First Design-A-Thon Generates Tech Solutions to Health Disparities

Date-rape drug detector and other student projects win awards

After months of work, three teams of students won cash prizes this spring for crafting technological solutions to healthcare disparities, in the first annual BTEC x BMES Design-A-Thon, a joint effort by ENG’s Bioengineering Technology & Entrepreneurship Center (BTEC) and the BU student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES).

Underrepresented minorities and low-income communities often struggle to gain access to high-quality healthcare. Sponsored by Merck, the year-long BTEC x BMES design competition focused on how diversity considerations can be incorporated into engineering design to enhance the quality of a project.

Each team was matched with a graduate-student mentor, received a $200 budget for supplies, and had access to BTEC, a 5,000-square-foot biomedical engineering makerspace. First prize, $1,000, went to the following teams:

“GHB Detection for Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault Prevention”

Category: Molecular & Tissue Engineering, and Drug Delivery

Melissa Ferranti (ECE’25), Yash Patel (BME’25), Kara Walp (BME’25)

Prescribed to treat narcolepsy, GHB is one of the drugs misused in sexual assaults (also known as “date-rape drugs”), and nearly one in five black women in the U.S. experiences rape, according to some estimates. Combining their concentrations in computer engineering and mathematical statistics, machine learning, and nanotechnology, this team developed the prototype for a small, paper-based assay that uses silver nanoparticles to detect the presence of GHB, allowing users to discreetly check whether their drink has been spiked.

“Panoramic Camera Design for the Detection of Colorectal Cancer”

Category: Biosensors, Medical Devices & Diagnostics

Naimah Gill, Krish Kapadka, Sarah Sheng, Ksenija Tasich (all BME’23)

Last year saw 100,000 new cases of colorectal cancer and 44,000 cases of anal cancer in the U.S. alone, and at-risk patients disproportionately come from underrepresented and low-income populations. Current screening methods are invasive and lack 360-degree views. This team developed a near-infrared imaging device that will allow gastroenterologists to clearly distinguish between normal and diseased tissue, making rectal examinations more efficient while improving safety, cost, and comfort.

“Multiclass Classification UI for Chest X-Rays via Convolutional NNs”

Category: Data Science, Precision & Predictive Medicine

Antonio Alonso (BME/ECE’23), Jacob Chin (BME/ECE’25), Ronald Huang (BME’23), Nicholas Rabines (BME’23)

Combining their growing expertise in biomedical and computer engineering, this team developed a user-friendly website that employs artificial intelligence to analyze chest X-ray images to identify and predict diseases. Their goal was to offer doctors a supplemental layer of data analysis, improving the accuracy of diagnoses and providing a cost-effective solution for users who might otherwise face financial barriers in seeking medical consultation.

Finalists were judged by BTEC Executive Director and Professor of the Practice Diane Joseph-McCarthy, BU STEM Pathways Executive Director Hailey Gordon, BME Lecturer Josh Kays, and Umbulizer Lead Systems Engineer Rohan Jadeja (ENG’19).

Left to right: Rohan Jadeja, Hailey Gordon, Diane Joseph-McCarthy, Melissa Ferranti, Yash Patel, Kara Walp, Kavon Karrobi, and Josh Kays. Photo by Brian Zhou