Churchill STEM program featured in Register Guard

Immunologist Dr. Haynes Sheppard has teamed up with Churchill High School junior Caden Johnston to design and fabricate a prototype cellphone stand that will allow blood samples to be digitally photographed and sent for analysis. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard)

Immunologist Dr. Haynes Sheppard has teamed up with Churchill High School junior Caden Johnston to design and fabricate a prototype cellphone stand that will allow blood samples to be digitally photographed and sent for analysis. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard)

By Josephine Woolington
The Register-Guard
FEB. 23, 2015

EUGENE SCHOOL DISTRICT

Churchill student partners with doctor to track infectious diseases

Sixteen-year-old Caden Johnston is helping design a device for health officials in poor countries

Churchill High School junior Caden Johnston said he wants to be able to help people for a living, but he didn’t think he would have the opportunity as a high-schooler to possibly help prevent the spread of infectious diseases in developing countries.

The 16-year-old has never been out of the country and isn’t very familiar with blood-borne diseases such as HIV and malaria. But his engineering and design skills have landed him a partnership with a California doctor who is working to finalize smartphone software that would send blood test results quickly to health officials in developing countries that may lack access to adequate health clinics and labs.

Caden is teaming with Haynes Sheppard, who specializes in infectious diseases, to help him design a device that can hold a smartphone while the phone takes a photo of a blood sample and analyzes that sample to detect any blood-borne diseases. The phone then sends the information to a yet-to-be-established online database.

If the software and device for holding the phone were mass-produced, health officials in developing countries would have access to more reliable data on cases of HIV or malaria, which could help them gain a better sense of how widespread some infectious diseases are and help them manage the spread of those diseases.

“This would be a tremendous advantage,” Sheppard said.

In some countries, such as Zimbabwe, Sheppard said most blood tests don’t get to the right health officials until months — or even a year — after the tests are given. Sometimes, nurses or other health clinic employees may not conduct a blood test correctly or may not have access to a computer to enter the data, said Sheppard, who several years ago retired from the California Department of Public Health and has joined a nonprofit group called Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases that has been developing the software.

Sheppard, the father-in-law of Caden’s teacher at Churchill, Marty Wilder, offered to visit with a student in Wilder’s 3D modeling class, where students use the school’s 3D printer to create gadgets.

Sheppard and Caden met recently at Churchill while Sheppard was in town visiting family.

Wilder offered Caden the opportunity because he said Caden is an “incredibly responsible student.”

“He’s got that ‘get ’er done’ attitude about this,” Wilder said. “It’s a good fit.”

Caden is testing which types of plastics to use to build the cellphone stand using the $20,000 printer — paid for by grants from the state Department of Education. The printer takes spools of plastics and melts the plastic at 680 degrees to create many different things. Projects typically take hours to print.

Sheppard made the first cellphone stand in his garage. It would be too time-consuming to make the stands by hand or to manufacture them in bulk before testing out several ideas, he said.

The 3D printer allows students to test out designs and make tweaks without having to start over or manually install additions to the design. With the 3D printer, Caden can change things in his design by using a computer program that’s hooked up to the printer.

Caden said he wants his design to accommodate all types of smartphones and to be able to collapse so the device can easily fit into small storage spaces, such as a backpack. The stand also has to hold the cellphone at a specified height so the phone can analyze the blood sample test, which works similar to a pregnancy test.

By sometime this week, Caden hopes to have a design ready to print and test.

Sheppard has agreed to pay for all the materials Caden uses while he tests his design.

Churchill has received thousands of dollars in grants to pay for specialized classes in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The school turned an old industrial arts building into a STEM studio several years ago, giving students such as Caden the opportunity to partner with professional doctors, scientists or engineers to learn how their classes apply to real-world problems.

Caden has been in the STEM program during his three years at the school. He said he has thought about being an engineer, but plans to pursue fire science to become a firefighter.

He’s not sure whether he’ll get class credit for his time spent helping Sheppard, but he’s not worried about it.

“I don’t care about the credit as much as I do care about helping people,” he said. “I feel determined to get it right.”