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Alumni Update: Logan Blakeslee, Class of 2016, makes a difference on other side of the globe

Logan Blakeslee, one of the Elizabeth High School’s 2016 valedictorians, works to change lives halfway around the world. 

The driving force behind Mongolian Prosthetics, he created his own improbable path and earned a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to provide 3D-printed arms and hands for disabled people who would otherwise never have access to such life-changing assistance.

Logan BlakesleeBlakeslee’s path, which included a 36-hour bus ride across Mongolia’s countryside just for a volunteer opportunity, started in Elizabeth, expanded because of his own interest in international travel, then came together with a realization that his own aptitudes and interests can make a difference.

His mother, Kim Kieca, is the advanced math teacher and athletic director at Legacy Academy, where Blakeslee attended from kindergarten through middle school. His early interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) was nurtured at Legacy and at home, then further advanced at EHS. 

After successful years in Elizabeth classrooms, Blakeslee headed to Colorado State University, where he earned dual degrees in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. Those led to a job in the private sector for a short time, but all the while, something was gnawing at him. 

A study abroad program in the spring of his junior year gave him a taste of living amid and learning from other cultures. That, plus traveling with his family while growing up, prompted Blakeslee to make plans to spend every free moment and extra dollar on travel.

After a year, Blakeslee left his job at a major semiconductor manufacturer in Stamford, Connecticut, so he could return to Colorado as his home base and build out his global exploration plans. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed them but eventually, he was able to follow through with his intent to travel. 

Globe-trotting toward new goals

The original seed of his interest in Mongolia actually came from a Windows background image that captivated his attention. “In high school it came up on my laptop, and I just started Googling about where that picture was taken and … and I ended up realizing I really wanted to go check it out,” Blakeslee said.

Along with Mongolia, he visited Iceland, Hungary, South Korea and Japan. But his determination to get to Mongolia required patience and connections. 

“My aunt’s co-worker’s nephew married a girl from Mongolia, which is how I knew that he had a connection,” Blakeslee said. “He connected me with a CU professor named Dr. (Will) Taylor, who is doing glacial ice melt archaeology out in Mongolia and just happened to be there the same time that I was.” 

Blakeslee had not worked with a travel agent and had no specific connections in the country. “I just showed up there without any trips booked or anything like that,” he said. “I just had some sites I wanted to see and (would figure out) how I could get there.”

His contact put Blakeslee in touch with Taylor, “and basically I was like, ‘I don't have any plans; I'd be happy to volunteer,’” Blakeslee said. “He was kind of unsure, not knowing me, and said, ‘If you can meet us out in Bayan-Ölgii, then we'll see if we have a spot for you on the project.’” 

Blakeslee said the 36-hour bus ride from the capital Ulaanbaatar, or UB, was “quite a life experience,” with its hairpin curves on mountain trails and vast, grassy steppe on a bus with no restroom. “Mongolia has just got a lot of space, and … a lot of dirt roads,” he said. “It's just a long way – a majority of the way across the country – but I got out there and ended up joining the project.”

Ger in MongoliaWhile he was there, he lived in a ger (pronounced “gear”), which is similar to a yurt. His newly found group bought a sheep to eat from a local family and washed their hands in a river. “It was pretty rustic,” Blakeslee said. “We were hiking up this mountain to pick up artifacts that had melted out of a glacier. Two-thousand-year-old arrows – intact – would just be melted out of the ice where (ancient Mongolians) had hunted there.” Here’s a report from Taylor on his Mongolian research.

Formulating his own Fulbright plan

It was in that somewhat surreal setting of several American archaeologists gathered together in a remote Mongolian ger where Blakeslee was encouraged to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship. Taylor, “who is now my really good friend,” and others who had all previously earned the Fulbright, helped him put together his application.

Fulbright Scholarships are funded by the U.S Department of State to foster cross-cultural collaboration and exchange. It’s a coveted and competitive funding program which supports major university research projects around the globe that often yield medical and technological breakthroughs, business startups, and expanded research collaboration with other universities, business partners and nonprofit organizations.

As Blakeslee’s time in Mongolia was coming to an end, the deadline for that year’s Fulbright funding applications was just about a month away. His next stop was South Korea, but his agenda had changed. “When I got to Korea, I basically just applied for the Fulbright from gaming internet cafes which don't have (Microsoft) Word or anything, but you can access Google Docs, which is how I ended up doing the application,” he said. “It was pretty surreal to be sitting there typing away my Fulbright application while everyone's playing League of Legends around me. I'm sure I got a lot of weird looks in there.”

