CLEMSON — Today's headlines seem eerily familiar to John DesJardins' bioengineering students.

Cholera outbreaks were the subject of a class assignment in DesJardins' bioengineering design course at Clemson University last fall semester — months before current cholera crises claimed thousands of lives in Haiti and Nigeria.

“We try to give students problem-solving experiences that are realistic,” DesJardins said. “This one turned out to be painfully realistic, but these are exactly the kinds of situations that bioengineers must be trained to deal with.”

Each year, DesJardins presents students with real-life problems to solve, typically by designing a medical device for a current health need. His assignment last fall anticipated outbreaks of cholera in isolated areas and required students to design, build and test a device to deliver fluids to treat for the disease.

The challenge: Remote areas of underdeveloped countries don't have the resources that traditional medical devices often require, so the students' solutions would have to work independently — without help from medical staff — for a cost under $100.

“We literally gave each student team a $100 gift card to Ace Hardware to procure all their materials,” DesJardins said. “Their designs had to be manufactured with stuff that is readily available. It required some creative thinking, which is precisely what engineering design requires.”

The assignment was specific: The device had to deliver a 60cc dose of fluid to cholera patients over a 10-minute period. It had to be easily portable, durable for overland travel and not dependent on an in-house electrical supply.

“The device had to work all by itself,” DesJardins said. “The students had to assume that medical personnel would be in short supply and communication could be an issue. The project assumed an outbreak in Nigeria, where language barriers also would be a problem.”

In fact, a recent cholera outbreak in Nigeria has claimed more than 1,500 lives this year. In Haiti, just in the past week alone, more than 250 have died from the disease. Tens of thousands more have been infected recently in those two countries.

Long before these outbreaks, students were undaunted by the design challenges posed by developing medical devices for remote areas.

“A successful engineer has to take a problem and create a solution for it,” said George Fercana of Florence, who took the senior design class last year and returned after graduation to enroll in Clemson's graduate degree program in bioengineering.

“We were tasked with taking bargain-basement materials to come up with a practical solution,” Fercana said. “And the key word is 'practical.' You can over-engineer something and it won't meet the need.”

DesJardins gave awards to teams for creative solutions. Some were constructed with cheap, durable PVC pipe; others used battery-powered drills — on sale for $10 at the hardware store when the students went shopping — to power the delivery of the fluid.

“Our team's design was very simple and cheap. The whole thing cost only $5 to build,” said senior Alexis Richardson of Spartanburg. “In the end, our device didn't continue to work for the full 10 minutes, but with a little more work we could overcome that.”

Such pitfalls of engineering design are an important part of the two-semester undergraduate “bioengineering design” sequence taught by DesJardins. The first course in the sequence teaches design theory and includes a two-week “rapid design challenge” like the cholera project, adapted from Joseph Tranquillo of Bucknell University.

The second course includes a more detailed project sponsored by an industry partner. Last year, Columbia-based Rhythmlink International sponsored student designs for a new EEG electrode to measure brain activity.

“Companies come up with the ideas for these projects, and it is a great way for students to get to know a company and its needs,” DesJardins said. “The students become exposed to practical bioengineering design, and the companies have the benefit of fresh, new design ideas.”

Already, two patents are pending from the new undergraduate bioengineering design course sequence, which is only in its second year.

“There are more regulatory hoops to jump through with biomedical devices than there are in many engineering products,” DesJardins said, “so it's particularly important to expose undergraduates to the whole medical device design process.”

Bioengineering students will take that experience to potential employers later this week when Clemson hosts the Southeast Biomedical Engineering Career Conference Friday at the Madren Conference Center.

Research labs, government agencies and medical device manufacturers, including industry giants like Stryker Corp. and Medtronic Inc., will be part of the program, for which more than 350 people have registered.

“One of the things that drew me in to bioengineering was that you can do so many things with it,” Fercana said. “You can work in traditional device manufacturing. You can work with doctors. It can lead you to medical school yourself or you can spin off into another discipline. As someone who has always wanted to work with doctors, this is the pinnacle for me.”

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