Written by Joe O’Donnell
Photo by Beau Gustafson
When Karim and Henna Budhwani first saw Birmingham, they saw it as a land of opportunity. An accomplished couple with two small children (twin boys), the Budhwanis brought a bountiful energy and startlingly successful resumes to bear on their new hometown. “Birmingham is a naturally beautiful land of opportunity—from green roofs and innovation hubs to a tier 1 research university coupled with great schools, culture, dining, and mild commute times—making Birmingham ideal for work-life balance and success,” Karim says.
Karim is CEO-Scientist of elixir international—a company he co-founded to help companies find software-based solutions to their most common problems while reducing their environmental footprint—and serves as a lecturer at the University of Alabama’s School of Business and Information Systems. He has served as Ambassador of Trade for Alabama on key trade missions to India, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia. Born in India and educated in the U.S., Karim received his Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude in Computer Science, Economics, and Business Administration from Coe College in Iowa and later his Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from UAB in 2015. Remarkably, he is currently also pursuing dual PhDs—or, as he refers to it, a PhD2—in Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) and Biomedical Engineering (BME) with a focus in Nanomedicine at UAB. He would be the first person in UAB history to graduate with simultaneous dual PhDs.
Meanwhile, the scope of work and professional recognition achieved by Dr. Henna Budhwani—who serves as assistant professor and director of Undergraduate Education in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy; and deputy director of the Sparkman Center for Global Health—easily rival those of her husband, making the pair a true global power couple (and, one can imagine, making for some interesting dinner-table conversation). With a PhD in Medical Sociology and an MPH in Health Care Organization and Policy from UAB, she works closely with community partners in the United States and abroad who are interested in improving health outcomes through scholarship and public health practice. Her research interests include health disparities, with an emphasis on immigrant and minority health, and international health, specifically in the areas of reproductive health and health behaviors.
Prior to joining UAB in July 2013, Henna worked and volunteered in East Africa and the Middle East in program implementation, monitoring and evaluation to assist international NGOs reach vulnerable populations and assess the impact of their interventions. Henna has worked domestically, most recently with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama and its subsidiary Cahaba Safeguard Administrators.
“Being situated in the UAB Sparkman Center for Global Health affords me innumerable opportunities to make a positive impact through scholarship, teaching, and public health practice,” Henna says. “I was recently awarded a contract to support the development of population-size estimates of groups at high risk for HIV infection in six eastern Caribbean islands. Our findings will inform policy makers and public health practitioners who seek to halt the spread of HIV in the Caribbean. I’m also working on a study examining family planning gaps in the Cameroon, a couple of studies on the health care needs of trans-gender persons in the Dominican Republic, an exploratory study of Muslim women’s health in the United States, and an implementation science project in Jamaica.”
Though she leads life-changing work focused on vulnerable populations throughout the world, Henna is equally focused on her work at home—which includes inspiring her students to give back to the community, as well. “I find teaching thoroughly fun,” she says. “As someone who works with students, I feel it is imperative that the younger generation understands that with the awesome privilege of education comes the immense responsibility to leave the world a better place. This emphasis on the development of civil society will not only benefit our friends in other nations, but will also benefit us right here at home—in Birmingham. In fact, we’re already seeing the positive impact of UAB graduates’ commitment to improving the lives of others. The revitalization of our community is occurring because certain people, some of whom may be reading this article, are committed to making Birmingham extraordinary. The growth of Birmingham is occurring across sectors—all over the metropolitan area—and I am excited to be able to contribute to this development by educating the current generation that will continue this progress and take it to the next level.” Last November, Henna was honored with the Newcomer Award at the 2016 Vulcan Community Awards for her impact on the Birmingham community.
Henna was born in Chicago, the child of immigrants. “I was born poor, and I was raised lower-middle class/middle class. Minority health and related, global health, wasn’t a career path I decided upon after taking a brilliantly motivating undergraduate course on the plight of those in poverty,” she says. “Minority health and global health are reflections of my world.” She started college at just 16 and graduated with a BS in Biology. “Because I barreled through undergraduate, I was sure that I wasn’t going to return to graduate school. My first job after graduation was with a marketing firm. One of my clients was ESPN, which was hilarious, because I knew and still know nothing about sports. I moved to Birmingham for a job, but if you ask Karim, he will tell you it was for him (there may be a pinch of truth in that), and along the way, due to boredom, decided to take an online class in (I kid you not) Death and Dying.
