Fund Allows Students to Showcase Ingenuity

Winter 2010

One may end up saving lives. The other appears purely whimsical to the untrained eye. The third offers a unique, never-before-seen perspective of the Hopkins Homewood campus. Together, these seemingly unrelated projects comprise the culmination of a year’s worth of intensive work by three teams of engineering students. Their common ground? Each was funded by a 2009 Student Initiatives Grant.

The fund, established in 2006 by Dean Nick Jones and supported by gifts from alumni and friends, gives students seed money to pursue the projects of their dreams. Carl Liggio ’96, MS ’00, PhD ’01, has been a staunch supporter of the fund since October 2006 when, as a Society of Engineering Alumni (SEA) Council executive board member, he first learned of the grant. Every year since, he’s given generously to projects that inspire pride and pleasure.

This year is no different.

The muse for Ryan Chang’s project came from a little girl in a Taiwanese hospital. While spending the summer of 2008 shadowing a physician at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, Chang ’11 watched the young patient undergo a painful procedure to determine if she had acid reflux, a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—a common condition affecting more than 45 million Americans annually that, when left untreated, can cause complications that increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Chang watched as the wire catheter was placed into the patient’s nose and, finally, after eight tries, descended past her throat to reach her esophagus, where the device was lodged for 48 hours to measure her pH levels. Upon witnessing the invasive and painful process, Chang asked himself: “How could I make it easier for these patients?”

He wasted no time finding an answer. He decided to design a new painless and patient-centered method of diagnosing GERD. He obtained sponsorship for his project from biomedical engineering Professor Lawrence Schramm and gathered a team of fellow biomedical engineering students: Solomon Liu ’11, Ping He ’11, Robert Romano ’11, Charles Wang ’11, and Alice Wu ’11.

Beginning in September 2008, the team worked to develop Chang’s vision. Summer internships at various points on the globe—from San Francisco to Taiwan—didn’t slow the team’s momentum; they held twice-a-week conferences via the Internet and, in the interim, worked independently. Their efforts culminated in a diagnostic tool consisting of a capsule just two centimeters long and 0.5 centimeters in diameter that, when swallowed by a patient, “catches” in the esophagus and reads the patient’s pH levels, which are then recorded by a wireless, hand-held device.

The novel technology, which non invasively fixates a pill in the digestive tract for upward of 24 hours, has attracted interest from medical experts within the Johns Hopkins Hospital community. “We are continuously working with physicians to ensure our product fits patients’ needs,” Chang says.

Chang is preparing to apply for a provisional patent through the university’s technology transfer office, the first step toward making their noninvasive diagnostic GERD tool consumer-ready. Eventually, Chang envisions designing applications for iPhones or other personalized hand-held devices so patients could monitor their reflux levels at will. “Right now, only about 300,000 people test for gastric reflux, mainly because it’s painful and demobilizing. This type of preventive medicine technology would help patients take care of it early,” Chang says.

The goal of another student project is aimed at creating robotics competition opportunities for years to come. Computer science major Evan Chin ’10 and his team members received a $3,200 grant to purchase a “game-in-a-box,” plus several radio-operated robotics kits, thereby launching a Hopkins Undergraduate Engineering Society VEX Competition, which Chin hopes will become an annual event.

Once constructed, the robots—guided by student competitors armed with wireless remote controls–face off in a race to see which robots can get balls into PVC pipes first. When the competition is over, each team deconstructs its robots and surrenders them to the engineering department, ready for use for the next year’s competitors.

A third grant-funded project, spearheaded by civil engineering major Conor Kevit ’09 and his student team, was led this year by computer science major Eli Sutton ’10. They’ve undertaken the ambitious endeavor of creating a virtual representation of the entire Homewood campus.

Behind this labor-intensive project, dubbed Virtual JHU Gigapixel Panoramas, is new large-scale photographic technology known as gigapixel imaging that allows the user to capture about 200 pictures within a matter of minutes with a digital camera. The catch? A robotic camera accessory called the Gigapan, which facilitates high-speed, high-resolution pictures of up to a billion pixels. Sutton explains the effect. “Say you’re at a lacrosse game, where you have thousands of people in the stands. Zoomed out they’re just dots. When you zoom in you can see the expressions of people’s faces. It’s amazing,” he says.

Together, the team designed its own version of the Gigapan robotic camera platform. It boasts a sturdy design that reduces vibrations—resulting in less camera shaking and faster shooting—and the ability to handle a digital camera with a longrange telescopic lens. “Now, we’re refining it to take faster images,” Sutton says.

“I started out working as a computer scientist on the project, then I moved toward designing the mount, and now I’m involved in the managerial aspect of it,” says Sutton. He figures that in the past year, he’s gotten as much experience as he would working full time for five years at a startup company.