University of Delaware
Marta Shakhazizian (left) discusses her "Junk Kills" project, which won a tie for third place in the First Step Program competition sponsored by the College of Health Sciences.

First Step: Ideas for healthier world

College of Health Sciences recognizes student solutions to challenging health issues


9:48 a.m., May 7, 2014--Top honors in the University of Delaware’s second annual First Step Program competition went to a wearable overlay to simulate tracheostomy care, a program to reduce childhood obesity, an exoskeleton to assist upper limb mobility in infants, and a photographic campaign highlighting the dangers of junk food.

First Step was launched at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year by the College of Health Sciences to encourage students to identify important health-related challenges and develop novel solutions to those challenges.

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All of the participants came together with program coordinators, faculty mentors, and family, staff, and community members at an awards dinner on Friday, April 25, in the atrium of the Health Sciences Complex on UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus.

Academic entrepreneurship

“This program harnesses the energy and enthusiasm of our undergraduates in addressing health care issues in the areas of rehabilitation, prevention, and health monitoring,” says Dan Flynn, associate dean for research in health sciences. “After just two years, our success stories already include published manuscripts, invention disclosures, provisional patents, and startup companies.”

“Through this program, we’re not only inviting students to share their creative ideas with us,” he continues. “We’re also helping them understand how to implement these ideas and how they might develop them into impactful products or practices that help patient populations. Learning how entrepreneurship works is a whole new aspect of their education outside the classroom.”

Flynn hopes to see similar programs implemented across campus to address other modern challenges, such as energy, food security, the environment, and cyber-security. 

“This program fits in perfectly with the ideas expressed in a National Academy of Sciences paper co-authored by UD President Patrick Harker,” he says. “The authors talked about how unleashing the innovation potential of university research will require scholarly activity that translates basic research into commercially viable processes and technology. Through First Step, we’re launching students on that path.”

“We were especially pleased with the response of parents who attended the First Step Awards dinner,” he adds. “Many of them commented on how grateful they were for this opportunity their sons and daughters had and how impactful the program was on their confidence and vision for the future.”

A personal passion

Second-place winner Lindsey Root partnered with the ShopRite in Glasgow, Delaware, on her “Monkey See, Monkey Do” campaign, which focused on getting parents and their kids to try healthy snacks. 

“Healthy eating is a topic near and dear to my heart,” she says. “I was overweight for most of my childhood and obese by my junior year of high school, when I reached 230 pounds. No one in my family really read nutritional labels, so I didn't know much about healthy eating.”

“Finally, one day, I had had enough,” she continues. “I was tired of being the biggest one in the class, tired of being depressed, tired of being bullied because of my size, tired of going clothes shopping only to have nothing in my size even fit. I went about re-teaching myself how to eat, and I went from a size 18 to a size 6 from my senior year of high school to my sophomore year of college.”

“So far, I'm maintaining my size, and now I want to help others and pass on my knowledge so my struggle does not have to be their struggle.”

The winners

  • First: “Tracheostomy Care Overlay System – A Wearable Overlay for Simulated Patient Use” (Brad Biggs, Devon Bond, Nick Campagnola, Ed Doll, and Nate Hott; mentors: Amy Cowperthwait, Liyun Wang, and Jennifer Buckley)
  • Second: “The Monkey See, Monkey Do Campaign” (Lindsey Root; mentor: Elizabeth Orsega-Smith)
  • Third (tie): “Baby WREX/The Playskin Lift – Developing an Exoskeletal Garment to Assist Upper Limb Mobility in Infants” (John Koshy and Michael Olaya; mentors: Michele Lobo, Jennifer Buckley, and Cole Galloway)
  • Third (tie): “Junk Kills” (Marta Shakhazizian)

The projects were evaluated by a panel of faculty judges using criteria similar to those used by the National Institutes of Health, including significance, approach, innovation, and environment.

More than a dozen faculty members served as mentors or judges for the program, which supported 17 projects this year. Ideas ranged from simpler food labels, an adaptive rowing device for quadriplegics, and better oversight of antidepressant use to plans for helping young women to have healthy babies and the elderly to age in place.

About First Step

First Step was launched at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year by the College of Health Sciences to encourage individual students and student teams to identify important health-related challenges and develop novel solutions to those challenges.

Students were invited to submit proposals focused on an important aspect of health care or healthy living, develop a potential solution to that problem, and present their solution for review. CHS provided $500 to each of the top applications.

The students had six months to develop their solutions and then present them in the form of posters. They met with program director Dan Flynn and faculty mentors every month and were also connected with experts to discuss the merits of their ideas and how they could be pursued and further developed.  

For more details about the program visit the website.

Article by Diane Kukich

Photos by Doug Baker

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