News and Announcements

  • Friday, April 10, 2015 3:43 PM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

     Engineering Design Showcase ready to rock Tudor

    The Rice University community and the public are invited to see inventions by Rice University undergraduate students at the annual George R. Brown School of Engineering Design Showcase April 16 at Tudor Fieldhouse.

    The free event will be open to the public at 4:30 p.m.; awards in 14 categories will be announced at 6:30 p.m. Rice engineering alumni and representatives of local industry will judge the teams. The top prize for excellence in engineering will earn the winning team $5,000.

    More than 80 teams will demonstrate devices and show designs for projects with biomedical, mechanical, computer, chemical and flight applications, among others. See the complete list of showcase teams at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen site, here.

    Watch a video from the 2014 showcase below.


    About Mike Williams

    Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.

  • Thursday, April 09, 2015 3:41 PM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    Rice device gently warms hypothermic infants

     Student team designs low-cost incubator for developing countries

    Rice University students have built a unique incubator for hypothermic infants that can be flat-packed and shipped at minimal cost anywhere in the world.

    The lightweight incubator designed and built at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen uses a pair of heating pads and a sophisticated configuration of simple materials to keep an infant’s body temperature stable.



    About Mike Williams

    Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.

  • Wednesday, April 08, 2015 3:36 PM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

     VEST helps deaf feel, understand speech


    Rice University engineering students and their mentors at Rice and Baylor College of Medicine are creating a vest that allows the profoundly deaf to "feel" and understand speech. Showing prototypes at neuroscientist David Eagleman's Baylor office are, from left, students John Yan, Eric Kang, Abhipray Sahoo and Edward Luckett, graduate student Scott Novich, student Evan Dougal, advisers Eagleman and Gary Woods, and student Zihe Huang. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine project allows subconscious translation

    By Patrick Kurp
    Special to Rice News

    A vest that allows the profoundly deaf to “feel” and understand speech is under development by engineering students and their mentors at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine.

    Under the direction of neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman, Rice students are refining a vest with dozens of embedded actuators that vibrate in specific patterns to represent words. The vest responds to input from a phone or tablet app that isolates speech from ambient sound.

    Eagleman introduced VEST – Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer – to the world at a TED Conference talk in March. He is director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine and an adjunct assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, of which he is also an alumnus. His lab studies the complex mechanisms of perception through psychophysical, behavioral and computational approaches as well as neuroscience and the law.

    The Rice students working on VEST, all electrical and computer engineering majors, call themselves the Eagleman Substitution Project (ESP) team. They include seniors Zihe Huang, Evan Dougal, Eric Kang and Edward Luckett and juniors Abhipray Sahoo and John Yan.

    Scott Novich

    Scott Novich shows a prototype of the vest. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    They are aiding Scott Novich, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at Rice who works in Eagleman’s lab. Novich devised the algorithm that enables the VEST to “hear” only the human voice and screen out distracting sounds.

    The low-cost, noninvasive vest collects sounds from a mobile app and converts them into tactile vibration patterns on the user’s torso. Haptic feedback supplants auditory input.

    The first VEST prototype put together by the team has 24 actuators sewn into the back. A second version, already in production, will include 40 of the actuators Eagleman calls “vibratory motors.” He described the experience, at least for a hearing person, as “feeling the sonic world around me.”

    “Along with all the actuators, the system includes a controller board and two batteries,” said Gary Woods, the team’s adviser and a Rice professor in the practice of computer technology. “The actuators vibrate in a very complicated pattern based on audio fed through a smartphone. The patterns are too complicated to translate consciously.”

    With training, the brains of deaf people adapt to the “translation” process, Eagleman said. Test subjects, some of them deaf from birth, “listened” to spoken words and wrote them on a white board. “They can start understanding the ‘language’ of the vest,” he said.

    “We’ve already run some simple experiments with both hearing and deaf people,” Novich said. “As they use the vest more, they get feedback and know whether they are right or wrong and start to memorize patterns. People are able to identify words they have never encountered before.”

