Columbia Confronts the Ebola Crisis

Oct 17 2014 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Video: Jane Nisselson | Photos: Timothy Lee Photographers

The real-life global problem: Ebola outbreak. The challenge: to develop low-cost technology-driven solutions to meet the tremendous challenges posed by the Ebola crisis.

In front of a panel of public health specialists and engineers on Oct. 15, 11 Columbia teams presented their designs or rough prototypes that address the Ebola crisis.

Realizing the urgency to control the outbreak, the deans at Columbia Engineering and the Mailman School of Public Health are sponsoring a rapid-fire design challenge to confront the Ebola crisis. The idea behind the challenge is to not only come up with rapid low-cost, real-time solutions, from concept to deployment, but also engage the Columbia community—from all disciplines—to take action, collaborate, and have an impact on this critical global issue.

“Engineers create solutions that address global challenges,” says Mary C. Boyce, dean of Columbia Engineering. “There is an urgent need for innovative, cost-effective solutions to de-escalate this public health crisis, and so we are encouraging our students and faculty from across the University to concentrate their creative energies on working on innovations to ameliorate this situation.” 

Eleven teams of students—both undergrads and grads—and faculty from the Engineering School, Mailman, SIPA, Columbia College, the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, among others—are in the midst of producing practical designs or rough prototypes to help significantly reduce the number of people who are dying from Ebola or stop the spread of the lethal disease. In the coming weeks, the Engineering School and Mailman will continue to shape some of the more promising design solutions that have been presented, including garnering feedback from infectious disease experts from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Médecins Sans Frontières. The goal is to help quickly fund the design of a viable prototype and pursue more support for actual deployment and use.

To date, potential solutions that have been proposed include a low-cost pigmented bleach solution, a decontaminating bleach foam, an Ebola-specific containment suit, a portable chlorine dioxide decontamination chamber, and a mobile platform for rapid response, patient care, and data tracking. In less than two weeks, participants formed teams, worked 24/7 in brainstorming sessions, developed and then presented their proposals to a panel of experts, comprising leading public health specialists and engineers, including Dean Mary C. Boyce, Mechanical Engineering Chair Jeffrey Kysar, and Mailman’s W. Ian Lipkin, an authority on epidemiology and outbreak response.

For Engineering junior Jason Kang and others who are participating in the rapid-fire design challenge, the chance to come up with an engineering solution in real time with real impact is what becoming an engineer is all about. It is one of the reasons why he chose to pursue biomedical engineering in the first place: to solve difficult problems that will improve the health status of the world.

“I was extremely excited when I saw that Columbia was holding this challenge,” says Kang. “I believe challenges with real-world applications will greatly improve the culture of innovation and social impact at Columbia.” 

The challenge fell right in the middle of midterms, but, notes Lipkin, even that did not deter student interest. “They really want to do something,” he says. “It’s really great.” Adds Boyce, “I am impressed with what they have been able to come up with in such a short amount of time.”

Of the 11 proposals on the table, the presentation by Kang and his teammates, who include computer science senior Justin Zhao and Columbia College students, Katherine Jin and Kevin Tyan, addresses a critical problem: how to better protect the many health care workers who are at high risk for infection. They zoned in on personnel decontamination, and have created a pigmented bleach solution that enables health care workers to visualize with color exactly what has or has not been decontaminated. In addition, their team designed the formula to be flexible, to slowly lose its color after about 15 minutes (the timing is adjustable) so that users can spray the pigmented bleach solution on reusable items without worrying about color staining, and the color change will also inform them when sufficient time has passed for Ebola to be neutralized.

“We're hoping that this will ultimately reduce the number of health care workers getting infected,” says Kang. “It's a simple idea that we think could be implemented immediately in the field.”

Another proposal involves a low-cost, durable method for transporting patients with infectious diseases like Ebola from rural areas to medical centers. A team of students majoring in civil engineering and biomedical engineering are developing a disposable disease containment suit that promotes body temperature regulation, air ventilation, electrolyte/hydration exposure, urine/feces containment, and vomit containment.

Ritish Patnaik, a junior in biomedical engineering and part of two teams, says the design challenge has been exciting and a lot of fun. “I've really enjoyed bouncing ideas off of other Columbia students and designing projects that could make a real impact in the coming months,” says Patnaik, “and I appreciate the fact that this same inventive, constructive environment is present when my team works together as well.”

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