Health students not hampered by distance, COVID-19 in innovation

Rice University, Malawi students design devices to help keep medical workers, public safe from COVID-19.

By Mike Williams July 22, 2020

Distance was no obstacle to hunkered-down interns with the Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health program this year.

In fact, it was an inspiration.

Students and staff at Rice, the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) and the University of Malawi, The Polytechnic (Poly) gathered virtually for six weeks to iterate on creative devices that address the COVID-19 pandemic. Their presentations built upon initial ideas that had been prototyped by students in Africa at Rice 360˚’s partner design studios in Malawi and Tanzania earlier in the year.

Their plans were revealed at the institute’s annual intern showcase July 16. This year it was a virtual event, with participants joining the Zoom session from around the world.

“We had to give a lot of thought to whether we might have to cancel the program, and that was really heartbreaking to think about,” said Rice 360˚ Director Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor and a professor of bioengineering. “Back in those days of late March and early April, I never really imagined how wonderful the virtual internship program could be.”

Three of the six proposals were presented at the showcase by 13 undergraduate interns and eight teaching assistants from Rice and Malawi, and all were the focus of videos the multidisciplinary teams were required to produce.

Students gave live presentations of a mask-disinfecting system, a walk-through decontamination unit and a “distancing” box to protect medical staff as they intubate a patient.

The disinfecting system would sterilize multiple N95 masks at once. This small room-based sanitizing system incorporates hanging masks near ultraviolet lights that kill the coronavirus in about half an hour. The students also proposed a design for a smaller version inside a box that could be solar powered for use in resource-poor locations. Strategically placed ultraviolet dosimeter cards help verify that the masks are fully decontaminated.

Metallurgy and materials engineering student Yankholanga Pelewelo of MUST, electrical and computer engineering student Carolyn Gonawamba of Poly, and Rice neuroscience student Andrew Abikhaled and bioengineering student Bhavya Gopinath developed the device.

Students at Rice University and in Malawi have developed plans for an improved intubation box that would protect clinicians from exposure to the coronavirus while treating patients, while better facilitating access. The students presented their design at the Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health Intern Showcase. Courtesy: Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health[/caption]

According to the program’s Rice 360˚ organizers — Andrea Gobin, director of invention education and global health lecturer; Ashley Taylor, director of education; and Emily Mitaro, education program administrator — all of the revised prototypes will be considered for new projects when students return to the design labs.

“It would have been easy and understandable to cancel this internship, but that’s not what happened, and look what the result was,” said Maria Oden, a professor of bioengineering, director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and director of Rice 360˚. “Over 90 people have tuned in to see the work of the interns. That’s something we’ve never achieved with our in-person internships. We can learn from this experience.”

– Edited by Chris Vavra, associate editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Author Bio: Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.