We CU helps students become part of solving community challenges. While most projects match community partners with We CU volunteers, the program also offers students the opportunity to jump start projects that address an identified community need. Student teams led by Maaz Imam, an undergraduate student in the College of Applied Health Sciences, have started two such projects that aim to alleviate specific community health problems: a 4-in-1 vital sign reader and a food insecurity student research group.
“What led me to We CU was the ability to reach like-minded volunteers passionate about making a difference in the community and the flexibility with project design,” Imam said.
The 4-in-1 vital sign reader project was one of ten 2019 Health Make-a-Thon project winners, supported with $10,000 funding through the Health Maker Lab. Reading vital signs is a part of standard patient assessment. The health care provider collects measurements such as pulse rate and respiration rate based on patient interaction. “The current practices of collecting vital signs are based on crude measurements. We set out to create an integrated vital sign reader that collects multiple vital signs at once in a localized spot.”
The team already has a prototype in place to measure pulse, respiratory rate, blood pressure and temperature and they further plan to incorporate oxygen saturation and EKG readings. These signs are also important indications in screening for coronavirus, which primarily affects the lungs. “We CU helped me get together a team of experts ranging from PhD candidates in the department of Biology to sophomores in computer science,” said Imam. “I am learning a lot from the diverse spread of people with varied expertise.” Ishita Jain, graduate student in the College of Engineering; Nikil Ravi, sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Aminah Bilal form the core of this group. The team is currently working on purchasing inventory and the final aim is to move to clinical trials.
Imam also leads a second project, a food insecurity research group, to create a training module about food insecurity. “Learning about food insecurity in the course CHLH 210 [Community Health Organizations] made me aware that a large percentage of students may be food insecure. We aim to create a training module to increase awareness about food insecurity and direct students towards the available resources on campus.” The team members are Shalini Atluri, senior in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute; Hannah Darcy, PhD student in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior; Rhea Joshi, sophomore in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Grace Mies, sophomore in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology; Kabir Fakoya, junior in the Department of Agricultural & Biological engineering and Kara Zehr, senior in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Food insecurity has adverse effects on student academic performance, access to housing, and health outcomes. Student organizations (RSOs) on campus, such as Illini Fighting Hunger, and community organizations, like Wesley Food Pantry and Newman Shares Food Pantry, work to address these issues. The training module being developed by Imam’s team is intended to introduce these resources to students and help abolish the stigma associated with food insecurity.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, access to nutritious food is important for building health in the community. “The team has approached this problem from various angles, and we have generated hypotheses, collected data, and set up advertising avenues. The module will have surveys to monitor the impact, and if successful, I hope this idea dissipates into other colleges and universities.”
Imam’s advice for future students joining We CU is to not be afraid of pitching ideas and to always be open to learning from others. “We CU holds a unique place in University of Illinois and the program administrators are really igniting a culture of innovation and creativity in solving problems of the community.”