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Justin Chan. (UW Photo / Mark Stone)

Whenever Justin Chan visited a hospital, he was surprised to see the physically large and expensive devices that are rolled around for various diagnostics. It was a seemingly ordinary observation, but one that stuck with him and informed his future work.

“As a computer scientist I found it rather puzzling that we can get a smartphone with GPS, Wi-Fi, cellular, accelerometer and multiple cores on a device that is battery-powered and that can be placed in our pockets, but medical devices are still really big,” said Chan, a PhD student at the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. “That motivated me to find a way to use computing and my background to democratize medical devices.”

Chan, our latest Geek of the Week, recently developed a smartphone app that can detect middle ear fluid using sound and a paper cone, and he’s co-founder of Edus Health, a startup aiming to make pediatric healthcare more accessible.

Alongside Shyam Gollakota, associate professor of computer science and engineering at UW, Chan and Edus Health are tackling the most common reason for pediatric healthcare visits today — ear infections.

“Many of these complications are preventable if middle ear fluid is detected early,” Chan said. “However, accurate detection is difficult as the fluid resides behind the eardrum, which can be difficult to visualize. Our tool has accuracies that are on-par with specialist tools and is intuitive enough for untrained parents to use. Given the ubiquity of smartphones, our app has the potential to be the default screening tool used in developing countries by healthcare providers and caregivers at home.”

The researchers recently won an NIH SBIR grant for $225,000 which will help them work toward getting FDA clearance. Chan said they’re excited to reach that milestone next year and be the first mobile health app coming out of UW to get such FDA approval.

“I am learning quite a lot about this process, which is really what gets me out of the bed every day,” he said.

Chan has previously worked on a contactless smart speaker system to detect cardiac arrests and prior to his work in the health space, he focused on 3D printing sensors that could wirelessly connect to the internet.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Justin Chan:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I believe that everyone should be able to own their medical data. To that end, my goal is to make medical diagnostics frugal and accessible enough that anyone with a few spare parts and DIY-know-how would be able to obtain clinical-grade accuracies in the comfort of their homes. While the reality is that many diagnostic tools in healthcare often require expensive tools and specialist expertise, I am hoping we will be able to change that.

Our work at Edus Health is taking a first step in this direction by creating an accessible smartphone tool to detect middle ear fluid, which stands as the single biggest reason for pediatric healthcare visits today. We are currently planning our FDA studies, and hope to be able to obtain regulatory clearance by next year.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Technologists, engineers and inventors are in a prime position to be able to enact positive change in the world. However, this often requires leaving the comforting bubble of technology and engaging deeply with people in other fields. It is important not to hold oneself back from approaching problems because of one’s lack of background in a particular domain. If a problem is important, the work to get up to speed with the norms, jargon and state of the art in a given domain will be worthwhile and satisfying.

PREVIOUSLY: Say what? University of Washington researchers create smartphone app to detect ear infections

Where do you find your inspiration? I get to work with some amazing people every day. Inspiration often occurs in the midst of vigorous debates with colleagues, and frequently at a point in a discussion where it seems as though we have painted ourselves into a corner. But the more we wrestle with a research problem, the more the nature of the problem is made clear, and magically inspiration seems to materialize. It’s great to be able to engage in these discussions several times a week.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? If not for the timer on my smart speaker, my midnight routine of cooking instant noodles would probably end in an overcooked blob of despair instead of a bowl of MSG-infused goodness.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My workspace is constantly being reinvented to suit the particular task at hand. During the earliest stages of a project, I’m often at a workbench, feverishly cobbling together a hardware prototype from spare parts. When it comes time to test a prototype, I can be anywhere from a hospital to an anechoic chamber (a room designed to absorb sound or radio waves) running experiments. And finally when it is close to a paper submission deadline, I go through several rounds of editing at a desk surrounded in a whirlwind of drafts and related papers.

(Photo courtesy of Justin Chan)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Prioritize your work by importance, and do not let the seemingly urgent day-to-day tasks get in the way of your long-term goals. If you leave low priority work to the last minute, you will typically find that last minute was all that was needed to complete the task.

Mac, Windows or Linux? It varies depending on the task I am working on, whichever tool gets the job done fastest is the best option.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Kirk’s famous quote to “boldly go where no man has gone before” is a call to action for anyone working in research and technology. Asking questions which push the envelope and which force us to re-evaluate our conception of reality often precedes new ideas and lines of research.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine. History has a lot to teach us, and if we don’t learn from the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat them in the future.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … do what we’re doing now at Edus Health!

I once waited in line for … I normally come back after the crowd has dispersed.

Your role models: I am fortunate to be able to work with some really amazing collaborators and colleagues, I make an effort to learn and emulate the best in each of them.

Greatest game in history: Minesweeper, Solitaire and crosswords. Classic games for some light procrastination.

Best gadget ever: Slow cooker.

First computer: One that was old enough to still have a floppy disk drive.

Current phone: iPhone 7.

Favorite app: Venmo, Uber, StackExchange.

Favorite cause: “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.” — Leila Janah. Any cause that unleashes the untapped power of those in less equitable circumstances is a worthy one. The successful progression of the human race depends on harnessing everyone’s talents and not leaving anyone behind.

Most important technology of 2019: Technology to lessen the effects of echo chambers and political polarization around the world. Anything that can allow members from both sides of the aisle to see eye to eye will lead to a more civil and harmonious society.

Most important technology of 2021: Mass market, fully automated, self-driving cars. We are not quite there yet. But when we are, this technology has the potential to dramatically reduce the mortality rate worldwide.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Believe in yourself and never give up.

Website: Justin Chan UW bio

Twitter: @realjustinchan

LinkedIn: Justin Chan

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