President Barack Obama held the first annual White House Science Fair on Oct. 19 in recognition of several teams of high school and college students. UC Davis graduate student Wilson To was one of the finalists recognized as a member of the Mobilife Team, which worked on smartphone software. To’s software design project could help diagnose vascular diseases in third-world countries.
During a live broadcast of the event, Obama emphasized the importance of science and technology education, saying, “If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.”
To was in the undergraduate program at UC San Diego, focusing on the biological sciences, when he was invited to conduct research as a Hugh Edmondson Research Fellow with the UC Davis Medical Center Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine with Dr. Anthony Cheung. He was able to combine his background in biology with his passion for technology as he learned about microscopic imaging of human circulation.
To and the rest of the research team were working on developing a mobile imaging tool for use in developing countries and decided on smartphones.
“Smartphones nowadays are essentially powerful computers that are capable of doing both imaging and analysis,” To said.
The project consisted of taking pictures and video clips of the blood vessels inside the white of the eye. They wanted to capture an idea of both the morphology of the vessels – such as the vessel diameter – and the dynamics of the blood flow inside the vessels. The information can be analyzed using the mobile imaging to glean information about the patient’s health. Inexpensive mobile imaging can make the technology available in impoverished areas.
“Although there are hospitals and clinics all over the United States, there isn’t that luxury in third-world countries,” To said.
Vascular diseases cause illness in people all over the world, from hypertension and diabetes to sickle cell anemia.
Though To had an understanding of the biological and algorithmic workings underlying the smartphone application, he contacted a mentor to help him with the technical aspects. Two UC San Diego students later joined to help with the business development and technical development of the project. To and his team represented the United States in Warsaw, Poland for the Imagine Cup 2010 Worldwide Finals.
At the White House Science Fair, To was in awe while listening to Obama speaking about his work and the work of his fellow finalists.
“To this very day I’m still a little bit in disbelief that things worked out that way,” To said. “It was an honor to meet President Obama – knowing that our projects were being recognized outside the academic community.”
The students at the science fair were given the opportunity to tour the White House and learn about its history as well as meeting several popular science presenters. To met Bill Nye and “Mythbusters” Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.
AMY STEWART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.