The University of Toronto’s annual Engineering World Health symposium, themed Origins and Opportunities, hosted a number of speakers and workshops to share innovative ideas about world health. It took place on January 20th at the University College, located on the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus. Engineers and non-engineers alike were drawn to the full-day event and enjoyed speaker-sessions, panel discussions, interactive workshops as well as a networking lunch and poster session.
Throughout the symposium, a common theme emerged as speakers, regardless of their backgrounds, placed a particular emphasis on studying the context of the problem along with its technical aspects to eventually create an effective solution. This knowledge is best acquired by hands-on experience through collaborations, volunteering, and fieldwork. It is also apparent that there is no limit in age or background–with enough drive, we are all capable of making an impact on Global Health! For highlights on the topics that were discussed by the speakers during the Symposium, please find a summary at the end of this post, and check out the live tweets that were posted by all our attendees using the #2017EWHS hashtag. We’d also like to congratulate Ina Muskaj on winning this year’s best tweet prize!
The poster session gave students an opportunity to showcase their research and interact with attendees from differing backgrounds. It was wonderful to see the genuine interest in global health work and to observe the innovative research being performed at the University of Toronto. Congratulations to this year’s poster winners, Bryan Gellner and Pengzhou Lu, for their presentation on Normothermic Ex Vivo Heart Perfusion!
We were fortunate to have the support of multiple organizations and student groups, who were on hand to inform students about other potential opportunities to participate in global health related activities. We are immensely grateful to our sponsors, as well as the speakers, moderators, and poster judges that made this thought-provoking day of discovery and discussion a reality. We’d also like to acknowledge the tireless efforts of the Symposium Organizing Committee, who volunteered their time (and sanity) to make this event a success.
The morning session had the theme Origins, where speakers shared their backgrounds to motivate and inform the audience about the different paths to participate in global health through real life, relatable stories.
It started off with Jerry Ennett, whose passion in medical science and technology led him to the field of Biomedical Engineering. He discussed his use of portable, solar-powered 3D printers to create affordable, custom-made medical devices in low- and middle-income countries as well as the International Space Station! Ennett’s work also focuses on creating a social enterprise which uses proceeds to fund further development and education in the communities. This will enable local physicians to design and print devices for patients at low cost such as finger splints and prosthetic arms. By bringing sustainable solutions to where needed, Ennett empowers the locals instead of displacing jobs.
Next up was Stephanie Gora, who discussed the challenges regarding the lack of access to clean water in small communities in Canada. Gora reminisced about her volunteering and consulting experience, which brought upon numerous opportunities that ultimately led to her current PhD studies. She also remarked the increasing female presence in the water industry, advocating for women in STEM! While working on a new water purification method that employs Titanium Oxide, Gora pointed out that the bigger challenge lies in fighting the industry’s resistance to change. In addition to technologies, innovations in management, financing, education, and environmental stewardship hold the key to improving drinking water quality for isolated communities.
Calvin Rieder inspired listeners by discussing his inspiration: the world around him. Rieder’s interest in water purification started in elementary school. Upon discovering the sheer number of people who do not have access to clean water, he created a science project to demonstrate passive water purification, a skill that he learnt while camping. Rieder continued to innovate in his backyard, using hot air from the back of a dryer to create iterations of prototypes that extracted water from air through condensation. Inspired by ancient architecture, he channels cool air during the night to condense water, and utilizes solar energy to disinfect water. Now an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering at UofT, Rieder is progressively improving his design and aims to produce enough water that one person needs to consume each day. Be sure to look out for this budding new engineer and his resourceful solutions to a global issue!
After a morning of inspiring speakers, symposium attendees enjoyed lunch and a poster session, followed by workshops. The Origins workshop What’s Your Problem?! – Tackling challenges in complex healthcare systems, led by consultant Jessica Fan, involved an interactive brainstorm session to explore problems in healthcare to identify a common issue. This workshop emphasized the importance to identify the root cause of a problem and find a resolution as opposed to treating the symptoms of an issue. Fan introduced a 3 stage process: distinguish problems and their common denominator, identify the stakeholders and understand their needs through the “empathy pathway”, then redefine the problem.
The Opportunities workshop, titled Ideation and Designing for Healthcare, was led by Lily Lo and Hadi Salah from MaRS and Hacking Health. The participants broke into small groups to practise systematic strategies and come up with ideas improving healthcare. One memorable exercise was writing down questions that challenged the status quo–why do we have to go to the doctor? Why do we have to go to grocery stores to buy food? Why can’t we grow our own food?–and imagining potentially better approaches. Other strategies were explored, such as simulating the life of a hypothetical patient to generate ideas for better patient care and using the “fast idea generator” as a tool to think differently and systematically for more effective idea generation.
Speakers in the afternoon Opportunities session included pioneers in the exciting fields of regenerative medicine, synthetic biology, and biomedical engineering. They also commented on the future opportunities and challenges of their field of research.
Dr. Emily Titus introduced the innovations at the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) to bring regenerative medicine to industry here in Toronto. CCRM’s framework is designed based on Toronto’s strengths in the academic, industry, investor and healthcare landscape. One example of their work is the use of stirred bioreactors to scale up mesenchymal stem cell production. As millions of cells are required to treat a single patient, scalability is essential to creating an industry that serves a large community.
Next, Dr. Keith Pardee discussed the possibility of synthetic biology without cells. BY harnessing the sensory power of biology, synthetic biology has potential applications in medicine, ecological monitoring, and food supply. Paper-based technology employs cell-free extracts to produce programmable sensors that allows rapid development, on-site and on-demand manufacturing, and room-temperature distribution. This innovation was tested for Zika virus diagnosis. The turnover from design validation to production took less than a week, producing devices capable of discriminating various viral strain.
Our last speaker, Dr. Geunther, shared the latest developments in bioprinting planar and ductular materials for tissue engineering. He commented that most engineered tissue applications are focused on in vitro models for drug screening rather than cell or tissue therapy. Therefore, his lab directed their efforts to design a skin printer for treating burn patients through partnership with a local dermatologist. Currently, bioprinting involves printing constructs onto which cells are seeded and grown. His research group started out by printing into a fish tank, and are now dispensing collagen-based tissue with a packing tape roller as an innovative method to achieve 3D-bioprinting. With his background in mechanical engineering, Dr. Geunther also emphasized on the importance of collaborations, where team members should be given the opportunities to interact in person at an early stage of the project. The audience was intrigued and we look forward to hearing more about his project in the future!
At the conclusion of this year’s Symposium, we’ve grown to appreciate the immense support for global health initiatives within the UofT community. Next year, we will return, armed with new knowledge and ready to take on the world once again. We hope to see you there!