Portable Ultrasound Group Capstone Project

At the University of Washington, College of Engineering, senior design projects, known as capstones, transform undergraduates into engineers. You are about to hear from team members of the Midwives Ultrasound Capstone Project about their work.

Video Transcription

Narrator: In the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) and the College of Engineering at the University of Washington, senior design projects, known as capstones, transform undergraduates into engineers. Donations to the Capstone fund allow students to pursue their professional interest and tackle complex, full cycle design. You are about to hear from team members of the Midwives Ultrasound Capstone Project about their work, and how funding for their project made all the difference.

Rob Nathan, MD, MPH: Maternal mortality in the developing world has been a persistent problem. There have been different kinds of interventions and money thrown at it, but it really has improved very little in the last twenty years. One of the main causes is that women in Sub-Saharan Africa for instance, 30% or 40%, or more in some countries still deliver in the home. A group of us began talking about portable ultrasound and how it would apply to developing countries and that this was a perfect opportunity to make some impact.

Our idea was to have the midwives identify twins, breech and placenta previa, which is the placenta covering the birth canal before delivery. Instead, of having these women go home to deliver, we would alert them that they needed to go back to a health facility, a hospital that could do Caesarean section.

Beth Kolko: Last summer, I got an email out of the blue from Dr. Rob Nathan from Radiology, and he was working on this fascinating project trying to train midwives in Uganda. He was grappling with, wow, ultrasound devices are still really expensive. How do we make them cheaper? We talked about some of the technical issues, but we also started talking about the human dimension. I knew that I had this class coming up that I was going to be working on with Ruth, and that we were going to have these students who wanted to work on real projects about technology design.

Ruth Anderson: I think for many students, the Capstone experience is probably the most, definitely one of the most memorable experiences of their undergraduate career. One of the main things they learn is problem solving, so unlike previous courses, they're working on something that's rather open-ended. Even as the instructor, we don't necessarily know what roadblocks they're going to come up against. Students really have to be resourceful and motivated to figure out what to do to get over those roadblocks. It's really sort of bringing together everything they've learned in other courses in their major.

Sanjana Prasain: Capstone course is different than the other classes because you have a whole quarter to work on one particular project, so you can get in more detail and then come up with a product that will impact the real world. It's really great in that sense.

Rob Nathan: Our idea in working with the students was to have them come up with equipment, first of all that was less expensive, and secondly that was much easier to operate. Going a little bit beyond that, we want to make it more specific for the midwives, so user-friendly with midwives in mind.

Beth Kolko: So it's a two year degree, or at some universities it's a four year degree learning how to do ultrasound. What they're trying to do is, in two weeks, train midwives in Uganda how to use the technology. That requires some adaptations, and that's what the students have been working on.

Wayne Gerard: What I'd really like to see is a drop in maternal mortality rates in Uganda, hopefully due to result of our project.

Alexis Hope: This project is probably the one thing over the past four years that has reminded me why I came to college in the first place.

One of the trickiest things about acquiring ultrasound images is not just understanding what you're seeing, but also understanding how the sound waves are traveling because that will change how you scan. Our device right now, currently costs about 1/5 the price of commercial portable ultrasound machines. Most of them range in price from $20,000 to $40,000. Our device right now has a max price of around $5,000, but we're hoping in the future we can get that cost down. We're kind of hoping to make this a platform for ultrasounds so that if we get the price of the transducer down and write software for free that midwives could use this software on a variety of different devices, such as a mobile phone or a different kind of computer.

Rob Nathan: I was very pleased with the progress that was made. I thought that in a very short period of time, we went from a concept to actually a piece of equipment that is useable. I think that although we have further testing to do, I'm very optimistic that this equipment can be used in the field and not just in our project, but in other projects and more widely in the developing world.

Wayne Gerard: I think it's really important to understand that capstones, above anything else really, I think prepare students for the real world. Real world projects basically involve things like this starting from scratch sometimes, getting requirements into many things, not being sure of the answer. Funding is an important part of that. Obviously, projects don't materialize out of nothing.

Ruth Anderson: From the very beginning, the students were very concerned with fundraising to the extent that they formed a university student group for the purpose of fundraising to push forward their efforts. It was really a great boon for them to win this award. I would say it was a big validation of their efforts, and just sort of redoubled their enthusiasm for the project.

Rob Nathan: I think that financial support for this kind of project is very valuable because the students can apply the knowledge that they've learned as undergraduates to a project where they can use all of their skills, their imagination, their energy, to potentially come up with something that's really good and useful.

Alexis Hope: At the beginning of this project, we were really daunted by the cost of some of the different pieces we were looking at incorporating into our project and how much those would cost, including the transducer, which we got quotes for up to $4500 for that. When you're trying to develop a sustainable solution or even just a basic prototype of what that solution might look like, that was kind of throwing a wrench in our plans. We decided to apply for the funding.

Beth Kolko: In one of our early meetings with the group, Ruth and I were talking with them. They had been doing a survey of other projects that were similar. They were worried. They were like, "Well, but all these other people are working on ultrasound projects in the developing world and we're just undergraduates. What can we possibly do that's new?" What we said was, :"Just because other people are doing, it doesn't mean you can't also provide an innovation to the space." They were like, "Oh. OK. Our professor said we have to keep going," so they kept going.

Receiving an award like this based on the quality of their work was really motivating. It did push them to go forward with what is truly innovative, and sure there are lots of other organizations and companies working in this space but these students have done something unique.

Matthew Hicks: Without the funding, we couldn't test it on anyone. We applied for IRB to test on some phantoms and we couldn't even do that. This funding is very important because we couldn't do our project without it.

Wayne Gerard: If I had to tell an alumni where their money went, I would say that in the end your money probably went to save a baby's life. I don't think there's any better way you could've spent it. If you ever see me in public, I love to shake your hand and thank you, basically.