Tufts first-year Harry Paul presented his invention, intended to ease the lives of children living with congenital scoliosis, to President Barack Obama and other White House officials earlier this month. Paul has been working on the device for three years and recently submitted it for a patent. The Daily spoke with Paul about his invention, its inspiration and the process he went through to create the device.
The following is an abridged version of the interview.
Tufts Daily: What inspired you to build this device?
Harry Paul: I was born with congenital scoliosis, a curvature of the spinal column, which, because it happens so early in development, gets much worse over time and really affects the development of the thoracic cavity, which is all of the space where the heart and lungs and other vital organs develop. So when you have congenital scoliosis, it restricts the amount of growth that can happen, which compresses those organs and hinders them from developing, which as you can imagine is very, very dangerous. So most people who have congenital scoliosis will die before the age of 4 if he or she doesn’t have treatment.
What current treatment does is surgeons put rods in, and the rods keep the spine straight, but they have to be lengthened with another surgery every three to six months. So I went through all that and it wasn’t that fun. I decided that I wanted to try to learn about the different treatments out there and see if there had been anything that had been developed to make it easier, and there really wasn’t anything.
TD: Can you explain, in simple terms, how the device works?
HP: So what I did is I invented an implant that grows with the spinal column to keep the spine straight as growth is happening, minimizing the number of surgeries the child would have to have and lengthening the time between surgeries so they can have less complications, less time out of school, less of all the bad things.
Then as I was doing that, I realized that in order to test it, I would need to put it in either a human or an animal and I wasn’t really into that, nor could I because I was a high school student. So what I did is I built my own mechanical model of the spinal column. I used computers and an engineering lab and 3D printers and screws and bolts and mills and all that good stuff to build [it]. It was just made out of plastic and metal but it simulates the natural growth of the spinal column. So we could not only put my implant on the trial spine … but any other implant that might be developed in the future to see whether it’s going to work or not. I hope this will stimulate more and more people to not only get involved in science and STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education] as a whole but to focus on this problem, because it is a field that has been sort of stagnant lately, and that’s not a good thing.
TD: Were there any technical difficulties in your process?
HP: For most of it I would do things, find out how much it would cost to do what I needed to do, find out it was way too expensive, and because of that have to make something myself. So part of it was, I didn’t have the money to put it in an animal trial, or to pay a surgeon to test it out, so I had to do something else.
I have incredible parents; I am lucky that they have supported me, not just emotionally, but financially as much as they can. So when I said that I wanted a computer that could handle this ridiculously powerful engineering program, they rolled their eyes and then found a way to do it.
Also in the high school I went to, I was in a science research program, so I had a very limited amount of funding through that, but I used all of what I could and tried to weasel more money out of them. So that was great, and then eventually, as I started to really get into this and to really develop this, I partnered with an engineering firm in Virginia called K2M, and they were just an amazing company and really supported me, not just by letting me use all their facilities to do these things but to talk to some of the best people out there.
It took many months, and the whole thing took me three years to do.
TD: How did your device get recognized?
HP: I certainly didn’t start at the White House. I first started contacting people to ask them questions about their articles. So this was years ago, before I had even started to make something myself. I was just reading about my disease and I had questions about the articles and the books so I emailed the authors and I eventually started talking about what they were doing, and I learned about it through that.
And then, through the science research program at my high school, we had to apply to science competitions and I did and I ended up winning, and then people took note. And since I went to the biggest science fair [last May], which is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair … and since I won there, the press has sort of gotten wind of it…
The White House found out about me through Society for Science and the Public, which is the organization that runs and administers the Intel fair. Two weeks ago I got a call. I screamed.
TD: What was the presentation like?
HP: I presented to way more people than I can ever remember … When I saw [Obama] walking towards me with his amazing smile on his face, I didn’t think real life was happening. But when he asked me about my device, he was just another person to talk to about the science, which I am so passionate about.
TD: How has your research continued at Tufts?
HP: Freshman year, I knew I wanted to take a break. Mostly because I had to. Right now, we are submitting a patent, and so I’m not allowed to work on it or put it in clinical trials until the patent gets approved … The process can take up to 5 years. Right now, I am in the process of looking at all the amazing labs [at] Tufts. I love research in general, so I am figuring out what lab I want to apply to.
TD: Will your device be available for widespread medical use?
HP: Yes but no. After the patent is approved, we can start manufacturing and we can start doing more intensive tests or put more funding into it. After we do that, we would need to do clinical trials to develop the implant and test it in an animal to make sure there are no adverse reactions. And then there is the whole FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulatory process.
TD: Do you have any advice for young engineers?
HP: Anyone who is really passionate about something should have a chance to keep talking about and working on it. It doesn’t matter who you are to be interested in science, and if you are interested in it, you can go as far as you want. Don’t give up. I could have given up a trillion times. My device failed again and again and again. I could have just said, I failed, I didn’t win, and given up. You will keep having failures until you don’t fail, and then it’s amazing.