On the second floor of MIT’s Media Lab, a group of engineering students sits in a bright, windowless room surrounded by floor-to-ceiling dry-erase walls scrawled with diagrams, flowcharts and equations. They’re arranged in neat rows, attention turned toward the large screen at the front of the room. It’s pitch day at MIT’s Engineering Health Class.
Dr. Shadi Kourosh, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Amanda Pratt, a second year MBA student at Harvard Business School, are the first to address the class. They’re developing a portable, affordable ultrasound tool to assist with central venous catheter placement and seek students with experience in mechanical engineering, analog processing and computer science to join their team.
They are followed by Jason Preston, the father of a child suffering from hydrocephalus, who hopes the students might be able to help him develop a device to non-invasively measure intracranial pressure (ICP) in patients like his son. He has teamed up with Morris Vanegas, an aero astro mechanical engineer, who hopes such a device could reliably measure ICP in astronauts.
For the next two hours, a stream of physicians, dentists, MBA candidates and fellow students present medical problem statements to the class with the hope of recruiting members of the class to help design and prototype a medical diagnostic device. Within a week of this session, each of Engineering Health’s 20 or so graduate students will join an interdisciplinary team to develop one of these devices over the course of the semester. In the past, students and their mentors have developed devices such as a cuff-less blood pressure monitor and an iPhone attachment that can analyze skin.
Engineering Health was developed in 2013 by Ramesh Raskar, PhD, head of the Media Lab’s Camera Culture research group. This year, the class is instructed by Anshuman Das, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in optics and material physics, and Pratik Shah, PhD, a microbiologist and research scientist. The course is run out of the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with the Tata Center for Technology and Design and the Camera Culture lab.
Raskar, Das and Shah realize that doctors and biomedical researchers are particularly well-suited to identify medical problem statements, but that they often lack the skills necessary to design solutions. Alternatively, engineering students at MIT have a host of technical skills but often lack the medical knowledge necessary to identify needs and determine what kinds of devices are feasible in practice. In a city known for its world class physicians, researchers, entrepreneurs and engineers, Engineering Health fosters a sense of community between these often siloed groups and works to improve patient care.
The course is uniquely committed to deployment. Following the fall session, an optional venture-oriented spring semester course equips selected students with the skills necessary to grow and launch their devices, including user testing and methods of raising capital.
“We don’t want prototypes to live in the prototype hall of fame, or on a class webpage that you make for your project,” explains Shah. “We kind of have a different approach, that if you make something, you make something that can be deployed.”
“I took the class primarily because I was very interested in how I can apply my background into something more applied and real-world,” says Masters student Mrinal Mohit. “I think the project-heavy model of the course is ideal for that.”
Mohit is working to develop the BrushMonitor, a device that will potentially both monitor how well you’re brushing your teeth and help users develop better brushing patterns. Since pitch day he has recruited Ismail Degani, a Masters student in the Integrated Design Management Program at MIT, and Colin McDonnell, a senior at MIT majoring in computer science.
Additionally, Engineering Health has a global health focus for students passionate about global health research and developing devices that will improve care in emerging countries. Twice a year, select students from the class are invited to participate in an optional workshop in India.
“While we can sit in Cambridge and talk about global health research in Africa, India or any other developing countries, it’s not the same when you’re sitting here and making a device,” says Shah. “You have to be on the ground looking at the realities—speaking to people who are on the frontline of providing care or receiving care—and then come back here again and make another round of iterations.”
If you’re interested in joining the community of doctors, researchers and engineers, but don’t have an MIT student ID, don’t fret; Drs. Shah and Das are building this community outside the classroom. They have organized “Health Night,” a monthly meet-up hosted by the Media Lab where anyone interested in health and the medtech space can pitch an idea to the group, network and learn about local innovative health projects.
Abby Ballou is the managing editor of MedTech Boston. She has a B.A. and M.Phil in English literature from NYU and the CUNY Graduate Center, respectively. When she isn’t writing and editing for MedTech Boston, Abby enjoys reading, rock climbing, watching classic movies and listening to opera.
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