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Real Problems, Smart SolutionsVassar Students Shine at the Yale Healthcare Hackathon

When five Vassar pre-med students arrived on the campus of Yale Medical School last month, they knew they were there to solve real-life problems facing the medical profession. What they didn’t know was what the problems would be and who would be helping them solve them.

Forty-eight hours later, Isabel Castillo ’19, Frida Velcani ’19, Anna Rothenberg ‘20, Brittany Botticelli ’17 and Victoria Wilk ’20 left with three of the top six prizes awarded at the 2017 Yale Heathcare Hackathon. More than 175 undergraduates, medical students, and healthcare professionals competed on 35 teams in the event that took place in January in New Haven, CT.

Castillo was part of the “Rx4All” team that won $500 for designing a method of reclaiming and re-using discarded prescription drugs. According to one study, she says, nursing homes, hospitals and pharmacies discard more than 250 million pounds of unused drugs every year, “and we wanted to find a way to change that.”

Castillo, a physics and mathematics major from Costa Rica, says she first became aware of the issue of waste in the prescription drug industry when she worked as a medical assistant. She saw more evidence of this waste when she was in the U.S. Army. “A lot of soldiers don’t or can’t take their medication because they believe it might hinder their performance,” she says. “Our team at the Hackathon wondered how we might capture all these drugs and distribute them efficiently to people who need them.”

Isabel Castillo ’19, a member of the Rx4All team that won $500 for coming up with a method to recycle unused prescription drugsPhoto: Karl Rabe

After several hours of research and discussion, the Rx4All squad came up with a plan: Create a not-for-profit company that would collect the discarded and unused drugs from nursing homes, hospitals, and pharmacies and then sell them, at a bargain price, to free clinics where licensed physicians could re-prescribe them. The team decided to use its $500 prize to set up a not-for-profit corporation in Connecticut to try out the idea.

Castillo says she’d never heard the word “hackathon” before she entered this one but thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “What I liked most about it was we were all working toward a common goal, identifying a real problem and coming up with a practical way to solve it,” she says.

Velcani, Rothenberg, Botticelli, and Wilk were part of a 13-person team tasked with finding ways to prevent the wrist, arm, and shoulder injuries that plague about 80 percent of all technicians who operate ultrasound equipment in laboratories and hospitals. The large team split into two smaller squads when participants realized they were devising two different solutions to the problem. Both teams won $500 prizes.

Left to right: Victoria Wilk '20, Brittany Botticelli '17, Anna Rothenberg '20, and Frida Velcani '19Photo: Karl Rabe

Velcani and Rothenberg were part of the “Ultrasound Unchained” squad that proposed a sleeker design for the portion of the ultrasound equipment that the technician holds in his or her hand. The new design would enable the technician to push straight down on the device rather than moving it sideways, minimizing pressure on the wrist.

Botticelli, Wilk and Vassar alum Andrea Orane ’84 were members of the “ErgoSonic Squad.” They proposed adding a handle to the ultrasound equipment so the technician could start the procedure without twisting his or her body. Both teams also proposed using a special set of goggles that would enable the technician to view data from the machine while looking at the patient once the procedure was underway.

Velcani, a Science Technology and Society major from Fairfield, CT, and Rothenberg, a biology major from Old Brookfield, NY, both said they felt a bit intimidated to be teamed up with healthcare professionals and post-graduate students. “At the start of the brainstorming session, I felt there were others on the team who were more qualified,” Velcani says, “but by the end, my input became part of the design, and that was gratifying.”

Orane, who earned a master’s degree in public health from Yale in 1992, says she was impressed with the contribution of her Vassar teammates, Botticelli and Wilk. “I was thrilled to be part of a team that got so much accomplished,” she says, “and it was a nice homecoming, being back at one of my old schools and working with such gifted Vassar students.”

Hackathon T-shirtsPhoto: 2017 Yale Healthcare Hackathon

Botticelli, a biology major from Commack, NY, said her team’s new design of the ultrasound equipment could be implemented by technicians immediately. “The beauty of our plan is that it doesn’t require any new technology,” she says. “Everything we use in the design already exists.”

Botticelli said she’d never participated in a hackathon before but said it was a useful exercise for all prospective medical students. “Part of practicing medicine is facing new challenges all the time,” she says. “I definitely think an event like this should be made available to anyone planning to go into the medical field.”

Wilk, a biochemistry major from Moscow, Idaho, says the benefits and rewards of participating in the hackathon didn’t end when the event concluded and the prizes were awarded. “ There were plenty of networking opportunities,” she says. “We were told about internships and other opportunities down the road, and a lot of us traded contact information.”

Castillo says she’s already on the lookout for another hackathon.” There’s a famous one at MIT every year that a lot of people apply for, and I really want to do that one,” she says. “I want to continue to find ways to work on issues that will benefit a lot of people. And besides, it was really fun.”