An unassuming cooler sits on the floor inside the room of Katy Chan ’15. But when she opens the lid, the inside reveals a pump equipped with circuitry and glassware — her senior project.
The cooler is a prototype for PremieBreathe — a low cost respiratory aid for neonatal infants — that Chan hopes may one day save the lives of infants in developing countries.
Over winter break, Chan and Jordan Sabin ’16, whose senior project will also be PremieBreathe, visited Ethiopia to find out whether their respiratory device prototype, which warms and humidifies air for infants in respiratory distress, would be helpful to local health officials. Designing the device has presented some challenges, but all members of the team said they are hopeful for the future of the project, which officially began last spring as the senior project of Charles Stone ’14.
“I came into Yale thinking about cars and planes and never thought about working in medicine before,” said Sabin, who is an economics and mechanical engineering double major. “It was not something I was expecting, not something I actively sought out, but it has been really great and I love the interaction of medicine and engineering.”
From their trip to Ethiopia, Chan and Sabin learned that the doctors would benefit from having such a device. Currently, doctors routinely create respiratory devices from found objects like soda bottles. While respiratory systems in the U.S. cost $5,000 — a price too high for developing nations — PremieBreathe costs less than $500 to make. Although there are other marketed products similar to PremieBreathe, none possess the humidifying capabilities that are necessary to give the infant a good chance at survival.
The trip also made them realize that their design needs to be about half the size it is now in order to fit within the space constraints of the hospital, Sabin said.
Health officials in Ethiopia have made maternal and infant care a priority in recent years. The Yale Global Health Leadership Institute — with which PremieBreathe is partnering — has forged a good relationship with workers in the country, making it a perfect target site for the final product, said Shirin Ahmed ’12, program manager for YGHLI. But the ultimate goal is to develop something that can be used in all countries in the developing world, she added.
“Yale appreciates that these kind of projects require expertise from many departments,” said biomedical engineering professor Angelica Gonzalez, Chan’s advisor for the project. “Yale is one of the only universities that really fosters that collaborative environment across the University.”
The project is completely student-run, so one of the most important next steps will be to secure funds in order to train a number of students who will continue the project, Gonzalez said.
Chan, who knew she wanted to be involved in biomedical engineering from a young age, applied for a grant to continue the project after she graduates this May. Despite working at a consulting firm, Stone still returns to New Haven to work with the team and said he feels committed to the future of the project.
“There are a lot of stake holders in the project,” Sabin said. “A lot of people’s time and money has been invested, and we don’t want to let it trail off and come to nothing.”
Larry Wilen, a senior research scientist at the School of Engineering and Applied Science who helped advise Stone on specific engineering techniques in the CEID, said the progression of the project from just a single student working on his senior project to a full-fledged and funded team makes him excited for the future. Before he came on board, the project had fallen short on funding, Stone said.
Ahmed said she finds it personally challenging, but engaging, to work alongside physicians and engineers with whom she does not share the same engineering language. The variety of interests means that there are a lot of “moving parts” to handle but also great potential for the project’s impact, she added.
Neonatal deaths and deaths of children under five account for 30 percent of annual deaths in Ethiopia.