    The project has also prompted students to learn skills they wouldn’t necessarily acquire in engineering classrooms. Huang became the team’s tailor when he learned to sew via YouTube. “I’m an electrical engineer,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about sewing.” But the teammates’ quick-study abilities have paid dividends already.

    Last November, ESP placed second in the sixth-annual Undergraduate Elevator Pitch Competition sponsored by the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice. In February, the team placed third in the third-annual Owl Open, the Rice student startup competition sponsored by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. The team will also present its work this month at the annual Design of Medical Devices conference in Minnesota.

    “We see other applications for what we’re calling tactile sensory substitution,” Sahoo said. “Information can be sent through the human body. It’s not just an augmentative device for the deaf. The VEST could be a general neural input device. You could receive any form of information.”


    About Special to Rice News

    The Rice News is produced weekly by the Office of Public Affairs at Rice University.
  • Tuesday, April 07, 2015 2:44 PM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    Collaboration aims to replicate Rice’s success in global health education

    Faculty from Rice University’s Department of Bioengineering and the Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies are partnering with the University of Malawi to improve healthcare through invention by replicating the success of Rice’s award-winning, engineering education programs for global health and by promoting shared innovation between students at the two campuses.

    With support from the Lemelson Foundation and Rice 360º, Rice’s Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Maria Oden and Ann Saterbak are leading a collaboration with colleagues at the University of Malawi Polytechnic’s new biomedical engineering degree program, the University of Malawi Medical School and at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, a long-standing Rice 360° innovation partner.

    Rice undergraduates described low-cost, student-created healthcare technologies under development at Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen during a December visit by faculty and administrators from the University of Malawi Polytechnic's new biomedical engineering program.

    “Our goal is to improve health care through invention by building and sustaining an international cadre of innovation leaders,” said Richards-Kortum, the principal investigator on a new healthcare innovation grant from the Lemelson Foundation. “To make a sustained impact on the health of the poor in the developing world, we must work to train engineers who can identify practical new technological challenges, infuse engineering skills with entrepreneurial thinking, and work across geographic and disciplinary boundaries with clinical, engineering and business partners.”

    Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, also directs Rice 360º, an award-winning global health engineering program that incorporates problem-solving and hands-on learning activities.

    She said the Lemelson-funded program will allow Malawi Polytechnic’s new bioengineering degree program, which admitted its first students this month, to replicate some of the best feature’s of Rice’s award-winning global health program. For example, Rice offers formal design courses that allow undergraduates to work on client-sponsored design projects related to global health. Those courses are supported by Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, a unique undergraduate design studio with the necessary equipment and supplies to create and evaluate technical prototypes.

    As part of the new collaboration, Oden, a co-principal investigator on the grant and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, will work with Saterbak, Rice Bioengineering’s director of laboratory instruction, Richards-Kortum and other Rice and Malawi Polytechnic faculty to develop a similar engineering design studio at Malawi Polytechnic’s campus in Blantyre. Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, also in Blantyre, has partnered with Rice 360º to evaluate dozens of Rice’s student developed healthcare technologies. The hospital and the University of Malawi Medical School will partner with Malawi Polytechnic’s engineering design studio to offer similar opportunities for its students.

    Oden said the Rice-Malawi partnership also will foster an “innovation ecosystem” based on two-way collaborations between students in Houston and Blantyre. She said the partnership will initially focus on creating technologies to improve neonatal survival in low-resource settings.

    With prior support from the Lemelson Foundation, Richards-Kortum, Oden and colleagues at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital are already developing a new facility at the Blantyre hospital that will serve as an innovation hub and testbed for the “Nursery of the Future,” a suite of neonatal technologies that low-resource district hospitals can put into place for less than $5,000. The innovation hub, which was recently featured in UNICEF’s annual report, will offer students from Rice and Malawi Polytechnic a place to evaluate life-saving technologies under the supervision of the hospital’s pediatric specialists.

