We were written up in Mirage Magazine’s Spring 2019 issue! See the article quoted below.

Listening, Thinking, Talking, Designing:
The Canavan Lab Secret is in the Teamwork
By Leslie Linthicum
Spring 2019

“Heather Canavan didn’t coin the term “necessity is the mother of invention,” but she is perfecting it in her lab on the second floor of the Centennial Engineering Building. Canavan, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering, has students at work on inventions that include a better shower chair, a less-gross colonoscopy prep method and a foolproof way to organize blood draw vials. They all stemmed from personal experiences when she, a student or a colleague came up against what Canavan calls “a dumb problem.” Take the Shower Chaise™, a project of biomedical engineering graduate student Tye Martin (’13 BS, ’17 MA). It was 2016 and Canavan was being treated for breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and returned home with simple desire. “I really wanted to wash my hair,” she says.The only “technology” available to her was a hard plastic chair she could put in her shower and sit on, while trying to twist and bend and keep her chest dressings dry while getting her head wet. Martin knew all about frustrating shower chairs. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a child, he spends much of his day in a wheelchair. “I’ve constantly dealt with adaptive equipment that really didn’t meet my needs,” Martin says. Doctoral student Phuong Nguyen (’14 BS, ’16 MS, ’18 MBA) knew of her uncle’s frustrations showering after having a stroke. So when Canavan returned to teaching after her medical leave, the brainstorming began. “I thought, ‘This is not a hard problem, this is a dumb problem,’” Canavan says. “It was basically using my experience as a patient, my students’ experiences and our engineering expertise to ask what could work better.” The result is a flexible, customizable shower chaise made of a softer bacteria resistant material with a back that raises and lowers. The project, which began as a Lego-built idea and advanced into a 3-D-printed prototype, received a National Science Foundation I-Corps award. The chaise and other inventions are part of Adaptive Biomedical Design, a startup company founded by Canavan and Nguyen, which has resulted so far in five provisional patents, all tailored to improving medical care.

While Canavan’s research has been in cell surface interactions, she is embracing the mission of finding practical solutions to obvious problems. “We are beginning to specialize in the dumb problems,” she says. “It’s like, ‘This is a dumb thing. I could fix this.’” Another dumb thing, which everyone who turns 50 learns as they prepare for their colonoscopy screening, is the jug of viscous fluid required to consume to clean out the bowel. When Canavan needed a colonoscopy, she was grossed out by the volume and consistency of the drink. When Nguyen brought in banh mi sandwiches and bubble tea — a Vietnamese milky tea with floating tapioca pearls— from her cousin’s sandwich shop, the group had an aha moment. What if the polyethylene glycol, the active ingredient in the colonoscopy prep solution, could be suspended in a similar way? “What if we can encapsulate it so you don’t have to taste it?” Nguyen thought. As Nguyen and fellow student Darnell Cuylear, who graduates this spring with a bachelor’s degree in biology, began formulating their invention, they surveyed colonoscopy patients, who told them they rarely finish the prescribed prep dosage because they find it nauseating. And they surveyed gastroenterologists who were open to a better prep technique. They are currently testing their Bubblyte™ in a gastric environment to ensure the capsules break down and release their contents.

Cuylear and Nguyen are also working on another invention, a color-coded test tube rack to take the guesswork out of drawing blood. That project grew out of a conversation with Wendy Simms-Small, a nurse at University Hospital, who described how phlebotomists and nurses use mnemonics to make sure they draw blood into colored vials in the right order to ensure the tests are completed properly. The mnemonics vary from institution to institution and medical professionals often forget them. Cuylear and Nguyen came up with a simple little carrying case, color coded to match test tubes. They’re calling it the Be Positive™ test tube rack. Canavan also has in the works a project she is calling “Genius Beauty Queen,” which aims to reduce bacteria buildup in makeup sponges, an attempt to break into the $850 billion-a-year cosmetics industry.

Canavan believes her team has succeeded in developing better products because of her lab’s culture, which stresses collaboration, teamwork and listening to patients’ and caregivers’ concerns. “One of the big problems has been that the people who are designing these things — engineers — aren’t talking to the people who use them,” she says.

See the full article here: https://www.unmalumni.com/mirage-magazine.html

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