UW-Madison: Students strive to improve medical care around the world

CONTACT: Amit Nimunkar, 608-698-7413, [email protected]

MADISON – When Amit Nimunkar returned to his home in India for a visit with family, the University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering (BME) graduate student told his grandmother about the exciting BME projects he was working on.

“She was really astonished,” he says. “And when I finished, her face changed, and she said, ‘Honestly, Amit, I don’t understand what you just said.'”

But she reached for her purse, pulled out 100 rupees, and promised it to her grandson. About $2 in U.S. currency, it was some of the money she inherited when Nimunkar’s grandfather died of a heart attack before he could reach a hospital. “That left an impression on her mind,” says Nimunkar. “She said, ‘You’re doing something. Right now I really don’t understand, but if you can make something that somebody can use, I think that would be more than enough for me.'”

Hoping to use their engineering knowledge to help improve medical care – and access to that care – around the world, Nimunkar and several BME students recently formed a UW-Madison student chapter of Engineering World Health (EWH). Their initiatives could benefit residents in faraway countries such as Honduras and Mongolia, yet inspire students and teachers right here in Wisconsin.

Robert Malkin and Mohammad Kiani founded EWH in 2001 as a charitable organization that could harness resources in college engineering programs to improve conditions in hospitals in developing nations. Today, in partnership with Duke University, EWH is a national organization with chapters around the United States.

At UW-Madison, EWH has about 15 core members, plus many others who drop in for seminars or to help out with a specific project.

Led by senior Ann Sagstetter, the group offers workshops for Wisconsin homeschooled middle- and high-school students (as well as those in public and private schools) that help them relate math and science to careers in medicine and engineering.

Senior Karissa Thoma is among members who deliver hands-on presentations to students in rural Wisconsin schools. Cali Roen, a senior who plans on a career in medical missions, is one of several students who fix broken medical equipment and test and calibrate it, and also writes a user-friendly operations manual that travels with the equipment to remote areas of the world. Senior Lucas Vitzthum worked in Tanzania hospitals via the EWH summer program and plans to participate on a medical missions trip to Ulan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia. “Everything is supported enthusiastically by the BME department in terms of space and of advice,” says Nimunkar.

Nimunkar and first-year master’s student Jon Baran are part of a multidisciplinary team of graduate students who, with input from several physicians, are designing and developing a medical technology platform tailored for developing countries. Somewhat like a pocket calculator, the handheld device will support a number of medical instruments. Sixteen undergraduate students on four teams enrolled in the BME design course are developing components for the platform, including a pulse oximeter, thermometer and a spirometer. (The latter is in collaboration with David Van Sickle, a population health sciences postdoctoral fellow at UW-Madison.)

“This is kind of our initial phase, and from there we plan on expanding to a number of different opportunities using the Internet and its vast possibilities for databasing, recordkeeping and telemedicine,” says Baran.

Beyond the EWH student organization, BME students participate heavily in global medical engineering activities, says biomedical engineering professor Willis Tompkins.

In addition to Vitzthum, several BME students have participated in the EWH summer program. And for years, a few student teams each semester have pursued solutions to EWH challenges via the BME design courses; recent projects have included a low-cost pressure meter and a medical aspirator for third-world country hospitals.

Nimunkar stresses that global engineering doesn’t necessarily involve traveling halfway across the world, but rather stems from developing interest in and raising awareness of global medical needs at home. “It is work at all these different levels,” he says. “It’s more like a ‘drop by drop makes a whole ocean’ effort.”