    “Throughout the design process, students will be mentored by clinicians, professional engineers, industrial designers and business leaders,” Oden said. “This hands-on approach — which has worked well at Rice — fosters entrepreneurial thinking and helps students make the leap from a promising prototype to a sustainable product that can directly impact lives.”

  • Monday, March 16, 2015 10:26 AM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    Rice helps teach the teachers in Ethiopia


    ethiopia01Americans call it “Styrofoam” and throw it away. Ethiopians know it as “hard sponge,” and scavenge scraps of it in the streets for resale in the marketplace.

    “Nothing goes to waste. Everything is reused. Trash in Jimma isn’t a plastic bag. It’s a piece of a plastic bag,” said Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) recently returned from 10 days in Ethiopia.

    Accompanied by Ann Saterbak, a professor in the practice of bioengineering education and associate dean for undergraduate education, they are working with Jimma University and its biomedical engineering program. They left Houston Feb. 26 and returned March 8.

    “We’re strengthening the skills of the biomedical engineering faculty at Jimma,” said Saterbak, part of the team from Rice and Texas Children’s Hospital awarded a three-year, $200,000 grant from the American International Health Alliance (AIHA). As grant recipients, their charge is to “advance appropriate heath technology design and problem-based leaning for bioengineers and biomedical technicians.”

    The five-year biomedical engineering program at Jimma University has about 200 students and a faculty of 20, only one of whom has earned a Ph.D.  Through the AIHA partnership, two North Americans are teaching at the school this academic year. Students share a library of 50 or 60 books, most of them donated by Rice students.

    Jimma is a city of 200,000 some 200 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, the capital. “They have new facilities for their engineering school. By the standards of sub-Saharan Africa, the infrastructure is in good condition,” Saterbak said.

    Saterbak and Wettergreen carried with them from Houston 100 pounds of prototyping material, all of it readily available in the U.S. but uncommon in Ethiopia – rubber bands, paper cups, ping pong balls, modeling clay and scissors. Addis Ababa is home to a vast open-air marketplace, reputed to be the largest in Africa. There, the Americans scavenged more material for use in the prototyping and engineering design workshops they ran for faculty and students. They spent the equivalent of $35 on scrap Styrofoam.  With this material, Wettergreen set up a prototyping workshop for the biomedical engineering department.

    “Everything is reused until it breaks down into nothing,” Wettergreen said.

    A three-wheeled motorcycle known as a Bajaj is a common sight in the streets of Jimma. While most people walk, some hire them for taxi service, and drivers can be reckless in crowded streets. Passengers and pedestrians are often injured.

    Saterbak and Wettergreen set up a design competition for students and faculty with the goal of learning how to reduce Bajaj-related injuries. The Ethiopians were given two hours to build a model Bajaj with cardboard and other prototyping material. Into it they placed two ping pong balls representing passenger and driver. The challenge was to run the model down a 30-foot zipline into a wall without the balls flying out.

    “The students were like a lot of Rice undergraduates. There was a lot of excitement. Our goal was to get them to use their hands to build a prototype, and they had a lot of fun doing it,” Wettergreen said.

    The Rice team has no immediate plans to return to Jimma. Their goal for now is to continue encouraging engineering design at the university. 

    –Patrick Kurp, Engineering Communications

  • Tuesday, December 16, 2014 1:03 PM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    Rapid prototyping is the focus of Miller’s new class

    Rapid prototyping is the focus of Miller’s new class

    When Jordan Miller, assistant professor of bioengineering, applied for a George R. Brown Teaching Grant, he knew he was looking for a new style of class.

    Jordan Miller

    “I looked at the kinds of things we work on in our lab,” he explained. “We regularly prototype electronic devices such as 3-D printers and laser cutters, and it occurred to me that having a class where students could have hands-on experience creating device prototypes would be a good way to go.”

