Examples of innovation in action at the UW

Innovation at the UW occurs across disciplines, as well as in how the institution is run and how students are educated. Many of the innovations may move into the greater community as new businesses, new approaches or practices for human health, or new efforts for social or environmental good. Here are a few examples of innovation in action.

When he was a probation officer, the teens he worked with “liked nothing better than to get loaded and rip people off,” says J. David Hawkins of the School of Social Work. He wondered whether programs like “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E even worked. Now we know they didn’t, he says. On a long-term project with 12 communities (including South Seattle and Birmingham, Ala.), Hawkins and colleague Richard Catalano have created something that does. The 24 towns participating in Communities that Care have seen a 33 percent drop in tobacco and alcohol use in their teens, and similar declines in risky sexual behaviors. The children they reach at an early age continue healthier behaviors through adulthood. They tailor the program to each community’s risks and strengths and focus on teaching young children social skills like impulse control and empathy.

Shyam Gollakota captures energy out of thin air. TV, radio, and digital signals carry enough energy to power simple devices, says the computer scientist. His battery-free devices use antennae to send and receive signals over a distance of up to 20 meters. They could be put to use in sensors that would communicate if, say, a bridge’s structure has been compromised. Regions around the world that lack reliable electricity, but have strong cellular reception, could benefit. In 2014 Gollakota was one of the MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35.”

“Are you squeamish about blood?” asks Nathan Sniadecki, a UW mechanical engineer who is leading a team focused on blood clotting tests. Twenty-five percent of trauma patients have some sort of blood clotting issue, whether it is natural or due to medication. But during a traumatic event, they’re often in no condition to explain their medical history. In the time it takes for current tests to provide results (up to an hour), the patient could potentially bleed out, says Sniadecki. “We’re making a device that quickly measures people’s clotting ability, using a very small volume of blood to do it.” The new instrument can quickly show if there is a clotting issue, and whether it’s with the patient’s plasma or platelets. The research came from Lucas Ting’s Ph.D. project and is being spun out into a business called STASYS.

Now a phone can diagnose sleep apnea. Instead of an expensive and extensive overnight exam in a hospital, individuals can upload an app that turns a smartphone into a sonar system to track breathing patterns. The ApneaApp was tested on patients in the sleep clinic at Harborview Medical Clinic and found to be 98 percent as effective as a hospital examination. Computer science Ph.D. candidate Rajalakshmi Nandakumar developed this tool with computer scientist Shyam Gollakota and neurologist Nathanial Watsen.

Sociologist Katherine Beckett approaches crime as a cultural issue. Her students recently presented a study on the growing number of Washington prisoners (now one in five) serving life sentences. Her Law, Society & Justice students discovered inconsistent sentencing for the same crimes, a profound lack of parole review, and a need to help recently released inmates reintegrate into society. Beckett and her students hope the state will use their findings in reforming its criminal justice system.

Computer scientist Shwetak Patel leads the UW’s Ubiquitous Computing Lab on projects to harvest power from variations in temperature, use humans as antennae, and use cell phone cameras to judge jaundice in newborns. The 2011 MacArthur Fellow is intrigued by human-computer interactions, especially in creating easy and elegant systems that are low-cost and simple to install and use.

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