Out of the Classroom and Into the Lab: Summer Engineering Exposure

by Kevin Vargas

One of the several tragic problems that developing countries face is HIV mortality, especially in infants. While current HIV testing methods are very reliable and accurate, they are not best suited for infants in the developing world. They are either too expensive or do not work on infants because they test for HIV antibodies, which can be obtained from a mother’s breast milk. This HIV antibody transfer could lead to a possible false positive in the babies. Other methods require transport of the testing materials to another location, which requires extra time. Mothers do not always have the extra time to wait for the diagnosis and often the clinics can be miles away, which make travel difficult and further complicate the problem.

To learn more about this dilemma, I had the pleasure of visiting Professor David Kelso’s lab in the biomedical engineering department of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois as an exposure this past summer. Professor Kelso and his team of researchers are focused on the issue of infant mortality caused by HIV and have developed an affordable and rapid diagnostic for HIV in infants to combat this issue. They showed us their small and portable device as well as their method of diagnosis. It involves using a small blood sample to determine the presence of an HIV protein. Results come after about 45 minutes, making it ideal for the developing world where results need to be fast so that mothers receive the results quickly and the infants may receive the treatment they need earlier than before. We were also told that the team aimed for high sensitivity and specificity, meaning that they wanted to be sure that the test accurately identifies HIV-positive infants as HIV-positive and HIV-negative infants as HIV-negative, respectively. Currently, the device is in its clinical trial phase and Dr. Kelso’s team hopes that it will launch into the market in the near future.

While we were in the lab, Dr. Kelso also introduced us to another one of his projects:  an app that helps diagnose prevalent diseases in developing countries, such as tuberculosis and malaria. The idea is to have an affordable tablet available to nurses in these areas to help them diagnose patients with diseases that are especially widespread and specific to those areas. The app is on a small tablet powered by the Android operating system. The diagnosis criteria found in the app follows the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards for diagnosis. I asked Dr. Kelso how the app compares to websites that people often go to ‘self diagnose’, such as WebMD. He answered that the app is tailored to each specific country and its unique rate of disease so that diagnosis will be more specific and accurate than WebMD for each individual country. The data recorded from this app will then be compiled into a database to help further develop the app and provide more accurate diagnoses.  

As a biomedical engineering major, this exposure was one I did not want to miss. In the past, I had done research in the biomedical engineering field involving fibroblast cells, which focused more on the biomechanical and biochemical side of biomedical engineering. The research in Dr. Kelso’s lab, however, was more towards the public health and medical side of biomedical engineering. It was definitely interesting being able to see the different areas of research that are under biomedical engineering, especially since biomedical engineering encompasses many different, yet related fields of study. While I think that it is important to learn everything we possibly can learn in the classroom, it is equally as important to step out of the classroom and see what is being done with the knowledge that we are learning. This exposure gave me a better understanding of my major and what field I would like to pursue after graduating from college. 

Schuler Scholars and staff with Dr. David Kelso in his lab at Northwestern University

Kevin Vargas is a graduate of the Round Lake High School Class of 2011 and a rising junior at Yale University. He has previously written on the Schuler blog about his experience conducting scientific research through the STARS Program at Yale. During summer 2013, Kevin worked as an SSP intern at the central office in Lake Forest, IL. Learn more about Kevin on LinkedIn.


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