UCD engineering team with all-female executive wins international prize

Pictured left-right: Biomedical Engineering students Emma Bailey, Rebecca Meagher and Meg Brennan.

 

September 16, 2020

It is remarkable enough that a University College Dublin team recently took bronze the very first time they entered the prestigious Engineering World Health International Design Competition. 

After all, they had founded Ireland’s first chapter of the US non-profit only ten months earlier, fine-tuning their winning project remotely during the depths of the Covid-19 lockdown.

But with only one-third of the global STEM workforce made up of women - a figure that drops to less than a quarter in Ireland - the all-female executive behind UCD’s winning design is also noteworthy. 

“In terms of anything in STEM, to have three women in charge of the whole thing is statistically unlikely,” agrees president of the Irish EWH chapter, Rebecca Meagher, 22, now in her final year of a Masters in Biomedical Engineering in UCD.  "Women are a resource in engineering that in the past was untapped. The number of women in STEM is going up and up these days, and the three of us leading the team is a product of that,” she adds, of her fellow executives and classmates Meg Brennan and Emma Bailey. A fourth female on the original executive, Aliaa Karam, returned home to the UAE last February.

“Our success in this project is due to the fact that we're highly capable and dedicated engineers. Highly capable and dedicated engineers who just happen to be women. I think true gender equality in STEM will be achieved when we are viewed as no more and no less than the former.”

EWH engages the skills and passions of students and professionals from around the globe to improve healthcare delivery in developing countries.

Last October Stephen Redmond, Associate Professor at UCD Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Donal Holland, Assistant Professor at UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, encouraged their students to found Ireland’s first EWH chapter. Stephen had recently returned to UCD after ten years spent working at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“They had one there and he saw how much the students enjoyed it and how productive it was,” says Rebecca, elected president in the first chapter meeting late last year. Early in 2020 she and her teammates began to brainstorm design ideas. The result is KeepTrack, a blockchain mobile application to record and follow donations of medical equipment to hospitals in low and middle income countries. 

“It is estimated that up to 80% of the equipment in these hospitals is donated. But as it stands the donation flow is very, very poor,” explains Rebecca, citing a survey that found 40% of such equipment was out of service.

There are myriad reasons for this - a lack of expertise to maintain donated equipment, difficulty sourcing replacement parts, missing manuals. Sometimes donations don’t meet needs. Needed equipment can be incompatible with hospital infrastructure or power supply. Even “problems as simple as the plug doesn’t fit into the wall”.

Hospitals are reluctant to complain for fear of sounding unappreciative and risking future offers of crucial equipment. Or else they “simply don’t have the opportunity to give the feedback”.

Meanwhile unsuitable donations are a health hazard, blocking corridors and public areas in overstretched hospitals. Often devices are dumped.

“So it’s costly and wasteful. Something that started off being well intentioned can end up doing more harm than good.” 

Rebecca and her team designed a functioning app to address these shortcomings in the system. Before it is sent off, all equipment is given an RFID tracking tag and scanned by the KeepTrack app. Whenever it requires service or repair it is scanned again.

“So basically for any interaction other than general use of the machine the RFID will be tagged and that information will be relayed to the app and available to everyone who has partaken in that donation chain.”

This means a healthcare worker or biomedical technician can scan the unique tag to retrieve important advice and information, like the make and model of the device, where to source the user manual, the previous date it was serviced and the contact details of the manufacturer and local technician if it needs repair. KeepTrack makes a chaotic and wasteful donation flow streamlined, efficient and transparent. It is also easy-to-use; usability testing with a cohort of hospital staff who had “low proficiency” at using apps had a 100% success rate. 

KeepTrack now has corporate sponsors in ResMed and Cisco and the team is looking at other grant schemes and funding options to realise their prize-winning design. 

In the meantime, they are keeping busy with another project. 

“We’re currently collaborating with the University of New South Wales on their uninterruptible surgical lamp which actually won the EWH International Design Competition a few years ago. If there is a power outage - which is a huge problem in these low income countries - the lamp can switch from the main supply to a car power and be temporarily powered by a car battery for the duration of the power outage. We’re doing the electrical side behind it because they are mostly mechanical engineers.”

Interdisciplinary research is at the heart of EWH designs. 

“We have engineers in our chapters from all sorts of disciplines - biomedical engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, even civil engineers. It’s really good to see how these skills can overlap to produce something really useful and productive as we have with the KeepTrack.”

The Irish chapter is currently recruiting new members from UCD and any other interested university. They are hoping to submit at least two entries to the 2021 EWH International Design Competition. 

“There is an overall sense of determination to put our engineering knowledge that we’ve acquired over the past few years to the test,” says Rebecca, “and see how we can apply that to make a difference”.

 

This article was brought to you by UCD Institute for Discovery, fuelling interdisciplinary research collaborations. If you are interested in joining the Irish chapter of Engineering World Health, contact rebecca.meagher@ucdconnect.ie