“You won’t find a solution by saying that there’s no problem.” –William Rotsler
Real Problems, Real People, Real Solutions
Hands down, the best academic experience that Johns Hopkins University engineering offers is the biomedical engineering design team program. Twelve design teams are filled with undergraduate students from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed incoming freshmen to wiser and more experienced graduating seniors. Each team is confronted with a real world problem (no, they haven’t been solved yet), and they have to do what engineers do: find a solution. The topics range from global health to domestic issues including:
- prosthetic limb development
- vaccine transport in developing countries
- subcutaneous injection of monoclonal antibodies
- shock delivery in cardioversion and defibrillation
What’s the Problem?
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on Design Team 12 eight brilliant young men to innovate a device for automated early glaucoma screening in Indian eye camps. Let me set the scene for our project:
- The Setting: With a population of over 1.22 billion people and only one ophthalmologist per 100,000 people, citizens cannot be expected to travel hundreds of miles to receive eye-care.
- Protagonists: Eye camps consist of a group of ophthalmologists and eye-care workers who travel around the country to deliver eye-care to villages at a time.
- The Conflict
- Medical: Glaucoma is a disease of the eye caused by the buildup of pressure which damages the optic nerve.
- Scale: Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in the world and is affected to affect over 80 million individuals by 2020.
- Clinical: Eye camps either screen for glaucoma using an ineffective method (tonometry) or do not screen for glaucoma at all.
- Need: Create a highly sensitive and specific device that will either replace existing devices or introduce a new method that does not add more work for the one or two traveling physicians. Make it inexpensive. Shrink examination time. Don’t use pupil-dilating drugs. GO.
The Climax: OcuRex
Our device, OcuRex, takes multiple color images of the back of the eye and then stitches them together using an image stitching software. The color image can then be run through an algorithm that will output a metric that tells the likelihood of an individual having glaucoma. We were able to obtain a provisional patent for our device and our team went on to win the Best Group Process Award.
Throughout this process, I learned a lot:
- Brainstorming is about saying the crazy ideas
- How to use CAD
- Identifying the problem is sometimes harder than finding the solution
- How to embarrass yourself at an elevator pitch competition
- Failing is okay, as long as you persevere
- How to write a business plan
Engineering is about defining a problem and finding a solution to make the world a better place. I’m thankful that I got to experience this firsthand through Design Team 12.