“I did well in it and was recruited into UAB’s Medical Sociology doctoral program where I established a research agenda in minority health. During this time, because of my involvement with national and international NGOs, I was invited to work, consult, and volunteer across the globe—Kenya, Tanzania, Syria, and Tajikistan, to name a few countries. Some may find the two paths—minority health in the United States and global health—distinct, but I do not. The focus regardless of whether the research is being done here or elsewhere is always about improving the well-being of vulnerable populations.”
Henna’s work connects with the widest world imaginable, and she would not have it any other way.
“We cannot become a country of science-denying isolationists,” Henna says. “We have too much to offer to humanity. Of course, we need to ‘take care of things at home,’ but the world is no longer a compilation of fragmented landmasses defined only by name and geographic borders. The United States is not homogenous; 30 to 40 percent of Americans identify as a racial or ethnic minority. Every semester I complete an activity with undergraduate students about their perceptions of the world. They learn that about 60 percent of the world’s population is Asian, and only a third of the world’s population identifies as Christian. The world, in its entirety, doesn’t look like what most of us view as reality or truth. Americans comprise merely four to five percent of the global population, but we are home to the world’s wealth and intelligentsia.
“With such privilege, significant health disparities still persist, with the most disadvantaged amongst us being racial and ethnic minorities,” she continues. “Thus it is necessary for policy makers and advocates to understand that ensuring stability, which includes access to basic education and health in low- to middle-income nations as well as in poorer communities in the United States, is in our nation’s best interest. I know this is a challenge, and I understand there are those who feel that poverty affects those who deserve to be poor, but I am vehemently opposed to that perspective. I am blessed (or lucky depending on your world view) to have the life I live; one different decision along the way could have completely changed the trajectory of my life. Therefore, provision of a decent life with access to health care, food, and education, at home or in other countries, in addition to being a humanitarian commitment, is the right thing to do and will improve the health of communities far and wide.”
The breadth of Henna’s work and life experience is mirrored in Karim’s own journey and work.
Karim co-founded and serves as CEO of elixir international, a company striving toward its vision of a greener and more efficient world through innovative software solutions.
He is focused on a number of initiatives he sees as powerful movements toward better, healthier lifestyles, more rewarding work lives and the advance of knowledge. He sees it as a means of embracing—rather than fighting—inevitable (and not-so-distant) changes in our economy and society.
“Here’s a thought experiment for you,” Karim says. “Imagine all the businesses in the Birmingham area, from small retail establishments to the large utilities. Next, go one step further and imagine every job function at each of these firms. Now, here’s my question: What if I told you I have developed technology that could perform all those job functions for less than half the cost of labor?
“If you are the CEO of one of these firms, how would you respond? Would you replace your current associates with automation? If not, would a competitor wipe you out using the option you chose not to accept?
“Fortunately, you don’t have to make that decision today. But to not recognize this trend today—or defer shaping its landscape—would be dangerous. Because this decision will not come as a hypothetical sales question to us 30 years from now but will insidiously erode its way into society over the next 30 to 60 years,” Karim says.
“Look, we already have machines co-writing pop songs, newspaper and magazine edits, completing our sentences and questions as we search for information, driving vehicles, and so on. Essentially, every repetitive task that we do, machines can do better. So, as an example, with driverless vehicles sweeping society over the next five to 10 years, what happens to all the light delivery and mass transit drivers—including the newly minted Uber drivers? As you can imagine, the consequences can be disastrous. But these same challenges can be opportunities and, as CEOs, it is up to us to ensure that these translate into opportunities, that no one is left behind. In fact, we must ensure that every step of the way, opportunities inch out challenges. Oh, and UBI (Basic Income), absent a self-worth component, is a worthless strategy—at least in my opinion—to address this,” he says.
The preceding thoughts could easily be interpreted as the challenge of our lifetimes and the life spans of our children and grandchildren. How will our worth be determined in the decades to come?
Is the answer to this conundrum steam? Not the steam that drove the first industrial revolution, but STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math).
