Rice profs hit jackpot then give it away - FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston

Rice profs hit jackpot then give it away

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What would you do if you won $100,000?

Before you answer, consider what two local college professors did. And why they did it.

Both teach bioengineering at Rice University. For the past several years, they - and their students - have developed over 50 technologies for the developing world.

That bubbling sound you hear is the sound of life at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, in the southeast African country of Malawi. It's air, bubbling through a column of water to maintain a steady pressure, traveling through tubes and into the nostrils of premature newborns.

The air is dispensed by a machine called Pumani, which literally means "breathe easy."

In Malawi, 18 percent of infants are born early. That's one of the highest preemie rates in the world. And half of those babies struggle to breathe until their lungs develop more fully.

Here in Houston, such children would be saved with a $6,000 machine called a Bubble CPAP. In Malawi, it might as well cost a million.

"When I saw children that were healthier than my children when they were born, yet didn't have access to the technologies that could save their lives, it's heartbreaking," Prof. Maria Oden told FOX 26. "And I guess I felt very strongly that we could do something about that."

Oden and fellow professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum tasked their students with solving the CPAP problem. Jocelyn Brown was on the team.

"We were looking at different types of pumps or fans that would provide the correct airflow," recalled Brown. "And we found that cheap, simple aquarium pumps provided the exact airflow that we needed."

Result: a $400 machine that works just as well.

Then there's the metronome-powered syringe pump for hospitals in places with unreliable electricity.

Or the color-coded clips that fit in a dosing syringe to ensure babies get the proper amount of liquid medication, with no overdoses.

For these contributions, and more, the professors just earned the Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, which comes with a $100,000 cash prize.

"I was so excited and a little bit speechless," said Oden, upon learning they'd won.

Both women have children of their own. That money would go a long way toward college, violin lessons or even tennis shoes.

But that's not how this story ends. Richards-Kortum called Oden on the phone because she had something to say. Something radical.

"‘I don't want you to feel any pressure, but I'm really thinking that I would like to donate my part of the prize to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital,'" Richards-Kortum remembers saying to her colleague and friend. "And it was so wonderful because she said, ‘I have been thinking exactly the same thing.'"

And that is why Malawi's overcrowded Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is now $100,000 closer to a much-needed expansion, one that will doubtless contribute to the saving of tiny lives in one of the poorest corners of the earth.

"I think it's the difference between the day of birth being potentially a day of mourning, and it being a day of celebration," observed Richards-Kortum.

She and Oden are also working to raise the rest of the money needed for the project: an additional $275,000.

If you'd like to help, you can learn more about the details here: http://www.rice360.rice.edu/dayoneproject

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