Spring 2015

All Shook Up

This annual hackathon makes a fast-and-furious habit of disruption 

By S. Paran Yap, M.D./M.B.A, ’17

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Twenty teams were formed to come up with some new ideas and pitch them to a panel of judges. Organized chaos ensued. Photo: Kelvin Ma

Nervous energy fills the Sackler auditorium on the Boston campus as strangers engage in small talk on the last Friday in January. A hardware engineer from Palo Alto chats with a cardiac surgeon from West Roxbury, while a mobile-game designer from Toronto greets a small-business owner from Austin. At the other end of the room, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital exchanges contact information with a bioinformatics expert from Seattle.

Welcome to Tufts MedStart, the third annual hackathon where people from all sorts of backgrounds come together for an intensive three-day competition to identify and try to solve problems in the medical arena. More than 120 participants are here for the event, sponsored by the medical school’s M.D./M.B.A. program. The concept is simple: Gather the brightest minds from around the country and let them go to work with access to mentors from medical, business and technological backgrounds. In addition to bragging rights, the top prize is $2,500 and the chance to pick the brain of venture capitalist Neil Chheda.

“Events like this help the next generation of students develop the skills needed to thrive in medicine’s future,” M.D./M.B.A. program director Paul Beninger told a reporter from BetaBoston. By this he meant break down all the regular walls and find some of the new connections waiting to be made.

Contact information is rapidly exchanged, and ideas are flying.

This year, everyone came together around the theme of improving medical education. On Friday some initial ideas are roughed out, and 20 teams are formed to quickly refine their ideas, with the goal of pitching them to a panel of judges on Sunday. There is only one way to describe the process: organized chaos. Members of each team are meeting for the first time. Contact information is rapidly exchanged, and ideas are flying.

Saturday morning at 7:30, the real work begins. Hackathon teams find spaces around Sackler and press forward with their concepts, consulting with mentors, identifying problems. They argue; they collaborate; they struggle to resolve the issues. This continues for the next 30 hours. Because the Sackler building must close at midnight, the teams pack up and move to their respective hotels, working straight through to daylight.

It had to end. For two hours on Sunday morning, teams pitched their ideas to judges, demonstrated prototypes and fielded questions. There were a lot of great ideas put forth, but the winner was a project called “SIM-VR,” a virtual-reality headset programmed to simulate stressful events that commonly occur in hospitals; the goal is to help train health-care workers how to better handle pressure on the job. Another team proposed a muscle-tracking wristband designed to help medical students intubate a patient properly; the wristband vibrates when technique deviates from the ideal.

“Physicians should constantly be looking at the delivery of patient care, asking the question: How can we do this more effectively?” Scott Epstein, M84, A15P, dean for educational affairs at Tufts School of Medicine, said in his opening remarks on Thursday evening. At this year’s event, as before, MedStart tried to answer the question in as many ways as the people who attended could think of.

The author was an organizer of this year’s MedStart. A team of five Tufts students from this year’s hackathon will represent the university at the 2015 Global Hackathon in Seoul, South Korea, this summer.

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