Forever Duke Q&A: Jennifer Farrell '04

In conversation with Sterly Wilder '83, associate vice president for alumni affairs
July 28, 2015

Farrell created a new emergency response app called CriticaLink after living in Bangladesh, where there are 160 road fatalities for every two in the United States. The app allows first responders to connect with doctors and trained health-care volunteers to address road emergencies in countries that lack an ambulance response system. It won Bangladesh’s 2015 National Mobile App Award in the Health and Environment category. In May, Farrell was in Nepal training volunteer first responders when the first of the country’s two earthquakes hit.

What inspired you to launch CriticaLink?

The idea for CriticaLink started in 2012. I connected with a trauma surgeon at Tulane University, where I was attending medical school. We went to Bangladesh for a month and met a man named Korvi, who did his law degree in London and came back to Bangladesh at twenty-two to move to the slums and start schools. He has 20,000 youth volunteers and eighteen schools. We trained a bunch of his young volunteers as well as some medical students and doctors in advanced trauma. I had a couple of kids ask me: “What do I do now? I’ve learned all of this first aid. Am I just waiting around for an accident to happen?” I thought that was a good point. We have to connect the people. It’s not enough to just train them. There is no infrastructure for emergency response. So we will have to build it. I applied for a Fulbright to create CriticaLink, and we launched the app and the service.

How does CriticaLink work? Let’s say you had an accident. Somebody could call a number like they would call 911— or if they had the app, they could snap a picture and send it to our CriticaLink server. Anyone in the area who is a trained first responder will get a mobile alert, and if they’re free, they go. I train the first responders. Once they pass all their certifications, then we put them in the system.

You recently were in Nepal during the earthquake. Tell us what you learned about CriticaLink’s potential to help during a disaster.

I went to Nepal to see whether we could expand there. I wanted to do some trainings with Sherpas and some of the medical schools in Kathmandu and Pokhara. What we saw was utter devastation. I felt very helpless. The promising thing about CriticaLink and its potential for use during future disasters is that the mobile technology was working in Nepal after the earthquake. We had some mobile technology when we didn’t have electricity or water and the aftershocks were still going. Mobile technology is something we need to harness during a disaster. Everybody has a mobile phone. If you have a way to connect them through an app, through a system, it is possible to help during a disaster. The Nepali had cell service up and running within three days—before USAID got there.

How did your Duke experience prepare you for your journey into medicine?

I had an amazing Duke experience. I was involved in Duke EMS, a student team ofcertified emergency medical technicians, which was something that I really enjoyed a lot. I was on the squad the whole time and crew chief. We got our first vehicle my senior year. We used to get rides with the Duke University police department. I also went to South Africa with the SOL Service Opportunities in Leadership program, and I was teaching EMTs. I was working at the Amy Biehl Foundation on a Fulbright scholarship. I ended up writing a curriculum for first aid and health that we implemented in fifteen schools in the townships there. Ten years later, here I am in a project in Bangladesh on a Fulbright scholarship and feeling very tied back to my experience with the SOL program.

What is your advice to Duke students and alumni who would like to pursue medicine and entrepreneurship?

We have this extraordinary network that I had not previously tapped into. When I needed a lawyer, I got a lawyer in a day. When I needed an accounting firm or donors or press, the Duke community really solidified behind me, which has given us the ability to make such huge progress in such a short amount of time. Ask for the things you need. I plan to return the favor. I’ve got a Duke junior, Tina Chen, coming to intern for me this summer. She’s a computer-science student, and she’s also on the Duke EMS team. She contacted me and said, “Can I come do research on the CriticaLink app and user experience?” I was thrilled.