Clemson University Feature Stories

Tanzania's infant motality rate is 10 times that of the United States. To help combat this, Clemson students designed and built a temperature sensor device and warming blanket to keep premature babies at the right temperature.

Saving Infant Lives: Creative Inquiry isn’t just about research — it’s about action

Laura Good
Office of Creative Services

Imagine the things a new mother expects when she goes to deliver her baby — a sanitary hospital, doctors who can ensure the life of her child, and the medical supplies necessary to make sure her baby has a safe entry into the world. In Tanzania a mother may only hope for life. The country’s infant mortality rate 10 is times that of the United States, and Clemson students are putting their undergraduate research to the ultimate test — saving premature babies.

What started out as a bioengineering instrumentation class grew into a project to build a low-cost alternative to neonatal incubators through a Creative Inquiry, or undergraduate research, team.

Britton McCaskill, who traveled to Africa during his senior year with the Creative Inquiry team, said that their project was about accessibility. “The inspiration was to design something they can produce there, from locally available parts.”

The students designed and built a temperature sensor device and warming blanket to keep premature babies at the right temperature. It has three LED indicators — too hot, too cold and OK. If the baby is too hot, the warming blanket will turn off, and an alarm will sound if the baby is too cold.

Hospital conditions in Tanzania are right for growing bacteria, but not for keeping babies in safe incubators. The air is hot and humid, and often the babies get overheated.

While many in the Western world rely on cutting-edge medical technology, those in Tanzania do not have access to new scientific innovations. Clemson students utilized the materials available to the people of Tanzania and created a better way to keep premature babies alive.

Professors Delphine Dean and John DesJardins collaborated with a Medical University of South Carolina team to plan and execute the trip. The MUSC team was led by neurosurgeon Dilantha Ellegala, who founded the Madaktari Africa Program, which trains physicians in Africa. According to Dean, “It was serendipity.” When MUSC contacted Dean to work on this project, her students had already been working on this blanket.

“The urban hospital we visited in Tanzania lost 30 of the 36 premature infants in its NICU during one week last year,” Dean said.

Britton McCaskill holds a baby in Tanzania, Africa, where he and a group of undergraduates traveled to help build a low-cost alternative to neonatal incubators.While in Africa, McCaskill not only got the chance to see his Creative Inquiry research put into action, but he adapted to a new way of life as well.

“Their pace of life is much slower and more intentional than ours,” he said. “The adjustment from the hustle and bustle here to the slower pace there gave me the chance to more thoroughly enjoy the culture and beauty of Africa.”

Now working on a master’s degree in bioengineering at Clemson, McCaskill has decided that he wants to direct his education toward a greater good. He discovered a passion for building devices that help people.

After the Clemson students left Africa, they felt more than just a sense of accomplishment. The Creative Inquiry team not only gave them the valuable research and production skills necessary for this undertaking, but it provided them with the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

“Creative Inquiry classes are an exciting way to engage with what you’re learning and apply it in an unconventional way. You get to take your education into your own hands,” McCaskill said.

The project doesn’t end here. Other students in the bioengineering department will continue to do research that helps people across the world. McCaskill will see his project grow and change as other Creative Inquiry teams endeavor to save lives in other countries. It’s about putting research and passion into something that can do more than enhance the educational experience. It’s about doing something that matters.

Hopefully, the work of McCaskill and his Creative Inquiry team will save many more lives in the future.

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