2023 PIP/PEP winners: Where are they now?

Nearly a year after the winners of the President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) and President’s Engagement Prize (PEP) began their projects, the winners—now alumni—discuss their progress. 

Sonura team
Recipients of the 2023 President’s Innovation Prize, team Sonura, five bioengineering graduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, have created a device that filters out disruptive environmental noises for infants in neonatal intensive care units. Their beanie offers protection and fosters parental connection to newborns while also supporting their development.

In April 2023, three President’s Prize-winning teams were selected from an application pool of 76 to develop post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each project received $100,000 and a $50,000 living stipend per team member.

Winning projects for the President’s Engagement Prize (PEP) include Act First, which brings the expertise of MERT-trained Penn students to Philadelphia high schools and nonprofits for a variety of emergency response trainings, and Communities for Childbirth, which is creating a coordinated referral system of first responders and emergency dispatchers to address Uganda’s high maternal mortality rate. Sonura, the winner of the President’s Innovation Prize (PIP), is working to improve infant development by reducing harsh noise exposure in neonatal intensive care units. To accomplish this, they’ve developed a noise-shielding beanie that can also relay audio messages from parents.

Below, learn more about the progress these five Penn alumni have made with their projects since winning the awards and putting knowledge into practice.

Act First, 2023 President’s Engagement Prize Winners

Catherine Chang and Kenneth Pham, alumni of the College of Arts and Sciences and members of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), set out to bring their knowledge about CPR, blood loss prevention, and Narcan to Philadelphia-area high school students.

Since embarking on the project last spring, the team recruited Penn students from MERT to teach 11 lessons in the fall and have approximately 30 scheduled for this spring. They’ve taught at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School, Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the Workshop School, and nonprofit Mighty Writers. This spring, they’ll also teach at Paul Robeson High School, Freire Charter School, and Universal Audenried Charter School.

So far, says Pham, it’s been an even mix of demand for CPR, blood loss prevention, and Narcan lessons. He explains they’ve learned that teaching one program—typically, the CPR lessons, which are mandated by the state and based on the American Heart Association—inevitably spurs demand for their in-house-developed blood loss prevention and Narcan trainings.

“You connect with these students and they get to know you over the course of three different lessons, and they get more comfortable asking questions, and I think that’s awesome,” says Chang. “And in our Narcan lessons we do teach, ‘Well, what if someone stops breathing and their heart stops beating, what would you do then?’ And then we say, ‘You would start CPR,’ and the next month we’ll come back and teach that. Because these lessons connect with each other.”

Act First has also been collaborating with a program at CHOP on their Youth Heart Watch program, introducing schools they’ve worked with to make them heart-safe campuses, and also Penn Medicine’s Center for Addiction Medicine and Policy, with whom they participate in Narcan outreach every Friday at select SEPTA Market-Frankford Line stops.

Pham and Chang will next pursue medical school, with the intention to consult with the program. They’re feeling confident about the progress Act First has made in its first year.

“The receptiveness of students and enjoyment they get from the classes has been surprising to us, but really rewarding,” says Pham. “The teachers have welcomed us with open arms. They’ve really liked our curriculum and how we’ve interacted with the students, and that’s ultimately our measurement of success. If the teachers and students are having a good time and learning at the same time, that’s all we could really ask for.”

Communities for Childbirth, 2023 President’s Engagement Prize Winner

Since graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2023, Seungwon ‘Lucy’ Lee has shuttled between her home country of Korea and Jinja City, Uganda, where she is creating a coordinated referral system of first responders, emergency dispatchers, and systemized hospital networks through Communities for Childbirth. The project is the first of its kind in Jinja City.

“Uganda has an incredibly high maternal mortality rate, which is what we talk about when we talk about women dying during pregnancy or childbirth or after,” says project mentor Lisa Levine, chief of the Maternal Fetal Medicine Division at Penn Medicine and the Michael T. Mennuti, M.D., Associate Professor in Reproductive Health. “It is a unique country to really think about making a change and an impact.”

The project launch date is March 22. Lee has established a toll-free telephone number and recruited community health workers from 130 villages, training them and teaching them to train others. She also launched a global ambassadors’ program to recruit health care scholars in eight sub-Saharan African countries to build awareness around maternal mortality, she says.

Currently, it takes a pregnant woman in Uganda an average of four hours to receive hospital care. Lee is hoping to see that decrease to under an hour, and ultimately, to less than 30 minutes in Jinja, the Ugandan city where Communities for Childbirth is based. The group is also working closely with a regional hospital. Ultimately, Lee plans to completely transfer this service over to the hospital.

“Community buy-in is a very crucial and essential part of our entire intervention design,” Lee says. “Hopefully that will be the answer for long-term sustainability as well.”

In September, Lee will attend the University of Cambridge, earning a master’s degree in population health sciences, where she hopes to write a thesis on the impact of climate change on maternal and child health. “Working on this project definitely taught me a lot of lessons and gave me a huge realization that I wanted to study public health,” she says. 

As heat rises, “women in many African villages are often the most vulnerable populations, which means they’ll be hit the hardest,” Lee says. More research is needed to design global health initiatives that can adapt to changing environmental factors, she says. Lee wants to help with this research, to bring in appropriate intervention strategies, and to mitigate harm.

Sonura, 2023 President’s Innovation Prize Winners

Sonura, a bioengineering quintet, developed a beanie that shields newborns from the harsh noise environments present in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs)—a known threat to infant wellbeing—and also supports cognitive development by relaying audio messages from their parents.

Since graduating from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the team of Tifara Boyce, Gabriela Cano, Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, and Caroline Magro, has collaborated with more than 50 NICU teams nationwide. They have been helped by the Intensive Care Nursery (ICN) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), which shares Sonura’s goal of reducing NICU noise. “Infant development is at the center of all activities within the HUP ICN,” note Daltoso and Ishiwari. “Even at the most granular level, like how each trash can has a sign urging you to shut it quietly, commitment to care is evident, a core tenet we strive to embody as we continue to grow.” 

An initial challenge for the team was the inability to access the NICU, crucial for understanding how the beanie integrates with existing workflows. Collaboration with the HUP clinical team was key, as feedback from a range of NICU professionals has helped them refine their prototype.

In the past year, the team has participated in the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab and the Venture Initiation Program at Penn’s Venture Lab, and received funding from the Pennsylvania Pediatric Device Consortium. “These experiences have greatly expanded our perspective,” Cano says.

With regular communication with mentors from Penn Engineering and physicians from HUP, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and other institutes, Sonura is looking ahead as they approach the milestone of completing the FDA’s regulatory clearance process within the year. They will begin piloting their beanie with the backing of NICU teams, further contributing to neonatal care.