For the Fulbright, along with an extensive application, Blakeslee needed three Mongolian affiliates and letters of recommendation from people in the U.S. Reaching out for Mongolian affiliates was challenging but not impossible. Blakeslee said the nation is a bright example of a young democracy, and people there are open to international partnerships.

Understanding Mongolia’s culture and progress

Currently landlocked and bordered by China and Russia, Mongolia has a long, colorful history. In the 13th century, Ghengis Khan had made it the largest contiguous land empire in history. His grandson Kublai Khan conquered China. In the 17th century, Mongolia was absorbed into China’s Qing dynasty. Mongolia achieved independence for a brief time in the early 20th century after the Qing dynasty fell, only to be absorbed by the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Mongolia was again independent in 1990 with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and it has been a remarkably stable democracy for more than two decades. Its exports of coal and aluminum are stable, and the nation is free to work closely with Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. along with its powerful neighbors. Blakeslee noted that English is the official second language in Mongolia, and it hosts visiting scientists from all over the globe. 

“There's also a lot of researchers that come from places like Russia and China, and it's a safe place, I think, for a lot of those researchers to interact who might not otherwise,” he said. “which is pretty awesome.”

The word Blakeslee returned to often when explaining his view of Mongolia is “idealistic.” He gave an example of outcry from several months ago about the mining industry not receiving a suitable amount of profits from large exports of natural resources. He noted that rather than the polarized posturing that Americans are so familiar with, hundreds of thousands of Mongolian citizens turned out for completely peaceful demonstrations. “People there really believe that their interaction with the political system and their individual contributions to Mongolia's future are going to make a difference,” he said.

Mongolia’s growing health care system is widely dispersed, with many gaps across the country where medical care simply is not available in remote areas. Blakeslee first looked at that problem and realized part of the issue is simply logistics, which isn’t his speciality. But biomedical and mechanical engineering are, and he wanted to direct his career path in a way that would help. So he dug deeper into the challenges faced by Mongolian people who live far away from medical facilities and he found, in publications from several credible sources working in the country, “disability – and specifically prosthetics and access to prosthetics – is a challenge in Mongolia.”

The country is developing quickly, but half the population lives in UB, and the focus is on big questions about creating a stable democracy when bordered by vast world powers. Fewer people were focused on the smaller-scale questions that affect Mongolian citizens’ day-to-day lives, especially the relatively few pastoralists living in the vast countryside.

prosthetic handBlakeslee learned there is one prosthetics factory in Mongolia, and it makes devices comparable to what would cost between $10,000 and $20,000 in the U.S. The universal healthcare system that exists in Mongolia does not provide enough support for the majority of Mongolians to afford those top-quality prosthetics. “Some can, and it's good that they have that option, and I think it's growing,” Blakeslee said, “But the only other option that most people seem to have, if they're missing a limb, is just a resin-cast, plastic prosthetic from China, with no articulated parts. You just tape it to the end of your limb.” 

He also noted that those resin prosthetics have a horrible smell, too. But many opt for them over nothing because in Mongolia, there is still a stigma around disability. Blakeslee said hard numbers are difficult to find because research has shown that the disabled community is vastly undercounted in Mongolia’s census process. “A lot of people with disabilities – mental and physical – are left off the census. Not reported and just kind of not seen by society all that often.” 

The reasons are unclear to Blakeslee. Maybe it’s partly because of generations of cultural tradition and maybe it’s partly a leftover effect of Soviet rule, but even though family bonds are strong, and there are no major issues with disabled children being abandoned, they still are not afforded the same opportunities as others for education or office jobs. 

3D printing body-part replacements

When Blakeslee was in college, he learned a lot about 3D printing and some innovative nonprofits that have used 3D printers to create “remarkably effective prosthetics for folks, specifically upper body.” 

He said 3D printing lower-body prosthetics is more difficult because they have to be load bearing, so a lot of the work that has been done for printable prosthetics has focused on arms and hands.

“And I figured, ‘I like 3D printing, it seems like there's a need; this is something I feel qualified to do,’” he said.

The first stage of the Fulbright-funded project, which Blakeslee began when he went back to Mongolia in March, was to research the prevalence, common causes, and ability to access prosthetic limbs among people who live in remote parts of the country. 

He expected some of that to be relatively easy when working with healthcare facilities to send out electronic surveys. “It’s surprising to see someone on their horse and on their phone, but it was super common,” Blakeslee said. Because the country has such wide open areas with so few trees, cell-phone signals reach quite far and are quite strong.

