A team of bright medical and bioengineering undergraduates from McCaster University recently won the 2017 international James Dyson Award for their revolutionary design solution, the sKan, a non-invasive, portable and low-cost melanoma detection device. The device can help to detect melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, where early detection is key in survival.
James Dyson, who chose the sKan as the international winner, says “by using widely available and inexpensive components, the sKan allows for melanoma skin cancer detection to be readily accessible to the many. It’s a very clever device with the potential to save lives around the world. This is why I have selected it at this year’s international winner.”
Michael Takla, 23, Rotimi Fadiya, 22, Prateek Mathur, 23, and Shivad Bhavsar, 23 all make up the sKan team, who have said “We are truly humbled and excited to be given this remarkable opportunity” and they plan to use the £30,000 prize money to refine their design and put it through clinical testing to ensure that it passes the US Food and Drug Administration’s standards.
We catch up with one of the key team members, Michael Takla, to find out what motivated him to enter the world of engineering in the first place, who his role models have been and how sKan transpired.
What got you into STEM?
I decided to enter the STEM field, specifically electrical and biomedical engineering, based on the impact it had on my life, first hand. A very close family member of mine had lived with a heart disorder called Wolff-Parkinson White. It is due to abnormal electrical activity in the heart due to an extra electrical pathway. Although it at first may sound cool, it makes life harder for the individual. They constantly experience dizziness and shortness of breath making it very difficult participate in physical activities or sometimes even just to enjoy the simple things. I watched this family member live a limited life due to the condition. Since we came from a different country it wasn’t diagnosed until quite late on.
In high school years, when I began to really contemplate the educational path I would set on, this person was diagnosed with WPW. Of the possible treatments, the one selected was Radiofrequency catheter ablation. Although risky, it presents a high success rate as it burns those extra pathways. After the operation, I saw this person’s life improve in unmeasurable ways and as a result it changed my life.
Now, why is that relevant to the question? Through this experience I gained an enormous appreciation for engineering, specifically engineering that works to solve real problems that people face. I’m not saying that the specialists, physicians, pharmacists and nurses aren’t also to be thanked for successes like the one I experienced, but I know for sure if it wasn’t for the engineering, math, physics and programming behind this treatment, my family’s life would be completely different. At that point, it was apparent that I would like to be a field where I could work on making other people’s lives better, like a complete stranger did for my family and I.
Now after completing my degree and working as an electrical engineer in the power sector for a short period of time, I am truly happy with my decision and I would encourage more people to pursue education in STEM fields. Whether you love what you learn in school or not, you develop a foundation of logical thinking, problem solving, thinking outside the box and constant learning. These tools can be applied in almost all parts of society and can help you tackle anything you set your mind to.
Who were your role models in STEM and why?
My father. My father was a civil engineer and worked on the design and development of irrigation systems, buildings and bridges. Later in life because of employment opportunities, he became a software developer, from scratch. Which is a very uncommon transition. For years I watched him constantly study software and programming books the size of my head and complete courses and certifications.
From a young age, he began teaching me about the importance of math and how a great understanding of math can help you solve all sorts of problems, whether they appear to have mathematical characteristics or not.
Thinking back, I believe he helped me to develop an appreciation for the power of math and science and instilled in me the attitude that every problem has a solution (especially when there isn’t a set of answers at the back of the book).
How did sKan transpire?
For me, the sKan is my team’s opportunity to give back. We are doing this by attempting to solve a problem that someone else is facing. It started as our fourth-year design project during my undergraduate degree in biomedical and electrical engineering at McMaster University.
As part of the program, we were introduced to skin cancer and we found it interesting that melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer but at the same time it’s treatment is a simple biopsy if detected early enough.
Around the time we began deciding on a topic for our design project, we came across research showing that melanoma could be detected based on its thermal properties. However, the equipment being used to do so was too costly for a family physician to afford.
So, we made it our goal to design a more affordable melanoma detector, the sKan, which is now a developing start-up company (PRSM Medical) that has been receiving a lot of media attention thanks to the James Dyson Award and the Forge.
When are you hoping to bring the sKan to the market?
That is a little bit of a tough question. Short answer is as soon as possible. Over the next year we hope to further develop our prototype and conduct pre-clinical trials. So, we have a lot of upcoming challenges to tackle. But we would aim to have our device entering the market within the next 3-4 years.
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