially for other communities that might have resonance with it because they’re immigrants or because they have worked in the food industry or because there are donut shops everywhere.

You just finished up a five-year stint as the leader of the Fung Fellowship, which is a venture between UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership providing two-year fellowships to undergraduates that aim to advance in wellness technology, community outreach and cross-disciplinary learning, preparing students for careers as entrepreneurs, academics, and the private sector. How was that?

It was a lot of work but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The best thing, for me, was that when I stepped away from the program, not only did it continue to operate, it  thrived. I think I took it as far as it could have. Sometimes you’ve got to step out of the way for things to get even better. The students were amazing. They’re such a big part of why I ended up sticking around. It’s been special to see the program thrive and grow, even with the disruptions that COVID-19 brought along.