Just as NBA superstar Michael Jordan found boundless motivation after being kicked out of his high school basketball team, Jay Desai has used early rejection to drive his success at hackathons and invent medical devices using materials. common and reused.
A watershed moment was reaching the national Science Bowl finals in middle school and then not making his high school’s Science Bowl team as a freshman.
“I was a little salty,” he admits. “I was like, ‘I’m going to show them.'”
The following year, he became team captain and won the state title.
At Emory — first at Oxford, then on the Atlanta campus — he channeled his technical skills and talent for reusing common materials to create inexpensive inventions that solve tricky problems in science and medicine.
“You would never realize that this guy is knocking out entire teams of Google scientists in innovation and creativity competitions,” says his adviser Anita H. Corbett, Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of biology.
At Emory School of Medicine, Desai’s problem solving has aided research in disease diagnosis and stroke rehabilitation.
“Jay looks like he’s going to be a digital pathology player, which is going to fundamentally change the way we render diagnoses,” says Geoffrey Smith, director of pathology informatics and assistant professor of pathology at Emory.
Is this guy real? Michael Borich, principal investigator of Emory’s Neural Plasticity Research Lab, says he asked himself that question when Desai explained SensiGlove, his $50 prosthetic arm sleeve that gives amputees with prosthetic arms a realistic sense of touch with haptic feedback technology.
“I was like, ‘I don’t think people can do that’ about what Jay was doing,” Borich says. “Over time, however, I was very impressed.”
Desai attributes her success to her connections, especially those during her time on the close-knit Oxford campus. He was a tutor and resident advisor there.
“He took classes ranging from Japanese to sexuality and religion to introductory politics,” notes Corbett. “I imagine his extensive training and interest in gaining knowledge in all areas contributed to his international success in hackathons. That’s the value of liberal arts education.
Example: Recently, Desai was designing IntelliCool—a heat stroke invention—for the US Department of Homeland Security’s Cooling Solutions Challenge, when parts didn’t arrive.
“Within a few hours, he had a really cool cooling mechanism in place using a mini-fridge pump,” says hackathon partner Ian Wang. “Tell me something that sounds more like MacGyver than that. I didn’t even know he could do anything like a prosthetic arm, and he almost won a big hackathon in China with it.
Desai told her story during a Zoom break from creating LifeHawk — which follows firefighters inside a burning building — for a U.S. Department of Commerce hackathon issue. He taught himself ultra-wideband and LoRa technology to build a high-precision tracking system that relied on communication between each firefighter’s radio beacons, a drone, and other first responders.
He’s already won $5,500 for a prototype from the U.S. Department of Commerce and partnered with the DeKalb County Fire Department to secure over $1 million in funding.
He also landed a Google grant in 2021 to create TechInMed, bringing together students with technological resources for medical innovations, including a new robotic microscope system.
How does a mind like Desai’s develop?
“Elon Musk is awesome, but my dad is the reason I am where I am today,” Desai says. Her father Prag is an electronics engineer who taught Desai advanced math every night; his mother Nehal is a medical technologist who loves science.
From Prag came the constant question: “How can I better approach this problem?” That’s a question Desai seeks to answer.
Denied by 30 Emory labs
As time passes, hackathon participants must develop and present a prototype. The harder the challenge, the greater the competition and prizes. Every year, Emory students host the largest business hackathon in the Southeast, HackATL.
HackATL 2019 was Desai’s first hackathon. When he came close to winning, “that’s when he started his crazy streak,” says Wang. “I don’t want to say he has a chip on his shoulder now, but at the start it was definitely a big part.”
On Devpost, a social network for hackathon competitors, Desai’s current results pages is dotted with gold trophy icons. In two dozen events, he placed in all but two – mostly competing alone.
In the spring of 2020, however, as Desai was quarantined at home, more rejections occurred. As a medical student, he wanted research experience. After sending 30 cold emails to Emory Laboratories, he received 30 rejections.
Desai’s pitch needed work. “I didn’t have much to offer them,” he says. “So I started learning to code in all these languages and learning skills that are sorely lacking.”
Disease detection: 90% accuracy for less than $100
He followed hospital pathologists who looked at cell slides to identify disease patterns. Couldn’t AI help or even make it better? With less than $100 worth of materials, Desai built a machine to detect malaria in blood smears.
In a bid to do the same for cervical cancer cells in pap smears, Desai emailed pathologist Geoffrey Smith. His request was typical of medical students, residents or fellows. But “Jay’s device was loaded with consumer electronics and had virtually no budget,” Smith says. “To put that into perspective, we just rolled out slide scanners that cost $300,000 each.”
Desai joined Smith and cancer researcher Gabriela Oprea-Ilies, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine.
“It wasn’t so much us telling Jay what to do as what he needed to do for this project that he had already defined,” says Oprea-Ilies. “Computer processing of images is one of the hardest things we do in the pathology lab, and Jay is doing well as an undergrad.”
Desai presented the results of his antimalarial device — and its 90% accuracy — at the 2021 American Society of Cytopathology conference.
“I was really honoured,” he says. “I went from not getting a single research position to speaking at a conference with graduate medical students and doctors.”
He also presented research on his low-cost AI-based robotic system that can screen for cervical cancer, which is especially important in underserved rural areas. The project finished third in the 2021 Microsoft Azure AI competition, winning advertising for Desai on Microsoft’s developer website and $4,000 to further develop its idea.
Always something up the sleeve
Last summer, Desai applied his research experience and engineering knowledge to develop a low-cost 3D-printed myoelectric prosthetic arm for amputees, which he submitted to the 2021 China-US Young Designers Competition. He was one of 10 American finalists invited to compete in the international competition, where he finished second overall against teams of scientists, engineers and professors. The $4,500 prize, like others, helped pay for materials and equipment for the upcoming competition.
“It was difficult because I’m doing this on my own,” he says. “It’s exhilarating, but at the same time, I always end up being the underdog in these competitions. I’m not even a computer science graduate!”
In 2021, he also finished first and won $5,000 at the Microsoft Azure US Hack for Accessibility by developing BlueSighta $15 device that helps blind students study better and navigate campus.
He earned the MCAT and plans to enter medical school after a year off. Without a medical degree, he says he cannot fully “deal with inefficiencies and problems in the medical field.”
“If we could keep him here in the lab forever, we’d lock him up, because he could do a lot here,” Borich says. “But I have no doubt that Jay will be at the center of harnessing technology in healthcare.”