BioactiVT: Engineering Medical Solutions

Thermo Electric Modular Pulse Oximeter
Thermo Electric Modular Pulse Oximeter

By:  Arianna Krinos

Stumbling into the aptly hidden meeting of the BioactiVT team on Monday night in Norris Hall, small talk was confined to biomedical engineering. The small conference room-style Engineering Science and Mechanics lounge became a medium conducive to the chatter of members of one of Virginia Tech’s design teams. The casual atmosphere—some members were laughing, others eating—betrayed the lighthearted nature of the coalition: a friendly group of people dedicated to deciphering health-related engineering problems. The ten members in attendance started by discussing the often simplistic solutions that can be found to complicated issues. Often the best ideas, the group members resolved, are both the most modest and functional: among concepts considered were a toilet-based bathroom light as well modifications made to a walker.

As might be expected, many of the members of the cleverly-dubbed BioactiVT team major in biological systems or mechanical engineering, but exceptions are numerous: another popular choice among the attendees was electrical engineering, which, with mechanical engineering, is the major the majority of team members claim. The biomedical engineering minor offered by Engineering Science and Mechanics was something many of the students had committed to—a natural extension of their vested interest in medical solutions. The team officers say that drawing attention to the often little-known minor is one of their goals. Priya Venkatraman, team president, is a materials science and engineering student, presiding over the meeting with vice president Angad Verma of mechanical engineering, showcasing the diversity of the organization’s members; the team relates the complexity of engineering issues and the myriad of people required to resolve engineering problems. Ellie Nave, management and marketing management major, recalls that she was brought into the team randomly after being exposed to the venture during a health company talk, and works in tandem with Nathan Robertson, an Engineering Science and Mechanics student, in bolstering BioactiVT’s business realm image. She and Robertson establish contacts on and off of Virginia Tech’s campus as well as represent the team with composure; a skill set demonstrated effectively through their fine-tuning the professional image of the organization, and Nave’s attraction of the attention of Engineers’ Forum.

Founded last school year, BioactiVT is the product of the expanding interest of both Virginia Tech and the industry of biomedical applications for engineering technologies, a combination which can be indispensable for the treatment of patients in the United States and abroad. According to Venkatraman, the team was formed from a desire to “start a team where students passionate about applying their engineering knowledge could come together and apply that knowledge locally and globally.” The project which won BioactiVT second place in a biomedical engineering competition during its first year focuses on improvements for countries without proper medical and/or energy infrastructure—an upgrade could save lives during surgical procedures. Designed to monitor the vital statistics of those undergoing surgery or similarly dire circumstances, pulse oximeters are commonplace hardware in American hospitals. The device emits LED light to send a light signal that reflects red and infrared light to a photodiode, the ratio between which can reveal the level of oxygenation in a patient’s blood through hemoglobin’s irregular absorbance of each light type given variant oxygen conditions. In under-developed areas, lack of access to pulse oximeters means that during medical procedures, patients’ vital statistics can only be monitored visually: consequently, distress is often noted only when already too late. Through what Verma calls a “significant design evolution,” BioactiVT has invented a method of overcoming the challenges faced by the developing world. Their invention, which they call Thermo Electric Modular Pulse Oximeter (T.E.M.P.O.), is a small, lightweight, 3-D printed version of the device powered by thermoelectric generators. The generators are capable of harnessing the patient’s natural heat, and to improve sanitation, the aluminum plates which make contact with the patient can be easily removed and boiled to reduce the spread of disease. BioactiVT’s pulse oximeter requires no grid-provided electricity or batteries: essential considering that many underprivileged hospitals lack access to constant electricity or the resources necessary to constantly purchase and replace batteries. Further, even BioactiVT’s prototype costs about $100, which is far removed from the typical market price of a standard traditional pulse oximeter: $1000.

Team member Andy Cohen described that when designing TEMPO, the team needed to do a lot of research on global needs. Of BioactiVT, Cohen shared that he believes that team members are “really designing for a purpose—we have a problem…how do we fix it?” BioactiVT is, in their eyes, a practical team: not only a place to find veritable global problems and search for their solutions, but also, according to Cohen, a “replica of what you would find with a real-life company or real-life work.” All of the team members were in agreement that, despite the time commitment that BioactiVT demands, what they get out of the experience is tangible and satisfying, and it is for that reason that they often place other activities and commitments on hold to put more time into the project. Mechanical engineering major Kerry Page mentioned that when it comes to BioactiVT, “[they’ll] make the time…[despite] the difficulty of coordinating 14 schedules with practically all different majors.” Cohen described that every one of the team members helps to, “kind of work out whatever needs to be done,” and the group was in consensus that adding interdisciplinary focus to the team—particularly the addition of Robertson and Public Relations Manager Nave to handle business-related concerns—aided in refocusing time management priorities. Venkatraman even conjectured that focusing on BioactiVT “allows [them] to do better in the things that they are involved in” outside of their biomedical engineering design team.

On October 7, BioactiVT team members woke up at 4 a.m. to board a bus to Reagan Airport, where they flew to Tampa, Florida, for the Engineering World Health Design Competition. On Saturday, they received their award: the second place distinction. The team hopes to soon begin trial runs in local Lewis-Gale Hospital and to expand their horizons with new projects to occur concurrently.

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