It takes a lot of nerve to pursue a Ph.D., especially in something as demanding as biomedical engineering.
For one thing, students enter an academic caldron where they not only tackle a challenging curriculum but must also overcome their own doubts and fears. Ultimately, there is the thesis – an original, self-directed project that must first be approved and later defended before discerning review panels.
So much rides on that project. The stakes are high for any scholar. But Robert Mannino, a fourth year Ph.D. student in the Wallace Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, has actual skin the game.
“And blood,” adds Mannino, who got unanimous approval for his project proposal last semester. He may have received some personal points for creativity.
“Rob is basically devoting his Ph.D. work to his own disease, and everyone grasped not just the novelty of that, but the importance of it,” says Mannino’s advisor, Wilbur Lam, a researcher at the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, who is assistant professor of pediatrics and biomedical engineering in the Coulter Department (a joint department of Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology).
Mannino has been a fixture at Georgia Tech and the Petit Institute for about seven years. A former Petit Undergraduate Scholar (and then mentor in the Petit Scholar program), he now co-chairs the Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students (BBUGS, based at the Petit Institute, the core student group for the bioengineering and bioscience community).
Since his sophomore year he’s worked in Lam’s lab on multiple projects that have targeted, in some way, beta thalassemia major, a rare blood disorder that results in a reduction of hemoglobin, the iron-containing protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen throughout the body.
Mannino, 25, was diagnosed with the disease at six months of age, and needs blood transfusions every three to four weeks. His little brother Kevin, 19, has the same diagnosis. His Ph.D. project is focused on perfecting a diagnostic tool that works with a smartphone camera. It’s a non-invasive, home test for anemia, and he’s already tested it on himself.
“The longer it’s been since my last blood transfusion, the more anemic I get,” he explains. “So I tracked myself over the course of a transfusion cycle, about a month.”
One day each week, he’d take a picture of one of his fingernails, then draw blood.
“I wanted to see I could come up with a relationship between the fingernail colors and the actual results of the blood test,” he says. “So, after one cycle, over the course of about a month, I was able to find color values in my fingernail that matched up pretty well with my dropping hemoglobin levels.”
Your color comes into play at the doctor’s office during a physical examination for anemia.
“The doctor is going to look at how pale you are, or he’ll look at your fingernails and your lips and eyes, looking for indications of some sort of anemia,” Mannino says. “If you see me everyday, it might be hard to pick up on a color difference. But the cameras in our phones are getting so sophisticated. This is a procedure that would use existing technology.”
Globally, anemia affects about 1.6 billion people. And plenty more people are at risk.
“It’s a symptom of many diseases, of malnourishment, of vitamin deficiency. A lot of different people are affected or potentially could be,” Mannino says.
And a lot of those people have more access to a smartphone they do to a physician’s office. Mannino plans to spend his time developing a system that will let a person take a picture of their fingernail, then spit out information about hemoglobin levels.
“Then they can go see a doctor,” Mannino says. “We’re working on the app to make that happen. Now it’s a matter of coming up with the best hemoglobin prediction algorithm possible. Ideally, by the time I graduate I’d like this to be something that other people can actually download and use.”
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