We Have Problems.

“You won’t find a solution by saying that there’s no problem.” –William Rotsler

Real Problems, Real People, Real Solutions

Biomedical Engineering. Johns Hopkins University. Monica Rex. OcuRex

Design Team 12 at Biomedical Engineering Design Day. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.

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.
indian eye camp

A woman undergoing screening at an Indian eye camp. Photo courtesy of http://www.subaldasfoundation.org/gallery.html

  • 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

design day. johns hopkins. ocurex. monica rex. glaucoma

OcuRex on display at JHU Design Day. Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.

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.


6 thoughts on “We Have Problems.

    • Thanks, Mrs. Oz! You’re absolutely right. I remember when one of our team members wanted to dilate the pupils through shocking the patients… At least he was brainstorming!


    • Thanks so much, Nika. Interestingly enough, my team members actually came up with OcuRex, not me!

      I was listening to your message the other day while I was running on the treadmill.
      Thanks for speaking truth and keep it up!


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