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Spanish River High science teacher awarded $10K to combat sepsis

Palm Beach Post - 1/28/2020

A project created by a science teacher and her students could end up saving lives affected by sepsis.

Veteran educator Mary Fish, who teaches the Biotechology Academy at Spanish River High School, was recently chosen for the $10,000Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lemelson InvenTeam Grant. She and 22 students, who are working on a prototype for patients in the intensive care unit, were just one of 14 teams in the nation to receive the honor.

"Through this prototype we could potentially monitor when a patient may be predisposed to sepsis, and eventually stop it before it evolves into a larger issue," Fish said.

Sepsis is the body's extreme response to an infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a life-threatening medical emergency.

When a patient is affected with sepsis, the person's infection -- whether it be in their skin, lungs, urinary tract or somewhere else -- triggers a chain reaction throughout their body. Without timely treatment, it can rapidly lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death, the CDC says.

The Lemelson-MIT Program 2019–20 InvenTeams consisted of 14 teams of high school students from across the country who each received up to $10,000 in grant funding to build a technological invention to solve a problem of their own choosing.

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"This year's projects demonstrate the dedication of young students to make a positive impact in the world through invention," said Tony Perry, the Lemelson-MIT Program's invention education coordinator who works with the teams throughout the year. "The InvenTeams will help solve major problems in areas such as environmental sustainability, regional food harvesting and healthy living."

For Fish, who also was featured in The Palm Beach Post in 2017 for earning a $5,000 science research grant for the Spanish River Sharks, this award is personal. Her father died four years ago from sepsis.

"I wasn't prepared for that," she said. "He had advanced Parkinson's disease and broke his hip. Then he had surgery. After surgery, he had to recover in the rehabilitation center. He developed an infection and it was severe."

Remembering and missing her father, Fish sought solutions. One thought: If her father was more efficiently monitored, perhaps he could have lived a bit longer.

Fish's team of students have worked hard to prove this hypothesis: Their plans for the rest of the year are to keep building a prototype that will be a wearable, noninvasive and continuously monitoring a biosensor set that can improve the survival rate for sepsis patients in intensive care. The prototype is being funded by the grant money they won.

"The prototype will work by having microscopic carbon nanotubes mixed with the antigen for lactate -- which is the biomarker for sepsis -- and the concentration of lactate from a blood sample may be measured by electrical conductivity," Fish said.

Fish first started working on the application for the project in October 2018. In April, she discovered she was chosen as a final applicant and received the Excitee Award. This meant that the project showed a lot of promise and that she could travel to EurekaFest over the summer at MIT. EurekaFest is a showcase of all the other InvenTeams and their projects.

During the summer and the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, Fish and her students worked on their final application, and found out that they became one of the official Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams in October.

"As soon as I announced that we received the grant, my students got to work really quickly and organized how they continue to go along with the project," Fish said.

The goal is to keep working until EurekaFest in June to eventually have a finished prototype to showcase. Students are tasked as different leads to cover all aspects of the project. Those departments fall under research, technical, administrative, communications, financial and sustainability leads.

"Each lead has their own group of students who they manage, and they work on their own in order to do what their team is required," Fish said. "For example, Communications Lead works with his team independently to contact news sources and possible stakeholders."

While creating this prototype, Fish and the team plan to keep involving their community at Spanish River High and in Boca Raton, as well as to continue raising money.

"The school has been very supportive of our progress, and the principal always made sure to be there when we had important meetings with the media, even when we had a talk with the Lemelson-MIT educator Anthony Perry," Fish said.

The InvenTeam's work also has been featured in the school's newspaper, The Galleon, as well as on the school's social media.

Fish and her students will present their prototype during EurekaFest this summer at American University in Washington, D.C. The Sharks still need financial and professional support. It will be costly to fly 24 people to D.C. and to stay in the dorms of American University for a week.

If successful, Fish hopes the project will be used in more locations other than just intensive care units.

"This may be incorporated into other settings such as rehabilitation centers and perhaps at home," she said.

The Sharks ultimately hope this project will be able to detect when a patient may be predisposed to sepsis, and stop it before it evolves into a larger issue.

"It could potentially end up saving thousands of lives who may be affected by sepsis just like my father," Fish said.

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