Learning the Art of Interdisciplinary Collaborations

The first few days of a baby’s life is especially critical – each year, more than 2.5 million newborns die within their first month, primarily from preventable causes. A Johns Hopkins team is developing and piloting NeMo, a neonatal monitoring device that closely monitors a newborn’s key vital signs to reduce mortality rates in the baby’s first 7 days. The project empowers mothers from low-resource settings by educating them how to identify neonatal illnesses – mostly preventable illnesses such as sepsis, pneumonia, and hypothermia – and when to seek care from a community health worker.

  Mother learns new system. Students of Whiting School of Engineering's Center for Innovation & Design conduct field work in communities. Team NEMO (Empowering Mothers to Identify Neonatal Illnesses) works closely with communities to develop new products and systems.  Photo credit: Polly Ma, August 2016

Mother learns new system. Students of Whiting School of Engineering's Center for Innovation & Design conduct field work in communities. Team NEMO (Empowering Mothers to Identify Neonatal Illnesses) works closely with communities to develop new products and systems. Photo credit: Polly Ma, August 2016

Led by Soumyadipta Acharya, graduate program director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design (CBID), the project has tapped into a wide range of talents and skills from CBID graduate student teams and faculty. Ben Ostrander, CBID graduate student and the Alliance for a Healthier World (AHW) Global Health Equity Scholar for the Transformative Technologies and Institutions (TTI) theme, has contributed to testing and improving the NeMo prototype during the past year. He shares his perspective below about the project and the challenges and successes that come with collaborating with an interdisciplinary team.

Student Scholar Voice

By Ben Ostrander

Recent recipient of MSE in Bioengineering Innovation and Design + MD Candidate + AHW Global Health Equity Scholar

My experience with the NeMo project was stimulating and rewarding. I was attracted to the project’s approach to addressing the problem of neonatal mortality – which shifts the opportunity for identifying newborn illness from community health workers to mothers themselves. With more than 2.5 million newborn deaths each year, this is definitely a problem worth tackling. There are so many moving parts to creating and implementing a technology that can accomplish the project’s goal, and understanding how to make them fit together and work well is an enlightening and challenging task.

NeMo aligns well with AHW’s goal to support research to implement transformative technology and gender equity. Using a smartphone-based application and low cost wearable sensors, NeMo leverages technology to quickly identify newborn illness during the first week of life and to ultimately save lives. We envision increasing mothers’ ability to identify newborn illness early and at home as a step towards health equity. Since our intervention is dependent on a variety of technologies, from cell phones to novel sensor engineering, the project is a good example of what the Alliance’s transformative technologies and institutions thematic area strives to support. Additionally, since our system focuses on empowering and educating mothers, there is also a component of gender equity at play. We want to support womens’ opportunity to become knowledgeable about maternal and infant health, and to enable effective choices for their own and their infant’s health.

I learned so much about teamwork through my year in the CBID graduate program and through working on the NeMo team. Our core team was made of up three biomedical engineers, an electrical/mechanical engineer, and a medical student with an engineering and global health background. We were the most diverse team in our cohort and this turned out to be a huge advantage. We learned how to work with each other and play to our different strengths and weaknesses.

While our diverse and interdisciplinary backgrounds sometimes led to disagreement, this struggle made us a better team and actually improved our output in the long run. I found that our team functioned best when we were patient and understanding. We all became better listeners and collaborated more seamlessly as the year went on. Importantly, we also gave each other “free passes” - an understanding that sometimes people will be late or won’t meet a deadline or finish a deliverable, but as long as this was a rare occurrence we wouldn’t make a big fuss about it. Moving forward, I have a much better idea of how to create, manage, and participate in a highly functional and interdisciplinary team, and have learned many strategies and skills to do so.


NeMo - Winning Multiple Awards

The NeMo team’s hard work is paying off. In 2016, the team was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their Grand Challenges Explorations program. This past April 2018, Ben Ostrander joined his team in receiving the second place award, totaling $25,000, in the Global Social Venture Competition. The international competition had over 550 entries during the 2018 round from entrepreneurs who are scaling their projects for social or environmental impact.

Check out the video of the Johns Hopkins team receiving their 2nd place award at the Global Social Venture Competition finals in Milan, Italy.