VCU team wins Virginia caregiver hackathon

Front row from left: Cheryl Smith, Mahira Ali, Sara Tierney, Melissa Poe, Mern Capps; back row: Daniel Huffine, Tony Gentry, Ph.D., Linda Alexander.
Front row from left: Cheryl Smith, Mahira Ali, Sara Tierney, Melissa Poe, Mern Capps; back row: Daniel Huffine, Tony Gentry, Ph.D., Linda Alexander.

A multidisciplinary team from Virginia Commonwealth University won first place in a Virginia competition called “Caring for the Caregiver Hack.”

The team was made up of two seniors in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the VCU College of Engineering, graduate students in the Department of Occupational Therapy in the VCU College of Health Professions and graduate students in the VCU Brandcenter.

They competed against six other student teams from select Virginia colleges and universities. The fourth annual event, organized by the Lindsay Institute for Innovations in Caregiving, was held Oct. 26-28, 2018, at Troutman Sanders LLC in Richmond, Virginia. The participants had 24 hours to create technological tools to help caregivers to improve their physical or emotional health.

The VCU team developed an app, Hummingbird, to make it easier for caregivers of people with complex needs to coordinate care with health aides and others. In addition to sharing a top prize of $3,500, each member will receive a $1,000 scholarship. Also, the group will have the opportunity to make a presentation before the board of Startup Virginia, a Richmond-based incubator, to seek a summer residency to work on the project.

“It was a very fulfilling experience,” said biomedical engineering student Mahira Ali, who had never participated in a hackathon before. “I realized at one point that all six of us became personally invested in this project. We all made such a personal connection” to Cheryl Smith, the family caregiver who worked with her team.

Both Ali and the other biomedical engineering student, Linda Alexander, are in the rehabilitation engineering track. Alexander also said the experience was rewarding. “We had spent a lot of time really digging into what we thought our caregiver needed and identifying all the different aspects of what she was doing,” she said.

Ali said she enjoyed watching her teammates Daniel Huffine and Melissa Poe, in the Experience Design track, in action, transforming the group’s vision sketched out on sticky notes into an attractive presentation. “It was eye-opening to work with students from a completely different discipline.”

Ali, who plans to pursue graduate school in occupational therapy, was also eager to work alongside current graduate students in the field, Mern Capps and Sara Tierney.

“"It is invaluable for rehab engineering students to get experience working with teams of multidisciplinary people typically involved in a patient’s care,” said Dianne Pawluk, Ph.D., an associate biomedical engineering professor who helped the biomedical engineering students prepare for the hackathon.

The group’s coach was Tony Gentry, Ph.D., OTR/L FAOTA, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy. Edward F. Ansello, Ph.D., Director of the Virginia Center on Aging at the VCU College of Health Professions, helped to organize the team.

Alexander, who is interested in the field of medical device design and is working on a certificate for product innovation at VCU’s da Vinci Center, said she was also excited about the prospects of working at Startup Virginia. “We’re definitely all interested in pursuing it further.”