4 graduate students, 3 undergraduate teams are 2019 winners

Two cancer-fighting screening tools highlight innovations by college students who are among the winners of the 2019 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

The annual prize, supported by The Lemelson Foundation, follows a nationwide search for the most inventive college students who attempt to solve global problems. This year’s program awarded a total of $90,000 in prizes to three undergraduate teams and four individual graduate student inventors. Graduate winners/teams won $15,000; undergraduates won $10,000.

Students were selected based on factors that included the overall inventiveness of the work, the invention’s potential for commercialization or adoption, and youth mentorship experience. The winners:

“CURE IT!” PRIZE (tech-based health care inventions)

Graduate: Mercy Asiedu of Duke University invented the Callascope—a high-quality, low-cost, speculum-free device for cervical cancer screening and prevention. Most cervical cancer-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries due to the lack of affordable screening technology.

The device can be easily inserted into the vagina, like a tampon. It is fitted with a consumer-grade light source and camera to take images of the cervix from inside the body. The Callascope can be connected to a mobile phone, tablet or computer, and is coupled with an algorithm that uses machine learning to classify cervix images as normal or pre-cancerous.

Undergraduate: Laura Hinson, Madeline Lee, Sophia Triantis and Valerie Zawicki of Johns Hopkins University invented Ithemba—a reusable, affordable, contamination-free core needle breast biopsy device that is designed to support earlier breast cancer detection in low-resource settings.

Reusable devices currently on the market are expensive and require a 24-hour cleaning process. Ithemba is affordable and can also be sterilized instantly with a bleach wipe. Performing breast biopsies will be significantly less expensive for hospitals and physicians in low-resource settings, and much safer for their patients.

“EAT IT” PRIZE (tech-based food/water and agriculture inventions)

Graduate: Julie Bliss Mullen of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, started a company called Aclarity LLC. It offers a scalable electrochemical water purification technology, marketed initially for residential use, that uses low amounts of electricity to zap contaminants in water through advanced oxidation reactions.

The technology disinfects pathogens, destroys organic contaminants, removes metals, and normalizes pH to produce clean and safe water. It reduces maintenance, uses low energy and purifies water faster and more efficiently than conventional treatment methods.

Undergraduate: Enid Partika and William Tanaka of the University of California San Diego started the BioEnergy Project. It’s a compact and scalable food-waste-to-food-and-fuel system that converts food waste from dining halls and restaurants into nutrient-rich organic fertilizer that can be used to grow more food, as well as electricity that is generated from biogas.

Currently, 40 percent of all food produced is wasted and dumped into landfills. When food decomposes in a landfill it generates methane, which is released into the atmosphere.

“MOVE IT” PRIZE (tech-based transportation and mobility inventions)

Graduate: Federico Scurti, a visiting PhD student at Pennsylvania State University, invented an internal monitoring system for High Temperature Superconductors (HTS). It consists of a sensing system to detect local, incipient failures in the HTS wire that generates the magnetic field needed to operate electric motors or Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) trains.

The sensing system is based on optical fibers embedded into superconducting wires that can prevent failure of the superconductor.

Undergraduate: John Horne and Morgen Glessing of Brigham Young University invented Portal Entryways, a wireless device that opens disabled-accessible doors when a user approaches with the Portal smartphone application.

A small wireless receiver is installed on the door and the user’s Portal app uses proximity to tell the door when to open upon approach. In addition to helping people with mobility-related disabilities, the system enables facilities managers to track door usage data in order to maintain accessibility.

“USE IT” PRIZE (tech-based consumer device inventions)

Graduate: Arnav Kapur of Massachusetts Institute of Technology invented AlterEgo—a headset-like device that is a sensory and auditory feedback system, using neuromuscular signals from the brain’s speech system to extract speech.

When we talk to ourselves internally, our brain transmits electrical signals to the vocal cords and internal muscles involved in speech production. With AlterEgo, an artificial intelligence agent is able to make sense of these signals and prepare a response. The user can hear the AI agent’s responses through vibrations in the skull and inner ear, making the process entirely internal. The AI agent can also send the information to a computer, to help an individual with a speech disability communicate in real time.