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Facing 45 distinguished judges that she could not see, Emelia Funnell shared the story of Team Abibas from the Georgia Institute of Technology, who traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to witness the challenges within that country’s medical system, as well as the potential opportunities to reduce infant mortality there. The story she told and the team’s presentation resonated with the judges, who granted first place to the quartet of students from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory in the 10th annual Rice 360º Undergraduate Global Health Technologies Design competition.

It was the second year in a row that a BME team from Georgia Tech took first place, and for the first time in the contest’s history, the 18 student teams from across the country participated online in the competition (held on March 27), due to the pandemic. Teams from Rice and the University of Michigan took second and third place, respectively. Team Abibas – Ashley Assa, Fatma Rashed, Tristan Wu, and Emelia Funnell – designed their winning project to address hypothermia suffered by infants born in hospitals that lack dependable portable devices.

The project began with their visit last August to Ethiopia, where more than 3 million annual births have made the country’s population one of the fastest growing in the world. While there, the students observed three of Addis Ababa’s largest regional hospitals, where they saw how the medical teams were forced to get by with a lack of resources, “including medical devices like transport incubators and other portable heating devices,” Funnell said. “Without these external heating sources, infants leaving labor and delivery become hypothermic before they can even begin to receive the help they require in the neonatal intensive care unit.”

Compounding that is the city’s elevation. At 8,000 feet, it can get chilly, and open-air corridors, typical of the hospitals, are drafty and become dangerously cold for infants transported in just their swaddling cloth. A study by the hospital’s neonatology department revealed that 80 percent of premature infants become hypothermic and 50 percent remain so after 24 hours.

So the team designed a system that creates heat. The device includes two reusable and affordable components: a wrap to enclose the infant and a heat pack containing a supersaturated solution of baking soda and vinegar, within a sealed bag, which is inserted into the backside pocket of the wrap. The heat pack has a small metal trigger that, when flexed, causes the solution to crystallize and release heat. When it’s reused, the pack can be removed and boiled back to its original liquid form. The device is made entirely of locally-obtainable material and resources, costs only $10, and weighs just 1.4 pounds, so it’s a sustainable solution that can be carried easily.

“It took many, many iterations in the prototyping stage for us to find the right recipe for our heat pack,” said Assa, who focused most of her efforts there. “And we have successfully created a heat pack that can keep an infant warm for 30 minutes.”

The team won a trophy and bragging rights in the Rice 360 competition, which involved 18 teams from around the country and Ghana. Because of the need for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the live competition was converted quickly into an online event. Participants submitted five-minute video presentations and judges selected three finalists whose videos were then shared live, via the online meeting platform Zoom, to the judges, competitors, and spectators.

“I thought it was incredible that, despite everything going on, the faculty at Rice was still able to put on the event, and that everyone was able to participate and judge,” Assa said. “When we were on the Zoom call and I saw that over 100 people were also on the call, I was both nervous and impressed.”

After the videos were presented, finalists shared additional details and fielded questions from the judges (which included clinicians, faculty, and researchers from universities, medical centers, and industry). In the end, Georgia Tech’s Team Abibas was the clear winner.

Rice’s Team At Your Cervix took second place for its design to assist in the treatment of late-stage cervical cancer in low-resource settings. Third went to the University of Michigan’s Team Project Alivio, for its foot-pumped air bladder, designed to help hospital staff lift maneuver immobile patients.

“Overall,” said Wu, “the experience was incredible. Everyone we met in Ethiopia was kind and helpful. Our team was extremely grateful for the opportunity and was laser-focused on creating a device to help this community abroad.”

The Georgia Tech team began developing its winning device as a Capstone Design project, and was facilitated through the Global Health Capstone program, co-founded two years ago by James Stubbs (professor of the practice in the Coulter Department) and Kelsey Kubelick, who completed defense of her Ph.D. at Georgia Tech in December and will stay on campus as a postdoctoral fellow.

“Rice University has a very well established global health program,” said Kubelick. “It was great for our team from BME to get such positive feedback and input from people who have been working in this field longer than we have.”

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Both the graduate and undergraduate programs in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering were nationally ranked no. 1 in 2023. It was a first-time top ranking for the grad program. Dedicated faculty and innovative curriculum earned the department its lofty spot and will be what keeps it there in the future.