Service Learning

I was a member of Duke Engineering World Health (EWH) Club for 4 years, serving as president in my senior year. EWH designs medical devices for the developing world. We organize skills workshops, run student-led design projects, and send club members to Guatemala each summer to fix medical equipment. During my time with EWH, I worked on two design projects – infant audiometer and cystic fibrosis diagnostic. For the infant audiometer project, we designed a portable, EEG-based device to diagnose hearing loss in newborns. The idea was to place electrodes on an infant’s forehead and place sounds at several frequencies in her ears. If the infant’s hearing function is intact, the EEG would pick up a transient signal with the same frequency as the sound played. We first tested our EEG amplifier by connecting it to lab computers for signal acquisition and analysis. To make the device work in resource constrained environments, it has to be completely mobile. Our amplifier was already battery powered, but we needed a microcontroller to replace the lab computer. We selected the raspberry pi zero due to its versatility and ability to run python code, which the signal processing algorithm was based on. We tested our device with healthy students, and it was able to indicate when a sound is heard by the test subject. The project did not proceed further since we needed validation with people with hearing difficulties.

Cystic fibrosis diagnosis traditionally requires chemical assays for chloride concentration measurement. In my second project, we attempted to leverage the galvanic skin response for cystic fibrosis diagnosis. We created a prototype device, but we only tested with healthy students. Similar to the challenge we faced with the infant audiometer project, we hit a snag while attempting to validate our design with patients.

In summer 2019, I joined our annual volunteer trip to Xela, Guatemala to fix medical equipment at a public hospital. We’ve worked with a local engineer based in Guatemala City for many years. Around 6-8 students go on the one-week trip each year. When we arrived at the hospital, they provided us a maintenance shack as our base and already had a pile of broken equipment ready. Throughout the week we repaired infant incubators, electrosurgical unit, vaccum pump, cell culture hood, heat gun, endoscope, autoclave bag sealer, and many other devices I lost track of. On our last day, we ventured into the OR to fix a surgical lamp (pic below). We all stayed in homestays while we’re there, and I partially recovered my Spanish skills from high school. At night we celebrated each day’s success at the local café or pubs.

Through my work with EWH, I gained first-hand experience of the unique healthcare challenges developing countries face. The hospital we volunteered at lacked personnel and parts to perform simple fixes such as replacing a switch or a burnt-out connector. We had to purchase replacement parts at a local electrical store with club money. The hospital was also extraordinarily crowded, and most patients could not even afford to seek medical treatment. This experience brought another dimension to the challenge of “engineering better medicines”.

Time: 5/26-6/2, 2019