Two MIT students won top honors this week in the 2008 Collegiate Inventors Competition, one of the most prestigious honors available to college and university innovators.
Timothy Lu, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, was awarded the $25,000 grand prize for a new method of combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. He invented processes that enhance antibiotic effectiveness and help to eradicate bacterial layers that can breed on surfaces of medical, industrial and food processing equipment.
Greg Schroll, a 2008 MIT graduate, won the competition's top prize for undergraduates for his invention of a new spherical robot that could have many potential uses including surveillance, reconnaissance and disaster-zone assessment, especially in situations where conditions on the ground may not yet be safe for people.
The National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation made the announcement Wednesday, Nov. 19, at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. The competition is sponsored by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Abbott Fund.
Lu started working on the problem of antibiotic resistance after witnessing infectious outbreaks in many patients while doing his clinical rotations. Such infections can lead to lengthened hospital stays and additional treatment, increasing healthcare costs.
"That experience drove me to look for a solution to this problem," said Lu, who also received the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in February for his discovery.
Working in the new field of synthetic biology, Lu engineered bacteriophages -- viruses that infect bacteria -- that work in conjunction with existing antibiotics to make them much more effective.
He also engineered bacteriophages to produce enzymes that break down the protective coating surrounding biofilms, enabling deep penetration into biofilms and increased killing of bacterial cells.
Lu, who graduated from MIT in 2003 with bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, received his PhD in February and expects to receive his MD in 2010.
Schroll, who majored in mechanical engineering at MIT, won $15,000 for his new robot design, which uses gyroscopes to store and dispense angular momentum to aid in climbing hills, obstacles and stairs.
"I saw how gyroscopes can behave in ways that seem to defy gravity as a result of the principle of gyroscopic precession. I applied this principle to a spherical robot to allow it to also appear to defy gravity," he said.
Schroll is currently a graduate student at Colorado State University.
Lu's advisor, J.J. Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, received a $5,000 prize, and Schroll's advisor, Alexander Slocum, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, received a $2,500 prize.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 3, 2008 (download PDF).