Nandita Mohan / Sun Staff Photographer

Students collaborate on health hackathon project ideas at Collegetown Ehub

March 5, 2018

Students Develop App to Aid Strep Throat Patients from Home

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This past weekend, while the Cornell Campus shut down for an unprecedented snow day, the eHub on College Avenue hummed to life with an atmosphere of innovation and excitement. On Friday evening, students, mentors, and speakers, congregated in Collegetown to embark on the three-day enterprise that is the Cornell Health Hackathon.

The Cornell Health Hackathon is an event that encourages students from a diverse background of degrees, majors, and schools to collaborate in teams and produce a viable solution to a relevant issue in the medical community.
This year’s hackathon outlined two health-related problems for teams to tackle. The first challenge involved resolving the global antibacterial resistance crisis, the other, creating an easy to use sleep tracking program. By designing a unique and impactful product that puts to use machine learning and data visualization, three teams had the opportunity to win $4,000.

The event began with a presentation by keynote speaker Darwin Johnston, head of services at Glaxosmithkline, one of the event’s main sponsors. Throughout the weekend there were various workshops led by sponsoring organizations including Johnson & Johnson and the National Science Foundation. Johnston also served as one of the three judges, along with Prof. Ilana Brito, biomedical engineering and Avery August, vice provost for academic affairs.

In his initial speech, Johnston highlighted the massive technological transformation in health care, encouraging teams to develop projects that take advantage of the digital space and raw material in the network. Following Johnston’s speech, a representative from Johnson & Johnson led a team building exercise and kicked off the hacking with the advice “learn and fail fast”.

By the end of the evening, 21 teams had formed, their ideas ranging from sleep tracking pajamas to genomic resistance detection in bacteria. With an average of five members, each group boasted a range of biologists, computer engineers, programmers, masters students, and undergraduates, all working in tandem to improve the medical and technological interface.

What ensued in the next 48 hours can only be described as a grind. After claiming work spaces, teams immediately undertook the laborious tasks of collecting data sets, synthesizing code and designing products. Like a scene from the first floor of Olin Library during finals week, the sound of clacking keys and collaborating voices filled the air.

Bright and early on Sunday morning, after a long and exhausting weekend of developing, the teams exited their work spaces to pitch their ideas for the initial round of judging. This first process of elimination left 10 teams which advanced to the final presentations.

Out of the 10 teams, the top three fell under the following categories: the grand prize, the best visualization and the most versatile hack.

The grand prize was awarded to team “BedMed”, whose members included Emily Sine ’21 and graduate students Carolyn Krasniak, Erin McConnaghy, Hayden Prosise and Thomas Stilley. BedMed is a service that provides at home testing, consultation and delivery of antibiotics for Strep throat. Their intention is to contain the spread of disease by minimizing the amount of time contagious individuals spend in public.

“To me, the most exciting part of this service is that it is something that I would love to use as a consumer. It was a neat experience developing something that I could see being a real service,” said Krasniak, a member of the BedMed team.

Hackathons provide valuable opportunities for students to learn, create, and explore their academic potential. “The most valuable part of the hackathon is being in an environment where risks are encouraged. It is easy to jump out of your comfort zone and do something you haven’t done before. You can learn so much about yourself and your abilities when you are able to do that,” Krasniak said.

One of the teams, named “The Resistance” was awarded best visualization. This award honors the project that most creatively looks into a data set or combines information from multiple data sources to produce a product. The Resistance used a machine learning algorithm to detect sites in specific bacterial genomes that contribute to variations in antibiotic resistance. They were then able to incorporate a technological interface and visualize the results.

Cassidy Mileti ’19, the biologist on The Resistance team said “I was excited when I heard about this [Hackathon] because I never really come across similar events that I can participate in as a biomedical engineer”.
Working on identifying problems and thinking of practical applications for their product, Mileti believes the key to her team’s success lies in the “intersection of computer science, biology, and design”.
Finally, the honor of most versatile hack was awarded to CoPilot, a mobile app designed to track past and predict future sleeping patterns. Their main purpose is to inform safe driving behavior so as to prevent “falling asleep behind the wheel” incidents.

Cornell hosts a wide array of hackathons that are open to any student. Upcoming events include a Fintech Hackathon in September, a Hospitality Hackathon in October, and an Animal Health Hackathon in 2019. For more information, visit the Entrepreneurship at Cornell webpage.