Most college projects end up buried in a backpack or gathering dust in the back of the closet. But Rice University undergrads Lila Kerr and Lauren Theis came up with such a simple, brilliant and innovative solution for their class assignment, it’s being recognized in science journals for its potential to enable health workers in emerging countries to test for anemia in the field, in ten minutes, without electricity or a lab.
The centerpiece of the freshman & sophomore’s $30 centrifuge machine? A salad spinner –that ubiquitous kitchen device that uses centrifugal force to dry lettuce for time-challenged suburbanites. When Kerr, a sociology major, and Theis, a political science major, found themselves in an intimidating design class with medical and engineering students, they didn’t plead liberal arts, they racked their brains to think of what spins by hand — and came up with the obvious (it’s only obvious in retrospect) solution. After weeks of trial and error, they outfitted their salad spinner (called the Sally because “it’s sort of silly and sounds like salad” as Lila explains) with pieces of combs, plastic lids, yogurt containers and hot glue – which work in concert to keep any number of pipettes of blood upright, while they are spun around until the plasma separates from the blood and can be tested for anemia.
The girls’ device showed such promise that at the end of the course, the two were asked to continue working on it in collaboration with other students, teachers, and advisers – because this is an idea that could have an incredible impact on health delivery systems worldwide. And today, they are in Ecuador and Swaziland, testing their spinner in the field.
Talk about a game changer! Here are the stats: Two billion people, about 1/3 of the global population, are anemic. Anemia is a decrease in the number of red blood cells and, in addition to causing general weakness and malaise, can be an indicator for malnutrition, malaria, TB, HIV or a weakened immune system. A traditional, electricity-dependent centrifuge to test for anemia costs about $500 and requires an on-site technician or weeks of waiting for results from a distant lab. Consequently, millions of people in the developing world go undetected and untreated. But with the Sally, health workers can diagnose anemia in 10 minutes in even the most remote, off the grid locations – and provide the patient with medical help.
Thanks to mentor/advisers like Maria Oden and Rice University’s Beyond Traditional Borders outreach program (developed to bring new ideas and technologies to underdeveloped countries), Lauren and Lila’s invention has been recognized, refined, researched, tested and supported throughout this process — which says a lot about the university’s commitment to Global Health Technologies. Not to mention service of humanity — which these girls obviously have a gift for.
The jury is out as to whether this $30 invention from the elastic, imaginative minds of two young women will hold up under the tremendous pressure of delivering a higher level of health care in the developing world. But how can you not be inspired and deeply jazzed by a couple of women who at the tender age of 20 think so intuitively and globally?
I know I am – so I’m sending my $100 today to Rice University, with all my best wishes for a long future of amazing breakthroughs and repurposed kitchen gadgets! To join me, click here and under special instructions, indicate Rice 360: Global Health Technologies.