|The QuickStitch group poses with NIBIB director Dr. Roderic Pettigrew (r) and Dr. Zeynep Erim (l), director of NIBIB’s Division of Interdisciplinary Training. It includes (from l) Daniel Peng, Andy Tu, Sohail Zahid, Anvesh Annadanam, Haley Huang and Luis Herrera.
How can NIH encourage undergraduate students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers? By showing them that they can make a difference long before they finish their studies, argues Dr. Zeynep Erim, program director in the Division of Interdisciplinary Training at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.
Last month, NIBIB launched its second Design by Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) competition. DEBUT challenges student teams to come up with the most innovative and influential device prototypes in three categories: diagnostic, therapeutic and technology to aid underserved populations and individuals with disabilities. The winning teams in each category receive a $10,000 prize and are honored at an award ceremony at the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society.
“You always hear that it takes so much money, and it’s so difficult to invent something that you have to be really experienced—well into your 40s to even try,” said Andy Tu, a member of last year’s QuickStitch team from Johns Hopkins University that won in the category of therapeutic devices. “So this experience really taught me that you can try even as a young professional.”
The QuickStitch team designed an inexpensive suturing tool that improves safety, efficiency and consistency in stitching the fascia—a collagenous layer underneath the skin that holds the internal organs in place. “Dr. Nguyen, our mentor, could be a little biased, but he says that this tool has the potential to revolutionize the way we perform surgery,” said Sohail Zahid, one of the QuickStitch team. The team has applied for a patent for the new device.
Another team, from Washington University in St. Louis, was awarded a prize for creating an inexpensive (around $10) spirometer to help with diagnosis of COPD worldwide. They are currently forming a company called Sparo Labs and raising investment funding to continue product development. “We really want to see how far we can take it and how many people we can help,” said team member Abby Cohen.
The final winning team was from the University of California, Los Angeles with the diagnostic project “Q-Path.” The goal was to help automate the diagnosis of bladder cancer by developing a new computer screening technology that is able to identify cancerous cells on its own. It’s possible that in the future this technology could be adapted to help diagnose breast cancer, lung cancer or even leukemia.
The first competition in 2012 garnered a total of 61 entries from 39 universities and involved 284 students. It was designed to be open only to undergraduate students in order to encourage them to compete without fear of being overpowered by more advanced contenders.
“It was very rewarding to read the entries and see how the undergraduates stretched their boundaries, formed collaborations—often across departments—and attacked a wide range of unmet clinical needs,” Erim said. “We hope that as the competition grows and as students see their own potential, they will be more invested in a STEM career.”
To learn more about the 2013 DEBUT Challenge, go to http://debut2013.challenge.gov/.