This past weekend, our team had the extraordinary opportunity to pitch an idea for a Zika tracking and surveillance project to officials at USAID in Washington DC. Earlier this year, Duke SEAD, I&E, the Global Health Institute, and Fuqua School of Business collaboratively hosted an innovation challenge, a “hackathon” of sorts to encourage Duke students to imagine and create novel solutions to the outbreak of Zika. Upon winning this competition, we were graciously assisted by Kim Langsam of Duke SEAD in setting up this incredible experience of travelling to DC to meet with several big names in the public health industry, all passionate about tackling the spread of the Zika virus. The timing of this presentation turned out to be rather serendipitous for our team, as this presentation coincided with a USAID-hosted Combating Zika Grand Challenge which provides up to $30 million to fund projects that target Zika.
It was a hectic weekend, to say the least. The 6 hour commute turned into a 10 hour ride, as the train Gary, Michael, and Howard were riding got stuck in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We stayed at Francia’s house near DC, arriving a few days early to prepare for the big presentation. The “big” presentation was actually a 3 minute pitch followed by 10 minutes of Q&A; even so, it took us a night, all of a day, and another night to finalize.
One of the highlights of our trip was an unexpected meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases. Considering the status of Dr. Fauci, we were lucky enough to land a short meeting to discuss our idea with him, and he liked it. (I’m still in the process of digesting that fact. This man is a legend. His waiting room is casually decorated from floor to ceiling with framed accolades, including a National Medal of Science and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.)
The final version of our project entailed utilizing the location tracking services of social media to track and monitor the spread of Zika around the world. When people travel to Zika hotspots, such as Brazil for the Olympics, they will inevitably post pictures and statuses tagging their location. Our proposal is to capitalize on this information, using social media platforms to ask these travelers if they have Zika symptoms, and if they do, to provide them with information about the dangers of Zika while simultaneously alerting public health officials to the number of individuals who may travel into and out of countries with Zika. In the words of Dr. Fauci, traditional methods of disease surveillance are “completely inadequate.” Thus, we truly believe social media will be key to helping public health agencies collect mass data efficiently and in real-time.
Our presentation was the first pitch scheduled for Tuesday morning. Arriving in downtown Washington DC, we walked into the venue to find that other presenters were businessmen and public health workers with vast experience and knowledge. Furthermore, our judges would be several officials from the WHO, USAID, DoD, and even representatives from a few Latin American countries. Knowing that our audience included so many people of such importance, our pitch was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating, but at the end of the morning, we left DC satisfied in our efforts; as students, in a building full of established public health officials, this morning stood as a testament to the capabilities of young people and the necessity of engaging this generation in crafting innovative solutions to global problems.
Our team members are Francia Fang, Howard Li, Michael Li, Gary Wang, and Jackie Xu. We are all rising sophomore undergraduates here at Duke.
– Francia is focused on pre-medical studies and is passionate about leading the crusade of women in STEM, especially in male-dominated fields like surgery. On the side, she adores francophone culture and is hoping to study abroad in France soon.
– Howard is part of the Pratt School of Engineering, planning to major in Biomedical Engineering. He is also a part of the new I&E initiative and is involved with Design for America on campus.
– Michael is interested in economics and computer science, as well as business applications for these subjects into entrepreneurial ventures.
– Gary is studying neuroscience and global health in the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. Passionate about health care and social entrepreneurship, he hopes to work in both clinical practice and policy work in the future.
– Jackie is currently in Tanzania for a DukeEngage project working on schistosomiasis education campaigns and on providing greater resources to local public schools as part of GlobeMed.