Front, from left: Aaron Zajicek, Ayla Sessions Back, from left: Chris Horner, Ryan Seither

While many students spend spring break on Mexico’s beaches, students in UC Davis Professor Angelique Louie’s biomedical engineering senior design class spent it preparing for a trip to Mexico in the middle of spring quarter. Instead of lolling about in the sun, however, Chris Horner, Ryan Seither, Ayla Sessions and Aaron Zajicek planned to join their Mexican counterparts to create a low-cost, portable chair that dentists could use to treat patients in impoverished rural areas. The Davis Enterprise published a story about the project on June 23.

Biomedical engineering majors take Prof. Louie’s BIM 110: Capstone Biomedical Engineering Design as the final project class required to graduate. Students learn to apply bioengineering theory and experimental analysis to design a unique solution to a problem. Students can gear the design toward current applications in applied biomechanics, biotechnology or medical technology. The class has resulted in some innovative products with potential for widespread use, such as a device to position and hold a dog’s head during veterinary procedures.

Dr. Gabriela Ruiz, Director of the Biomedical Engineering Department and professor of the Capstone Design class at Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM), in Monterrey, Mexico, heard Prof. Louie give a talk about her class at a conference, and approached Prof. Louie about doing a joint project with her own design students. They talked about a few possibilities, then decided to offer just one, as a pilot for this year to see how the long distance collaboration would work.

The two professors developed a project in cooperation with Dr. Ana Cecilia Treviño, who directs the dental program of the ITESM Medical School. Training for the dental students enrolled in Dr. Treviño’s program includes traveling to both rural and urban communities and setting up clinics to provide free dental care to the community. As a non-profit charity that travels to rural communities in Mexico, Dr. Treviño could not afford the chairs currently on the market, which cost upwards of $2000. Furthermore, she needed a truly portable product—something capable of reaching communities inaccessible by road.

The project’s goal was to design a lightweight (under 15 kg), portable, height and angle adjustable dental chair that, most importantly, cost under $1000. When Chris Horner, Ryan Seither, Ayla Sessions and Aaron Zajicek saw this project, they quickly understood the effect this chair could have on Dr. Treviño’s organization. “We chose the project because we wanted to make a global impact. I remember looking down the list of potential projects and knowing that was the one I wanted to do, and I think the same goes for my teammates,” says Aaron.

Chris, Ryan, Ayla and Aaron designed a chair that uses parts from just two manufacturers and assembles with a single Allen wrench, like IKEA furniture. Chris explains that unlike other models, users carry the chair like a backpack, which evenly distributes the load across the user’s back and leaves their hands free. The chair is easy to assemble and easy to repair.

Designing the chair was one thing, but raising money for four students to travel to Mexico was another matter entirely.

“Going into the project we knew it was going to be difficult. Our University budget was only $400, which would barely cover one plane ticket to Mexico. So we started fundraising very early, holding bake sales and pizza fundraisers with local businesses. By the end of the first quarter, we had already raised more than enough to cover the cost of all four plane tickets as well as the cost of the chair,” says Aaron. Prof. Louie calls their fundraising efforts, “heroic.”

“Although most of us were running on little to no sleep and we had been slaving away for days trying to fix issues with our first prototype, we were all super excited to be traveling internationally for our senior design project,” says Ayla. To Ryan, “An electric feeling pervaded the whole trip to Mexico. We all were excited with the mix of new experiences, new culture, and a sense of accomplishing some good.” They left for Monterrey on Thursday, April 22.

At ITSEM, Chris, Ryan, Ayla and Aaron met up with Prof. Ruiz and her students, Blanca Flores and Lesslie Contreras. Thanks to frequent Skype meetings between the UCD and Mexican teams, the Davis team received a warm welcome. “It was nice to be treated as old friends instead of foreign new acquaintances,” says Ayla.

The teams got right to work, but soon ran into obstacles. They had to make adjustments to improve the chair’s stability. “The first day was rough. Nothing seemed to go as planned and we had to make a lot of changes to our design—sacrificing weight and portability to make a functioning chair. Luckily Blanca and Lesslie were able to help us out tremendously,” says Aaron. “Over Thursday and Friday we replaced some cables with rigid crossbars. That stabilized our chair and made sitting in it more relaxing,” explains Ryan. To boost their flagging spirits, Blanca and Lesslie took the Davis team to the best taco place in Monterrey.

By Monday, the chair was ready to present not only to the team’s client, Dr. Treviño, but also to the head of the ITESM biomedical engineering department. Meetings with additional dentists and potential investors followed. The team received positive feedback and some suggestions for refinement of future designs. The team also met with a federal official representing the Secretary of Health. The national coordinator of Mexico’s “Caravans of Health” program had flown in from Mexico City to meet the team and assess the value of the chair. Thousands of rural zones in Mexico lack access to medical and dental resources. Mobile healthcare units, called health caravans, travel to these zones to provide free treatment. The minister expressed interest in using the chair for all health caravan dental and medical visits that do not have access by road.

“It felt great to hear that our project might have a much more profound impact than we had anticipated,” says Ryan.

The trip was not all work, however. Chris, Ryan, Ayla and Aaron found time to visit an ecological park in the mountains near Monterrey, attend a party for the graduating ITSEM biomedical engineering class and a BBQ with Dr. Ruiz and their Mexican hosts, see caves with stalagmites and stalactites, go bungee jumping, and eat lots of delicious food.

On Tuesday, April 27, the UC Davis team returned home. “Saying farewell to all of our new friends was harder than I had ever imagined, and I didn’t want to leave their culture, their city, or their food. This trip taught me more than just about the engineering design process; it taught me about a whole new culture. Everyone in Mexico was gracious and welcoming,” says Ayla. Aaron agrees. “The project was more than just our senior design. It was about cultural differences and international collaboration as well as global philanthropic efforts.”

Dr. Louie and Dr. Ruiz consider the project a success, and look forward continuing their collaboration.