    The George R. Brown Teaching grants are offered every year to faculty to cover costs for new classes or to augment any needs for existing ones. Miller says then-department chair Rebecca Richards-Kortum encouraged him to apply for the grant and offered departmental matching funds to help get the class fully funded.

    “The framework of the Brown Teaching Grant inspired me to develop a new type of course that could push more students toward hardware design,” Miller said. Bioengineering 421/521: Microcontroller Applications was born.

    “Electronic devices that can accomplish a specific task are combinations of hardware and software,” he said. “The goal of the class was to educate both undergraduates and graduate students on how to develop software and hardware components that could be integrated into a single device and be applied in the real world.”

    Graduate student Bagrat Grigoryan displays one of the intricate designs that he and teammate Jacob Albritton were able to fabricate with a 3-D printer using a microcontroller device they created in Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Jordan Miller's course.

    Partnering with Maria Oden, professor in the practice of engineering education and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, Miller was able to host the class at the kitchen’s computing lab. That gave students access to hardware and prototyping equipment with which they could build their devices.

    “The Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen is an incredible innovation hub on campus, which critically facilitated the success of this class,” Miller said.

    With the inaugural class of 16 bioengineering students who would later form two-person teams, Miller spent the first part of the semester teaching the foundations of the Linux operating system via text-based command-line programming. Later lessons focused on how to build more sophisticated devices that could interface with sensors and control lights, motors and valves.

    Because prototyping focuses on the feasibility of an idea, rather than optimizing its final look and feel, the students emphasized the logical flow of inputs to and outputs from their devices. Students developed gadgets of their own using Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer that can run a full Linux Operating System, and Arduino, an open-source single-board microcontroller with high-precision timer and multiple programmable inputs and outputs.

    Graduate students Gisele Calderon and Ian Kinstlinger created this whimsical diagram to illustrate CATitude, a device that uses a camera, microcontroller and water pistol to train cats to keep away from off-limit places like kitchen counters. It delivers CATsequences (squirts of water) to feline encroachers and logs violations in a Guilt CATalog that includes an online gallery of "criminal mugshots."

    The two devices cost less than $100 and allowed for inexpensive and rapid device prototyping. Students also tapped into the massive community of online enthusiasts for Raspberry Pi and Arduino, finding tutorials and open-source software components that could be integrated into their projects, Miller said.

    Students presented their final projects to Miller and their peers this month. Examples of class projects included:

    • a device that authenticates ID cards to authorize dispensing of beer from a keg by graduate students Samantha Paulsen and Karl Gerhardt.
    • a computer vision system for training house cats not to damage property (their device analyzes a live video-feed for cat facial recognition that is coupled to a squirt gun to ward off an offending feline) by graduate students Gisele Calderon and Ian Kinstlinger.
    • and a low-cost device to give students keypad combination access into the common areas of their college suites, negating the need for them to carry two different keys (one for the suite and one for the bedroom) by seniors Sergio Gonzalez and Nimish Mittal.

    Despite the whimsical nature of many of the projects, students mastered all the fundamental pieces that go into making a successful electronic device by following standard engineering design criteria.

    “I wanted them to focus on carefully laying out the goals of their devices and the milestones they needed to reach to get there,” Miller said. “So it was important they define what their projects could do undefined but also be explicit about what their device didn’t need to do undefined to allow for focused development and modularization. Students also pitched future capabilities their device could later be expanded to incorporate.”

    Miller was pleased with the whole course and said the class was such a success that it will be offered again next fall.

    “It was even better than I imagined,” he said. “Not only did we meet all the goals I set out in the teaching grant, the students were really excited by these projects. When you make the class projects fun to work on, it’s easy to keep students engaged. They were given a ton of leeway in defining and refining the goals for their prototyped devices.

    “This class was an amazing experience for me,” he said. “The students completely blew me away with their creativity, innovation and dedication. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these class projects pursued for crowd-funding through Kickstarter to refine their proof-of-concept devices into consumer-level products.”

