Emma Huang (V)
For six weeks this summer, I had the opportunity to work in Cooper Union’s Summer STEM Makerspace Program. Filled with 3-D printers, plasma laser cutters, and soldering and circuit stations, the Makerspace was an innovator’s dream – a place where I could turn an idea into a reality. Each day, I designed, coded and prototyped. In addition to working in the Makerspace, we participated in business and entrepreneurship workshops, which included public speaking, a STEM career advice panel, and a Computer Science and Ethics discussion group. We also received lessons on how to build circuits using Arduinos (a platform for building prototypes) and how to use OnShape (a CAD, or computer aided design, software) to create 3-D models. We were tasked to identify a real-world problem, devise an invention which would address it and then pitch our ideas. I set on developing a prototype to help solve a public health crisis we face.
It was during my daily commute on the train into New York City where I saw a recurring theme. While exiting Penn Station each day, clouds of vape aerosol and cigarette smoke filled my line of sight. One morning, I even saw a mother hurriedly swerve her stroller away from the fumes and turn her children’s heads away from the smoke. As I continued to navigate my way down to lower Manhattan on the subway, I witnessed similar situations occur. In each instance, the second-hand smoke affected everyone. This made me think about that infant in the stroller, the elderly man next to me, and all the people around who are susceptible to the effects of second-hand vape aerosol and cigarette smoke. Even more, what about those who are more vulnerable, like those with pulmonary and respiratory issues as common as asthma?
Vape juice contains a glycerin base. When heated, the base degrades to chemicals such as formaldehyde and benzene gas. These carcinogens are released into the air when exhaled, thereby making the effects of second-hand smoke toxic to surrounding people. More recent data indicates that there have been over a dozen vaping-linked deaths and more than 800 vaping-related lung illnesses across the country. Knowing the vast epidemic of vaping and realizing its negative health effects, I wondered: how many people are inhaling vape aerosol second-hand without knowing it? Alternatively, how many people would avoid heavily concentrated vape areas if they had the information accessible to them? After a quick search, I was surprised to find that in our home state of New Jersey, only two towns have specific laws regulating the use of e-cigarettes in public areas (as of July 2019), and vapes and e-cigarettes do not fall under cigarette regulations. With a vaping epidemic on the rise, I wondered why a device or system which regulates vaping in public areas doesn’t already exist.
This prompted me to conceptualize VapeEscape, a fixed air pollution sensor that works with a notification system and interactive map that allows users to detect vape aerosol and cigarette smoke via a mobile app that is iOS and Android compatible. I pitched VapeEscape as my individual project proposal and formed a team of four to help make my idea a possible reality. For the next four weeks, my teammates and I spent countless hours troubleshooting code (in Arduino based C, Java, and Python languages), wiring our sensors to Arduino and Raspberry Pi circuits, and designing a sleek model of VapeEscape in CAD. Though there were some hurdles to overcome– for example, a key sensor we ordered did not arrive until a few days before our final presentation– the hard-working spirit of my team resulted in the creation of a product we envisioned as being instrumental in regulating air safety in workplaces, hospitals, airports, schools, and restaurants, to name a few.
The insight I gained from this summer has been invaluable. From working with the Cooper Union faculty to collaborating with peers of different backgrounds, I was excited to learn from and share ideas with a diverse group of innovators. I’ve also realized how much I value the role of technology as a springboard to benefit the greater society, especially in tackling solutions to problems that plague our communities.