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Student engineers create a device to date bruises in child abuse cases

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Courtesy Samantha Davidson | The Daily Wildcat

A team of six University of Arizona engineering students developed a device to detect how long a bruise as been on a body. 

Bruises turn all sorts of weird colors over time, from red, purplish-blue, greenish-yellow to brown. 

A group of engineering students created a device to analyze these colors and chronologically date bruises, specifically those in child abuse cases.

Alexandra Janowski, a member of the team and a senior studying biomedical engineering, said with further analysis, the device might determine the age of a bruise from its coloration created by hemoglobin and bilirubin as the bruise heals. 

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Physicians could use this device to determine the age of a bruise in scenarios where they can’t necessarily go off spoken accounts. This could be if the patient is nonverbal or there are unclear circumstances.

Dr. Dale Woolridge is a professor of emergency medicine, pediatrics and chemistry and biochemistry and the medical director of Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center. He helped sponsor the project to develop the device.

“In processing child abuse, one of the things that we try to identify is conflicted injury and/or if we can determine anything about how it was done and how old it might be,” Woolridge said. “A big difficulty they have in forensic medicine is that it’s really not feasible through what is currently known to chronologically date a bruise.”

Pre-verbal children might not be able to tell law enforcement what happened, so who caused the injury often can’t be determined because of multiple guardians, Woolridge said. 

“The individual who doesn’t want to be found out is going to be pointing at the other people,” he said.

The device will improve the accuracy of identification by allowing a physician to make an accurate judgment of when the bruise occurred.

“Children who die of child abuse, if you look at their medical records, were very often, up to 20 percent of them, seen by a doctor within a month of their death,” Woolridge said. “So, if you can identify abuse victims, you can remove them from the abusive environment; you can save lives.”

The project’s beginnings

Woolridge brought up the idea for the device to Urs Utzinger, associate department head of biomedical engineering undergraduate affairs, in 2018. Utzinger made a proposal to the College of Engineering to be part of the senior Engineering Design Program. 

The student engineering group was created by pre-assignment based on individuals’ interests and skills.

Samantha Davidson is the student leader of the project and a senior studying biomedical engineering.

“I think we were all interested in this project because we knew in the long run it would have a really great impact on children,” Davidson said.

Ghazal Moghaddami is another student working on the project. She is a senior studying biomedical engineering.

“This was definitely one of my top choices,” Moghaddami said. “It’s just something that’s very important, especially for the kids that can’t speak for themselves, and I think this kind of helps physicians understand a little more in detail about bruises.”

The team

The student team consists of five biomedical engineering students and one mechanical engineering student. The students are from places like Arizona all the way to Tehran, Iran; Chaiyaphum, Thailand; Ciudad Obregón and Sonora, Mexico and Beijing, China.

“I feel like I’ve never gotten to really get to know a group of people this well through a project before,” Janowski said. “I learned how to communicate and interact with people that have a different background than me and really just get to learn more, not just about people, but the places they’ve been and the experiences they’ve had. I just got to get a whole perspective on what it’s like to be a woman in engineering through all parts of the world.”

Moghaddami, who is from Iran, said it wasn’t that different from working with other groups — but she felt comfortable. 

“We made it fun for sure,” Moghaddami said.

Woodridge said he hasn’t worked with a lot of engineering students before.

“It’s been a lot of fun hearing the back and forth, the problem solving, the discussion of the model, the design, what it would entail,” Woolridge said. “It seems like the students really enjoyed what they were doing.”

The project challenges

Davidson said in the first semester, they focused on planning, and the second semester, they started building in a lab, doing circuit diagrams and finishing touches. 

All the women interviewed said coding was the most difficult aspect.

Moghaddami focused on developing the spectrometer and SD card code. She said coding was the most challenging because most of the students were unfamiliar with program. 

“We had our setbacks, and we had problems we faced that we didn’t expect, but we found ways to overcome them by working with each other, reaching out to other people, and we really kind of came above everything that we thought was going to tear us down,” Janowski said.

She said a few days ago they thought the micro controller was broken and the whole project was going to fall apart. They spent a late night in the lab and all worked together to fix it. 

“It’s almost amazing to me that we made it this far and that our project is going successfully,” Janowski said.

Going forward

“We’re really excited to show our device on Design Day, and we’re really proud of how much we’ve learned,” Davidson said. “We didn’t know a lot in the beginning. We only knew what we had learned in our classes, and we finally got to apply it to a real project, and that was really exciting.”

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Woolridge said the next step to look at ethicacy, or the medical ethics of using such a device, and if it works and how accurate it will it be.

The device will have to go through studies and progress towards working with live patients. Woolridge pointed out studying bruises entails either finding someone who has an actual bruise or having to inflict one. 

“It’s hard to justify ethically a study in which you are subjectifying your subjects to an injury,” Woolridge said, which is why there will be a progression to a true human model.

For her part, Janowski said she was looking forward to the potential this device has.

“I’m excited to see how the device is able to take us to the future with that as well as being able to help children in abuse situations be able to kind of have a voice that they’ve never been able to have,” Janowski said.


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