Tean Choroszewska and Aphrodite Liddington from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London reached the Telegraph STEM Awards Healthcare Challenge final on 21 March.
Aphrodite Liddington and Tean Choroszewska (left to right)
Their project on yaws disease was selected from over 10,000 entries across five categories to reach the final of the healthcare category, which took place at the headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline. We spoke to Tean and Aphrodite to learn more about their experience of the annual competition.
How did you learn about the competition?
We met on the module Grand Challenges in the Natural Sciences, which is where the project originated. We learned about the competition from our module lecturer Dr Greg Szulgit who told us about the competition at the beginning of the module. The awards has five different sections which undergraduate students can enter – healthcare, innovation, automotive technology, defence technology and electrical. We chose to do our project in the healthcare category.
What was your project about?
The healthcare section’s topic was about eliminating or reducing the effect of neglected tropical diseases and after a week of brainstorming, we decided to focus our project on a disease called yaws, which is chronic skin infection that spreads via skin-to-skin contact. The main reason we selected this disease is because there is a cure, but it is currently not being administered because it’s too expensive and healthcare policy makers are reluctant to provide funds or start eradication programmes. There were other options such as malaria but diseases like this already receive a lot of media attention and funding. Yaws is a horrific disease, which affects around 46,000 children a year and while it’s not necessarily fatal, it’s an agonising disease to live with.
What did you have to do for the competition?
With support from our tutor Dr Christoph Engl, we originally had to write an 8,000-word paper comprising an introduction to the disease and project, logistics, our design and obstacles regarding the project. We came up with an idea called AWBs, which stands for azithromycin-infused water bottles. The idea was to couple the antibiotic azithromycin with a water bottle. A cap mechanism, upon twisting, would release the suspension form into the water. So this not only helps to cure the disease, it also helps transport clean water to areas that need this. In terms of logistics we would partner with existing distribution lines and charities, some of which we contacted. We also needed to think about why other mass eradication programmes hadn’t worked, which tended to be because of a lack of branding and promotion so we came up with our own label design which included our slogan; ‘AWBs for Yaws’. We also created a QR code because our main country of interest, Ghana, has one of the largest mobile phone subscriptions in Africa. Moreover, universal symbols on the bottle would mitigate potential language barriers.
How was your experience in the final?
We got to the final of the healthcare category where we faced four other teams. We were very nervous but also very excited. We arrived early at GSK’s headquarters and were taken to a boardroom where we spent most of the day. For our presentation, the judges were from different backgrounds including a research and developer, a GSK scientist who specialised in tropical diseases, an engineer and a few sales, marketing and branding representatives. The presentation itself lasted about 20 minutes and was followed by another 20 minutes of questions. They were all very interested and enthusiastic about our project and also offered us additional advice for how the project could be achieved. Although we didn’t win, it was an amazing experience and we also attended a talk about careers at GSK.
Any advice to other students thinking about entering the competition in 2020?
Just get involved! It was great to work with other students and get to know our lecturers. If you’re not sure what topic to choose, just pick one and then do your research, as you’ll become more informed and more invested in the topic as you learn. Also, get help from your lecturers as they can give you so many points to improve your project. We gave a mock presentation before the final and it was extremely helpful to get feedback from the lecturers there. Finally, it’s important to remember there are lots of science competitions so have a look around.