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Undergrads put bioengineering skills to work on global health problems

Asplund_Ecuador It started as an assignment for BIOE undergraduate student Karin Asplund, given by her faculty mentor, Dan Ratner--Asplund was to take note of health problems she saw while on an internship in Ecuador and think about possible bioengineering solutions. The assignment turned into much more after she reported her findings to her UW colleagues last year, when her fellow BIOE undergrads decided to start a student group devoted to using their bioengineering skills to help address global health problems.

The students started a group called Bioengineers Without Borders (BWB), patterned loosely on Doctors Without Borders and Engineers Without Borders, two organizations in which people put their medical or engineering training to work helping poor and underserved populations around the world.

The UW’s BWB group includes nearly 40 undergraduates, mostly from Bioengineering but also from Electrical Engineering and Physics, who volunteer in their free time to work on projects related to global health. Ratner, an assistant professor of bioengineering, serves as the group’s faculty advisor.

“We set out to find ways we could help address issues in the developing world using bioengineering skills we have, even as undergrads,” said Pranoti Hiremath, a fellow student in Bioengineering and a leader in the BWB group.

The BWB students kicked off its work last year with a project to help communities in the developing world with diagnosis of newborn jaundice, which is caused by an excess of bilirubin in the bloodstream and can lead to brain damage and other problems when left undiagnosed or untreated. Jaundice can be diagnosed by using a transcutaneous bilirubinometer, which shines light through the skin and uses spectral analysis of the light to detect abnormal bilirubin levels in the blood.

Such devices are prohibitively expensive for use in developing nations. However, the BWB group realized the bilirubinometer was similar to another, more simple device: a colorimeter, which BIOE undergrads learn to make in a lab course.

“This is much more complex, but the beginning steps (of building the colorimeter) are quite helpful leading up our project,” Hiremath explained.

bilirubinometer Using the colorimeter as a base, they began creating a simplified, portable version of a bilirubinometer. So far, the group has created the device hardware that sends out light into the bloodstream, and they are working now on computational analysis of the signals received by the device.

Their work on this project is supported by a grant from the Bioengineering Student Design Fund, a Department of Bioengineering fund that provides support for student projects. The BWB group got an initial one-year grant from the fund to work on the bilirubinometer, and was recently given a second year of funding on that project. In addition, the group received another BSDF grant to support the development of a cell phone EKG device that could send cardiac data from the field to a central clinic or hospital for analysis. Though the bilirubinometer and cell phone EKG are two of the biggest projects the BWB group has taken on, the group is branching out into other areas to get students with varying levels of expertise involved.

“While we have had significant progress on (the bilirubinometer) project, there has continued to be an overwhelming student interest in using our bioengineering education to improve healthcare in resource-limited settings,” said Asplund. “Because of this, we are now looking into working on multiple projects and having opportunities for as many students to get involved as possible.”

For instance, BWB is working with the organization Engineering World Health to assemble pre-designed medical device kits that will later be donated to global health organizations for use in the developing world. Those projects require less technical expertise than designing devices from the ground up, Hiremath explained, so underclassmen can be more involved in the process as they progress through school.

In addition, they hope to work with PATH, a global health organization in Seattle, to identify health needs in developing countries that BWB students could try to tackle with bioengineering solutions.

Whatever they wind up working on in the future, the members of Bioengineers Without Borders at the UW are glad to be putting their skills to use in helping the less fortunate.

“It's great having the knowledge that what you're doing has an impact, especially in places of high and unique need, such as the developing world,” Hiremath said.