After traveling to various health centers around the country, Blakelee’s next step is to identify potential candidates for prosthetic limbs, then get a workshop up and running to print the limbs. 

3D scanner-tech company Peel 3D generously donated a scanner for Blakeslee to use to scan residual limbs and “create a very custom-fit, comfortable socket for these prosthetics – which, if you look at the statistics on why people don’t use their prosthetics, 80% of it has to do with the fit not being good.”

Blakeslee estimated that, once the workshop is up and running, people will be able to have a prosthetic produced in less than two days and for less than $50 in material costs. Labor has a cost, he noted, but he hopes to have volunteers as he launches the first workshop at the American Center for Mongolian Studies. The center, being located in the middle of UB, will be not only where the machines will be located, but it will also provide a constant stream of interested parties. “I'm hoping that'll give it a really good chance to survive past when I leave the country,” Blakeslee said.

The Oddariya Foundation, an NGO focused on a wide range of health solutions for Mongolia, is sponsoring Blakeslee’s visa for the project. Fulbright Scholarships typically provide funding for projects to last 10 months. One of his other affiliates is the Mongolian University of Life Sciences, and Blakeslee noted that there are five or six universities in UB that have some sort of STEM programs. He will speak to classes at each and try to sign up students to be volunteers and, likely, find his successor. “I'm not overconfident enough to think that there's not some Mongolian student who's going to take my idea and make it five times better,” he said.

3D printerProving the concept is what makes Blakeslee the most nervous about the entire project, but if he’s successful, the idea of setting up a 3D-printing prosthetics workshop should be simple enough to replicate all over the world, benefiting hundreds of thousands of people. 

“Less than $50 knowledge-and-material cost, even in Mongolia, that's doable,” Blakesless said. “It's one of those things that's like, ‘Well then why doesn't everybody and why shouldn't everybody have something like that?’”

He sees no reason his concept shouldn't serve as a template for similar workshops and efforts in other countries. With a $500 3D printer, some basic hardware, screws, fishing line and a few other things, “you can make hundreds of prosthetics for hundreds of people,” he said.

Designing the prosthetic requires a level of expertise, but even that taps into crowdsourced knowledge. “I’m using the template of a prosthetic that was designed by a company called e-NABLE, and their goal is to create 3D-printed prosthetics, and I’ve modified it a bit” – something that’s especially necessary for Mongolian users when winter temperatures reach minus-40 or minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Plastics usually don’t respond well to that, so Blakeslee has to engineer a modified solution. 

Always thinking about the “why”

When someone walks away from a good job – and 75% of the salary they were making – to go to the other side of the globe and help people, an obvious question is “why?”

Blakeslee started to list all the teachers who inspired him at Legacy and EHS but noted he should be careful because he didn’t want to leave anyone out. Thinking back, he said EHS was a supportive environment with and for students, noting that everyone got along. “I felt like Elizabeth was a really good place to explore,” he said. “You can be a soccer player, a valedictorian, go to a thespian conference in Denver, and be in the Technology Student Association – for which I really should credit Mr. (Jon) Taylor, in terms of making me into an engineer.

“I always say credit goes to my parents, my family, friends, and all the people that I surrounded myself with,” Blakeslee said, noting that he had the privilege of traveling a lot as he grew up.

“I think the more of the world that I've seen, the more I've realized that people are just people,” he said. “Everyone's just trying to live their happiest version of life in whatever circumstances they're in. 

“There's something about being a global citizen – and especially the way that people in Mongolia approach their country and feel this real sense of empowerment to make things better just by their individual contribution. If people who grew up in circumstances that are very, very different from how I grew up can feel that way, I might as well put my best foot forward and try to do the same thing.” 

He admitted that, yes, there's the aspect of his love of traveling and exploring, too. “The idea of going to live in Mongolia for a year just sounds great – sounds like a great adventure. But part of me thinks that there are other opportunities that will come out of this. I'm not doing this to make money but I also think that there's a way to follow your passion … and still make a living, make a career.”

Blakeslee’s progress can be followed on his Mongolian Prosthetics website, his Facebook page and Instagram page. In fact, because his Fulbright Scholarship requires him to track the effectiveness of his outreach and work, following him on social media is one of the best ways to support his work. The more exposure he can document for the project, the better the chances he'll be able to land additional sponsorships.   

All accompanying photos are courtesy of Blakelee's Mongolian Prosthetics Facebook page.