    – Holly Beretto writes for the George R. Brown School of Engineering

    About Jade Boyd

    Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.
  • Monday, October 06, 2014 9:38 AM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    A team of Rice engineering students won third place and a $10,000 prize in the annual Odebrecht Awards for Sustainable Development for their design of a rack to transport three bicycles at a time via a METRO bus. Bioengineering students Ken Groszman and Sharon Ghelman, mechanical engineering students Max Hasbrouck and Annabelle McIntire-Gavlick and chemical and biomolecular engineering students Kivani Sanchez and Brian Barr previously won the Texas Department of Transportation’s College Challenge for their freshman design project.
  • Friday, September 12, 2014 10:40 AM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    ‘Rowing’ wheelchair is a moving experience

    Pedro, a patient at Shriners Hospital for Children, Houston, who has a condition called arthrogryposis that prevents him from using a standard wheelchair, tests a custom model built by Rice University students that lets him paddle to move forward and backward. Watching, from left, are his sister and mother, Shriners surgeon Gloria Gogola, Rice Professor Ann Saterbak and Shriners occupational therapist James Northcutt. Photo by Brandon Martin

    Rice University students build custom chair for teen with arthrogryposis 

    Rice University students have built a unique wheelchair for a Houston teenager who will now be able to row his way forward.

    Pedro, 15, a patient at Shriners Hospital for Children, Houston, has had arthrogryposis since birth. This congenital disorder causes severe limitation of movement in all of his joints.

    But Pedro’s path can be made easier. The Rice students are near completion of a four-year effort to make the wheelchair, which works with a paddling motion that does not require Pedro to turn the wheels of his manual wheelchair by hand.

    Pedro’s disability prevents him from pulling his arms in at the elbows – though he can push out. In addition, his wrists are locked in a rotated position.

    “He can’t operate a normal wheelchair because it would require him to grip the wheels, which he can’t do,” said Michaela Dimoff, a Rice junior and bioengineering major, and part of the Wheelin’ and Dealin’ wheelchair team that designed the new device. “He would be able to push them out, but once he’s there, he’s stuck.”

    The new chair has push-forward paddles instead of armrests. Pedro places his hands inside fabric loops and pushes to move. The spring-loaded arms do the work when it’s time to pull his arms back to complete the cycle. “He pushes out and then relaxes, and the paddles come back,” said Dimoff, who spent much of her summer break working on the project.


    Members of the team responsible for Pedro's chair include, from left, Reed Thornburg, Rice Professor Ann Saterbak, Shriners occupational therapist James Northcutt, Jared Elinger, Christina Petlowany, David Smith and Michaela Dimoff. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    Pedro has a motorized wheelchair he uses at school, but at home, when his family is not available to push him in a standard chair, he’s wheel-less. “He moves around his house by commando crawling with his forearms,” Dimoff said.

    The chair was built at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) by a team that includes mechanical engineering majors Jared Elinger and Christina Petlowany and materials science and nanoengineering major David Smith, all juniors, and senior art history major Reed Thornburg. The parts were fabricated and assembled there with the exception of hub-mounted transmissions on each wheel that allow Pedro to go forward and backward and also give him a neutral gear.

    Weeks after taking on the project, the team had its first meeting with Pedro to get specifics on his physical capabilities. “We spent a long time trying to figure out the scope of what he can do,” Elinger said. “It quickly became clear that for propulsion, a rowing motion was our only option.”

    “For our initial prototypes, we used bicycle hubs,” Petlowany said. “Once that didn’t seem to work so well, we moved to bicycle hubs and chains. And we could make it work, but it didn’t meet our design criteria and clearly wasn’t a long-term solution.”

    “Our industry mentor, Scott Daigle, the co-founder and CEO of Intelliwheels in Illinois, told us it would take hundreds of thousand of dollars and years to be able to machine our own gears and get them to work,” Dimoff said.

