Designing healthy futures

“This class involved delving into whole new fields for me,” says Sara Sampson. With a laugh, she continues, “But we figured things out along the way.”

Sampson is speaking in December 2016, as her team wraps up their project for Bioengineering Senior Design Projects, a course taught by Amy Herr and held in Jacobs Hall. The course serves as a capstone experience for undergraduate students in bioengineering, a field that the department’s website defines as “the application of engineering principles to biological systems.” This description continues, “A very broad area of study, bioengineering can include elements of electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, materials, chemistry and biology.”

For students like Sampson, UC Berkeley is a fruitful place to bring these elements together. On Berkeley’s campus and in the broader Bay Area community, researchers explore the interlocking bases of bioengineering — engineering principles and biological systems—from myriad angles. The Senior Design Projects course offers students a chance to tie this diverse research activity to design methods, conceptualizing and prototyping approaches to real-world challenges. Providing both classroom space and access to cutting-edge equipment, Jacobs Hall offers a rich environment in which to do this: from 3D-printed prosthetics and microfluidics projects to bioinspired robotics, researchers and makers here are pushing in new directions at intersections of engineering, biology, and health.

This past fall’s Senior Design Projects students relished the opportunity to push in new directions themselves. Working with “clients” and partners in the local community (including doctors, medical researchers, and nonprofits), students prototyped solutions for diverse issues, ranging from vital signs monitoring in under-resourced hospitals to mobility for senior citizens. Over the course of the semester, they completed interviews and observations; developed, prototyped, and tested concepts; and presented this work to peers and partners, getting an up-close experience of biomedical innovation in the process.

As student teams moved through the design process, identifying core challenges and iterating on ideas, many found themselves trying out new technologies. With the help of Maker Passes and other campus resources, teams gained skills in areas from electronics to 3D printing, which many students had no prior experience using. Sometimes, this experimentation with new tools sparked unexpected realizations. “This was supposed to be round, perfectly circular — and the 3D print failed and cut off half of it,” says Aran Bahl, holding up a 3D-printed prototype of a patch for vital signs monitoring, meant to help nurses in under-resourced hospitals. “But as we sat there looking at it,” he continues, “we realized, ‘maybe this could be beneficial somehow.’” Analyzing the print, which had ended up with one straight edge rather than a fully rounded form, the team realized that the unintended shape could facilitate both better resolution for EKG data and more intuitive orientation for nurses placing the patch on a patient’s body. “This failed 3D print was a stroke of good luck,” explains teammate Karthik Prasad.

In the course of this iterative prototyping process, students also ventured beyond campus, finding inspiration in surprising places. A group focused on developing a tool that would help seniors safely get in and out of cars, for example, observed elders as they completed this common motion — some shifted their bodies to try to accommodate mobility issues, while others used makeshift implements like trash bags to help them slide onto a seat. Considering how they might add mechanical assistance to this equation, the student team began to look not only at existing assistive technologies, but also at designs applied in other contexts. At one point, they made a trip to a local REI, studying kayak and bike racks to see how these devices used vehicle features as built-in anchors. “We spent a lot of time adapting existing mechanisms to our own needs,” notes team member Katelyn Greene. “We learned about being open-minded, seeing what already exists elsewhere.” Ultimately, ideas adapted from these products found their way into the team’s final design, a stability handle that can be easily transported and connected to parts of a car when needed.

Students Matthew Chan, Karthik Prasad, and Sara Sampson presenting their work to hospital administrators at Kiruddu Hospital in Uganda.

Underlying these wide-ranging explorations was a focus on the connections between biological systems and the physical and social environments in which people experience health issues. By interviewing and observing target users and experts over the course of the semester, the student teams were able to link research findings with contextual insights. The team working on vital signs monitoring, for example, spoke with experts throughout the semester, following this up with a January trip to several hospitals in Uganda. There, they met with staff and got a fuller sense of the hospital’s layout, day-to-day workflows, and details like power and wifi reliability. Now back in Berkeley, they’re working to incorporate this research and feedback on their device into their next iterations, refining design features and project plans.

Another team — focused on tremor monitoring for Parkinson’s patients to help gauge the effects of individualized treatment plans, which can involve difficult adjustment periods — quickly got a sense of the complex systems surrounding health issues. As they met with patients, caretakers, families, doctors, and physical therapists, they realized that the core needs for a symptom monitoring system included flexibility and convenience. For patients already facing challenges in daily life, a discreet device that could be easily worn in multiple settings and required only passive inputting on their part (unlike systems that required patients to manually log their hours) could make a big difference.

With this in mind, they prototyped an approach that would use an emerging technology — wearable circuits, in the form of thin-film metal temporary tattoos that can collect and share sensor data — to make symptom monitoring less intrusive. This elegant solution was the product of a highly iterative, often cyclical design process. “One of the big things that this class has given me is an appreciation for how much thought goes into everything. Going through the real design process to develop this one small device makes you realize that,” says Katherine Spack, a student who worked on the project. She adds, “It was good to have the chance to apply theory myself and to see, ‘oh, this is how these pieces really go together.’”

Bringing concepts together is a familiar practice at Jacobs Hall. From Bioinspired Design, a lower-division integrative biology class that draws from nature to inform product design, to upper-level courses like Bringing Biomedical Devices to Market, the building houses diverse explorations around biology, health, and design. Outside of courses, many students are seeking out — and creating—opportunities to learn about design, seeing it as a powerful complement to expertise in a field like bioengineering. The Berkeley Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), for example, has a growing committee focused on design. While this committee has generally focused on graphic design projects related to the club’s programs, it’s increasingly interested in areas like hardware innovation and how students can gain hands-on skills to enhance what they learn in class. “I never thought an engineering club would focus on design processes, creative processes,” says Tiffany Ma, who helps lead design efforts for BMES. “It’s really rewarding to have this opportunity to learn.”

Students in Bioinspired Design.

Other projects underway at Jacobs Hall provide new opportunities to work across disciplines in tackling health challenges. Computer science students have prototyped health-focused smartwatch apps in User Interface Design, while budding social entrepreneurs have worked on public health initiatives for both local and global settings. Some of these efforts have extended beyond the campus, such as Navigating the Human Path, a spring 2016 course in which undergraduates and elders from the local community collaborated to design for healthy, affordable aging. This month, student group EnableTech, in partnership with Tikkun Olam Makers, will host a makeathon at Jacobs Hall, connecting need-knowers (community members with disabilities or needs for assistive devices) with student makers to create open-source assistive technologies.

In a time when myriad developments—from the rise of big data to advances in biomaterials—are reshaping approaches to health, design offers modes of connecting emerging technology with real human needs. Learning from each other as they apply design tools to pressing health challenges, Berkeley students are preparing to help lead the way in this ever-evolving field. With skills honed at Berkeley, says student Giang Ha, “We’re able to go into the real world, find a problem, and bring something to life.”

By Laura Mitchell