Smart Toilet Saves Vital Health Data from Getting Flushed
January 31, 2020
By Joyce Huang ’22
Some of the most important information about our health comes from an unexpected and decidedly icky source. Our daily excreta (yes, the feces and urine we flush away every day) can actually tell us a lot about our health and help us monitor our bodies for disease. However, our aversion to excreta (the “ick” factor) has made this type of specimen collection for health monitoring and testing quite difficult. This year, a Bass Connections team called Smart Toilet is working to change that.
Led by Geoff Ginsburg of the Duke Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, and Sonia Grego and Katie Sellgren of Duke’s Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease (WaSH-AID), the team has been hard at work developing prototypes of a “Smart Toilet,” which would enable the hands-free collection of waste that can be used for early disease detection and to test and monitor for infectious diseases.
The Smart Toilet team includes three graduate students and five undergraduates, each of whom is part of a subteam responsible for a component of the project. The engineering team handles prototyping and designing the model for the toilet; the biology team tests for pathogens in specimens; the business team interviews doctors and healthcare experts about the feasibility of implementing such a device in healthcare settings; and the regulatory team is exploring guidelines and requirements governing diagnostic innovations.
To create their prototypes, the team has been working with low-cost plumbing supplies, like PVC pipes, in order to create a product that is affordable and easy to manufacture.
“People increasingly want to bridge the academic experience with researching, prototyping and bringing a product to market,” says Sellgren, who is the technical lead for the Smart Toilet program for WaSH-AID. “Being able to involve students in this process is really great because they get to experience the research process. Projects like this are likely the first time students are getting an experience where the outcome is uncertain, so there’s a learning curve for everyone. [Students’] motivation motivates me!”
“The big benefit of a Bass Connections project is the incorporation of direct project experience,” shares Megan Richards ’22, a Biomedical Engineering student working on the biological subteam. “This is really helpful for everyone, but especially for engineering students where project experience is prized very highly and is the biggest metric of your value as a job candidate. It can be rare to find these project experiences in classroom settings because classrooms are typically more content-heavy and learning-based.” She adds, “I think there’s a benefit in the interdisciplinary realm because you get a better scope of your entire project instead of just gaining x, y or z skill for your major. With this project, you’re getting exposure to hospital officials, doctors, real-world applications of your project and the hurdles that come with that.”
This spring, members of the Smart Toilet team are working on their fourth model of the toilet prototype, which will have advanced capabilities to collect excreta samples and interface with a regular toilet. In addition to ensuring their prototype is effective, the team is also working to add inline sensor capabilities to the Smart Toilet.
Joyce Huang is a student assistant in Bass Connections’ central office. She is a member of the Duke Building Energy Use Report project team.
- Read more about this Bass Connections project team, Smart Toilet: A Disruptive Technology to Improve Health and Wellness.
- Check out the 2020-20201 project teams, and apply by February 14 at 5:00 p.m.
- Explore Bass Connections summer programs.