    “We didn’t want Pedro to have to wait that long,” Petlowany added.

    The students found their solution at a California-based company, Innovations Health, which sold them wheelchair-specific, lever-operated Wijit wheels at wholesale and advised the students on how to incorporate them into their existing design. The teammates raised funds to buy them, with significant contributions coming from OEDK, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and the Shriners International chapter in Houston.

    Pedro’s input was critical at every step, Smith said. “We tested the chair with him six or eight times,” he said. “We’d test brakes, forward motion, speed, comfort, and each time we’d make changes and come back and say, ‘Hey, look at what we’ve done. What do you think of these things?’

    “He’s a great kid and doesn’t like to complain, but we told him, ‘If it’s not perfect, we want you to tell us.’ That really helped us in the design process.”

    Rice students, from left, David Smith, Reed Thornburg and Michaela Dimoff work with Pedro during a recent test of the wheelchair. Photo by Brandon Martin

    The team also called upon experts to help refine the wheelchair, which was turned over to Pedro for extended beta testing in August. Phil Kortum, a Rice assistant professor of psychology and a human factors specialist; Alan Russell, the director of Rice Disability Support Services; and Lex Frieden, a disability policy expert and rights activist, offered valuable advice during visits to the OEDK. Dimoff said the students didn’t know until later that Frieden is a chief architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    The students expect to bring the chair back to Rice at the end of September for what they hope are final touch-ups and are busy completing documentation so future engineering students can keep it in good repair.

    In addition, the Bike Barn in Houston’s West University neighborhood has agreed to service the wheelchair’s bicycle-style brakes, which Pedro operates by flaring his legs, for the life of the chair. The students hope that is a long, long time.

    “After the beta testing period, we’ll likely have design revisions to make,” Dimoff said, “but we hope it’s the last time we’ll have to take it away from him.”

    “It’s hard to think past this because it’s become such a milestone,” Thornburg said of turning the wheelchair over to Pedro. “But, of course, one thing this project has conditioned us for is to be ready for anything.”

    Dimoff said doctors at Shriners have suggested the wheelchair design may be suitable for people with spina bifida, cerebral palsy and other disabilities. “It might even help a person with arthritis or someone who has really weak upper arms and doesn’t want to do this (rolling motion) all day,” she said. “Ergonomically, the way you move a standard wheelchair is terrible for your body. It’s terrible for your shoulders. The rowing motion is really a lot better.”

    The students are proud of their success at accomplishing what seemed, for a time, impossible. The project began as one of the first offered by faculty adviser Ann Saterbak, a professor of bioengineering education and associate dean for undergraduate education, when she started her freshman design course four years ago. Other teams had tried and failed, she said.

    “Dr. Saterbak told us, ‘You guys are it. You’re the last hope,’” Dimoff recalled. “So there was no excuse. It didn’t matter what we had to learn or what we had to do, or how long it took because this boy needs a wheelchair, and we can’t let him down.”

    In addition to Saterbak, the team’s faculty advisers include OEDK Director Maria Oden, a professor in the practice of engineering, and Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer in engineering; alumni adviser Larry Ciscon; and Shriners Houston surgeon Gloria Gogola.

    - See more at:
  • Thursday, August 07, 2014 3:26 PM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    Saving lives at birth
    Rice’s bubble CPAP machine, which helps increase the survival rate of newborns with severe respiratory illness, is mentioned.
    National Geographic

  • Wednesday, August 06, 2014 4:45 PM | Amy Kavalewitz Dern (Administrator)

    Rice 360˚ project meets Grand Challenge

    A student-developed device to help premature infants at risk from apnea has won a seed grant for further development. Members of the 2012 capstone team are, from left, Andrea Ulrich, Bridget Ugoh, Rachel Gilbert, Jordan Schermerhorn and Rachel Alexander. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

    Students’ BreathAlert monitor for premature infants wins seed funding from international partnership 

    The Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies has won a grant to continue development of a device invented by Rice students to help premature infants at risk from apnea, a breathing condition that can cause cognitive damage or death if not treated.

