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BioDesign team steps up to the challenge

Engineering design team aims high with water-purifying backpack and solution to tackle algae blooms

McGill BioDesign Team

When it comes to design teams in the Faculty of Engineering, McGill BioDesign is a new kid on the block. But you wouldn’t know it from the students’ laser focus and high-reaching projects.

Like a water-purifying backpack for communities with limited access to drinking water, and a solution to tackle algae blooms.

In this uniquely challenging time, the student group has forged ahead with online meetings, joint research – and fun, staging social activities for members, most of whom have never met in person.

“I really enjoy the fact that people continue to be engaged even through this [time],” says Kimia Shafighi, the group’s co-president. “BioDesign went from a team of 10 to now 65 people and there’s still a pandemic going on, so people are really interested in this.”

McGill BioDesign aims to tackle real-world issues by “finding solutions at the intersection of engineering, biology, and business.” Students work on biotechnology projects, which they present at competitions, and gain research experience along the way.

Finding a lab position to gain hands-on research experience is a popular route for many students, according to co-president Megan Wai, a bioengineering student. But there are a limited number of spots with professors. “Our team gives the opportunity for students to get that hands-on experience and work with others from an idea to an actual working prototype eventually,” Wai says.

Its backpack and algae projects gained traction this spring: They’re among the 10 finalist teams for McGill’s impact200 Bicentennial Student Sustainability Challenge. It’s an impressive showing, especially since McGill BioDesign only became an official Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) design team in November 2019.

The algae project, dubbed “Algo”, involves a pumping system to filter algae out of a body of water. Algae blooms can be harmful, preventing sunlight from entering the water and releasing toxins, notes Shafighi, the team lead. Current solutions to algae blooms usually kill them or are very expensive, she says. “We wanted to solve that without killing the algae. We wanted to extract the algae and create a biomass that can later be used as biofuel or fertilizer.” The two-solutions-in-one would help restore aquatic health and create a sustainable energy source.

The Algo team has finished its research and has some preliminary designs. “Now we’re receiving the materials. We’re getting pumps, we’re getting several strains of algae that we can test it on. We’re also getting some sensors, so that we can determine the impact of the device, determine if it’s actually efficient,” says Shafighi, who is in her final year of bioengineering and has been accepted into a master’s program in neuroscience at McGill.

SOlar-A, the water filtration backpack project, will use solar and biomechanical energy to purify contaminated water. It would filter the water while the carrier is en route from the water source to home and include a sensor showing water drinkability. Team lead Bernadette Ng, who came up with the idea with another McGill BioDesign member, says they plan to test out the backpack in Honduras in Summer 2022.

“I think it’s just amazing to see so many people come together and collaborate on solving a problem that really interests them,” says Ng, a second-year mechanical engineering student. “We don’t even know each other. We’ve never seen each other in person…then we get to work with each other really well.”

The design team offers students the chance to make friends during the pandemic, says Wai. “We can reach out to other members, make new friends, get new connections, and kind of break the social isolation type of thing.”

In June, the Algo project will compete in the Biodesign Challenge, the main competition that McGill BioDesign gears up for every year. The New York event will be virtual this year, but the deliverables are pretty much the same, according to Shafighi, including proof of concept, innovative design and feasibility.

Students on the McGill BioDesign executive brainstorm during the summer and seek out ideas. The next step is research and outreach to professors and experts to help determine if an idea is feasible. “During the winter semester, that’s when we start ordering materials and we start working on building a prototype,” Shafighi says.

The pandemic has forced some creative adjustments. For example, students had started building a glucose sensor transmitter device last year for a separate project when the lockdown began. Instead, the process included building separate parts and filming and sharing the work with teammates.

Shafighi has been part of McGill BioDesign since it began four years ago.

“It’s honestly been my favorite part of my university experience,” she says.

Groups like this in the Faculty of Engineering often receive funding for club activities, conferences and competitions through Student Initiatives Funding, which is supported by donors who give to Faculty through The McGill Fund.