“Just yesterday I saw a piece in Quartz quoting Microsoft’s Satya Nadella talking about the impact of the printing press on books, noting that before the press, the world had about 30,000 books; 50 years after the printing press: 12 million books!” Karim says. “I think a much bigger transformation is at hand in the next 30 to 60 years. Many in education are now pushing STEM—Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math—aggressively, and I respect that and concur and support their push. However, I think there is a greater opportunity here. Using the printing press analogy, by only focusing on STEM, we may be preparing the next generation to build better printing presses. But, what about the capacity to go from 30,000 to 12 million books? After all, what good is the best press without content that is worthy of print? Content such as this discussion!”
Hence, Karim’s push for STEAM.
“STEAM is all things STEM but with a deliberate, nuanced emphasis on leadership, ideation, ethics, philosophy, physical and social sciences, fine arts, empathy, and balance. See, if machines are better than us at doing repetitive tasks, isn’t it reasonable to estimate that with the aid of AI, many of the STEM tasks will be delegated to machines over the next decades? Would it not be better then, to integrate STEAM today in educational platforms designed to prepare the next generations for the knowledge society of tomorrow? In my opinion, to leave this world better than we inherited, we need to STEAM into the future,” Karim says.
One of the other interests Karim is pursuing is nanomedicine. “With nanomedicine, we hope to bring the advantages of ‘zooming in’ to medicine from at least two different angles: bench and bedside,” he explains. “From a bench or lab standpoint, we can build more effective disease and organ models which would not only help us gain deeper insights into diseases and the mechanisms by which they progress, but also evaluate the efficacy of new therapies and treatments. From a bedside or clinical perspective, new treatment options including targeted delivery using tiny packages—microbubbles or nanoparticles—can dramatically improve efficacy while reducing harmful side effects. And these are just a couple of quick examples of how the ‘zooming in’ afforded by nanomedicine can impact the quality of lives of millions of patients around the world. This is also very exciting for folks spearheading global health initiatives,” Karim says, with a wink to Henna.
Leaving the world better than they found it seems to be a recurring theme in the life and work of Karim and Henna Budhwani. And that world includes their adopted home here in Birmingham.
“We love so much about Birmingham,” Henna says. “We’re members of the Birmingham Zoo and the McWane Science Center. We’re patrons of the Birmingham Museum of Art. The boys are quite fond of the Vulcan Museum and Park and Railroad Park. Our favorite family friendly restaurants are Davenport’s Pizza Palace, the Taqueria Juarez taco truck in Vestavia, Chez Lulu, and Blue Pacific Thai in the Hoover Food Mart (gas station). We often drop into Karim’s lab on the weekends, so the boys can experience science and understand that it is microscopic innovation that can lead to unprecedented progress, often in the most unpredictable ways. I was a gamer in my younger years (think Dungeons and Dragons), so we’ve all embraced playing Pokémon Go around town. There is just so much to do and experience that no two weekend days ever look the same.”
But as any scientist might, the two are also energetically focused on making home better.
“We need more civic and industry leaders to re-engage in scientific research or otherwise build and engage in multi-directional wormholes to bridge knowledge deficits before they turn into dangerous chasms. Climate change is a simple example of this phenomenon. We need much more openness, not just in communication but in engagement and partnership so that the new knowledge that we create, we create together and on a strong shared foundation. And while this may seem very ambitious, I’m encouraged by programs like UAB’s Discoveries and ACHE’s EPSCoR which are specifically designed to bring people together to further this engagement.”
“Let me offer some perhaps simpler suggestions,” Henna says. “I’d love the implementation of a mass transit system that would connect the suburbs into the Birmingham metropolitan area. I’d like to see a more robust metropolitan-wide recycling program that would include glass recycling. More sidewalks would be great. If there was a way to socially link communities across the metropolitan area, wouldn’t that be fantastic? I also believe the community would benefit from greater private-public-academic partnerships. Now if I had a real magic wand, and the laws of nature and physics were nullified, I’d also improve Birmingham’s air quality and address its environmental challenges,” she says.
They don’t have magic wands, but Karim and Henna Budhwani do have energy and knowledge. And that is a pretty good start.