Student Spotlight: Jess Ong, Mechanical Engineer

Researching tools to combat diabetes in India, first-year Tata Fellow returns to her roots.

jess ong tata fellow

Jess Ong spent most of her childhood in Asia—particularly Vietnam and Indonesia—so when her graduate advisor, Mandayam Srinivasan of MIT Mechanical Engineering, approached her about doing a project in India, she was excited to renew her passion for cultural exchange. As a Tata Fellow, she is working on technology to address the growing epidemic of diabetes in India, in collaboration with Agada Hospital in Chennai. As an undergraduate, Jess was a four-year member of MIT’s varsity women’s soccer team.

Diabetes is an important issue in India, but why are you personally interested in tackling it?

After learning about diabetes and the magnitude of the problem in India, I wanted to develop something that could help curb the complications of this disease. Foot complications can be very serious if not treated well; in some cases amputation is also necessary. Unfortunately, many diabetic patients, especially in rural areas, are not aware of the danger of improper foot care. To prevent diabetic foot ulcers, we need to identify people who have developed neuropathy (loss of sensation in the feet) and educate them on appropriate foot care. My project, the Mobile-Enabled Foot Analyzer (m-DFA), will be a portable screening device that can be operated by community health workers in patient’s homes.

What has the experience been like working with Agada Hospital in Chennai?

The Agada Hospital in Chennai provides high quality health care, specializing in diabetes. It was founded by Mohan Thanikachalam, M.D, a professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University, who communicates daily with the staff there. I am working closely with Mohan to develop my device. Agada has been especially helpful in coordinating with me and hosting me during trips to Chennai in the summer and winter. They are supportive and respond promptly. In the next year, with their help, I am hoping to do more trials at the hospital, as well as the village sites. Our collaborators make a big difference in the development of our project.

Have there been any obstacles or challenges in your project so far that have surprised you? How are you dealing with them?

Initially, we were thinking of duplicating the biothesiometer, a device that measures vibration perception threshold, and is commonly used in large hospitals in India to diagnose diabetic neuropathy. However, after buying and testing one and looking at the literature surrounding it, we realized that there weren’t any standards and results were inconsistent, so we were forced to start from scratch. As a mechanical engineer, the business understanding and networking aspect of my project is what’s new and challenging to me, but I’m learning new things everyday. One of the unique things about the Tata Center is that it creates a group of people from different areas of study, and we learn a lot from each other.

In the long run I want a good working prototype that is well characterized and consistent. Ideally, doing clinical trials and comparing it to the gold standard test would be great. I am definitely open to commercializing it as well.