VCU holds hackathon for development health-related technology

Photo by Michel Maulding

Katherine Boller
Contributing Writer

VCU held its third annual health hackathon this weekend at the College of Engineering’s East Hall on the Monroe Park Campus.

HealthHacks is a collaborative event in which students with different technical backgrounds come together to solve problems — this year’s theme was “Assistive Technology and Prosthetics” in a collaboration with Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. Teams spent up to 24 hours programming, inventing and building in order to create new ideas and solve challenges before presenting a prototype to a panel of judges.

“It’s a different set of problems each [year], and you can see the variety of everything from apps to swim fins to tremor control,” said Franklin Bost, director of the VCU Institute for Engineering and Medicine. “It’s very inspiring for students to work on this early on — something you don’t get in class everyday.”

Assistant professor of pharmacotherapy and outcomes science in VCU’s School of Pharmacy Dayanjan Wijesinghe addressed the challenge of creating a Fitbit-style device to detect the onset of anxiety attacks, discomfort or pain.

“I’m a parent of a child with autism,” Wijesinghe said. “And we really don’t know when they’re scared or their anxiety is building until it is too late.”

Other challenges addressed specific issues experienced by veterans. William Paul Colwell is a veteran who suffers from paraplegia — paralysis of the legs and lower body. His condition also makes it difficult to use his hands, which impacts his leatherworking hobby because he cannot properly grip the tools.

“Leatherwork has been a been a hobby for me since almost 1964 when I first entered into the military and started using the craft shop,” Colwell said. “VCU — and the ability of these young, brilliant minds — will be able to actually help develop tools that I can handle.”

Teams met with VA mentors, rehabilitation specialists and the veterans themselves.

“[Students get] the experience of working on something that’s a real need,” Bost said. “And hearing from the people that have a need — some of these are specific to an individual, some of them have application to many more people — but the process is the same.”

This year’s first place team — named “Team Anexpression” — was comprised of VCU sophomores Brennan Chaloux, Panth Doshi, Omar Karim, and senior Yashar Nainani. The winners produced a biometric device that was worn like a bracelet — meant for those who are unable to express their feelings or state of discomfort verbally.

The bracelet measured symptoms that come from panic attacks or panicked states, including increased heart rate, perspiration and respiration. It could also detect outside factors, such as noise, that could trigger anxiety. The device could upload the information to an app, which would then notify the wearer’s caregiver of distress.

“I was nervous at first because there were so many good projects — and ours started out really badly — but we found ways to fight the sleep deprivation to create yet another cool device,” Chaloux said. “It feels great to win.”

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