    The BreathAlert device, originally designed in 2012 by engineering students as their senior capstone project, will be evaluated and optimized to detect and correct episodes of apnea in low-resource settings where traditional vital-signs monitoring is not available.

    Rice engineering students describe their BreathAlert prototype in this 2012 video.

    This work is part of an ongoing collaboration with pediatricians at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, who identified the critical need for low-cost monitoring tools and have provided clinical guidance on the project, said Maria Oden, director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and a professor in the practice of engineering education.

    Rice won one of 26 seed grants awarded last week by Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development, a partnership of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

    Maria Oden pitched the project at the organization’s annual DevelopmentXChange in Washington, D.C., on July 30. “We’re so excited,” she said of the award. “This will allow us to finalize the design and complete an initial clinical evaluation of BreathAlert.”

    Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Rice 360˚ and Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) director and the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering, also attended the event. She helped present BreathAlert and reported on progress in the ongoing bubble continuous positive airway pressure (bCPAP) project, also funded by Saving Lives at Birth, as it rolls out in Malawi.

    Andrea Ulrich and Maria Oden

    Andrea Ulrich '12, left, a member of the Rice student team that developed BreathAlert, and OEDK Director Maria Oden display the latest iteration of the device at last week's DevelopmentXChange in Washington, D.C.

    Rachel Gilbert ’12 has worked for Rice 360˚ since graduation to develop the project she helped start with Rice graduates Rachel Alexander, Jordan Schermerhorn, Bridget Ugoh and Andrea Ulrich as part of BTB. Gilbert will leave Rice this summer to work in Vietnam under a Whittaker International Program Fellowship.

    “We’ve been improving the design to get it to the point where it’s ready to be tested in clinics,” she said. “We are currently testing how well it can detect breaths and apnea on breathing mannequins.”

    Gilbert, fellow bioengineering alumnus Tyler Young ’12 and Kelley Maynard, Rice 360˚ director of technology development, have begun testing the device on full-term infants in Houston “to see if BreathAlert can accurately detect breaths and if its vibration can stir sleeping babies.”

    The low-cost device incorporates a stretch sensor that wraps around a child’s chest and a vibrator that activates if the child stops breathing for more than 15 seconds. It is intended for busy neonatal clinics in developing countries.

    “Sixty seven percent of babies born before 32 weeks’ gestation suffer from apnea of prematurity, so that is well over a million babies a year worldwide,” Oden said. “If a baby stops breathing in the developed world, an alarm immediately summons a nurse to intervene. That nurse will usually pat the baby vigorously to wake them up.

    “In a busy ward where there might be 40 babies and one overworked nurse, this baby’s survival is really a game of chance. It relies on this nurse to observe the baby at the exact moment they stop breathing and intervene. BreathAlert was designed to detect and automatically intervene in cases of apnea.”

    Oden said part of the grant will also allow the team to develop the, product requirements and specifications to prepare BreathAlert for commercial manufacturing.

    Richards-Kortum and Oden expect BreathAlert to find a home alongside bCPAP and other projects invented by Rice students as part of the Day One Project, a Rice initiative to build modern, cost-effective neonatal clinics for hospitals in developing nations. The pilot “Nursery of the Future” project is underway at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.

    The grant is the third to Rice in the highly competitive program’s four years. The bCPAP device won a seed grant in the program’s first year and a larger “transition-to-scale” award in 2012. The device is being deployed in African hospitals.

    The Grand Challenge funded 59 projects in its first three years to address 289,000 maternal deaths, 2.9 million neonatal deaths and 2.6 million stillbirths that occur in the world each year.

    - See more at:

Contact us

Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen
Rice University

6100 Main Street MS 390 | Houston, Texas | 77005

Phone: 713.348.OEDK


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