DIY Diagnostics turns freshmen into health-science researchers—and could save lives in the bargain.
By Emily Nielsen
Summer is synonymous with fun in the sun, but those carefree days come with a downside: the increased risk of skin cancer. Rachel Graubard was thinking about ways to fight this widespread health threat even before her freshman year. Now, after availing herself of UT’s ample research opportunities, she has created a smartphone app that can help people diagnose and monitor potentially dangerous changes in their skin.
Graubard first developed an interest in dermatology after learning about a great-great-uncle who was a dermatologist in Vienna. He discovered a rare skin condition that was named after him: Oppenheim-Urbach disease. When she was 13, her grandmother passed along the late doctor’s medical journals.
“Even though I couldn’t understand a word of them, I became really fascinated by the pictures and diagrams and have wanted to be a dermatologist ever since,” says the Liberal Arts Honors junior from Houston, who is majoring in psychology and biology and plans to graduate in 2017.
In her senior year of high school, Graubard had the opportunity to observe surgeries at a skin cancer center. That further sparked her interest in skin cancers while solidifying her passion for dermatology. Her first year at UT, she participated in the increasingly popular Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), starting off in an undergraduate studies class teaching research methods.
“Toward the end of that semester, we had the opportunity to attend information sessions for the various research streams we could join as the next step in the FRI sequence,” she says. “DIY Diagnostics was definitely my favorite, and I was lucky enough to be placed in my first choice of labs.”
The DIY Diagnostics lab in the College of Natural Sciences focuses on do-it-yourself projects that emphasize easily available diagnostic tests people can take independently to improve their health. Tim Riedel, research educator for the lab, worked with Rachel to create her app.
“She did the bulk of this work as a true freshman, including developing the concept,” Riedel says. “I like to tell people that I’m not a research educator so much as a facilitator. She made this happen — the FRI and DIY and I just supported her.”
In addition to developing the framework for the diagnostic tests, Graubard wrote the code herself after learning some rudimentary techniques from Riedel. Still a work in progress, the app doesn’t yet have a name. However, the core of the idea — allowing users to identify warning signs on their skin — is in place.
The app asks a series of questions to distinguish skin cancers from normal lesions based on outwardly visible characteristics. Based on the responses, a probability is calculated of the lesion being skin cancer vs. a benign mole. The user can also upload a picture to compare it to pictures of cancerous lesions.
“I know some people can get a little nervous when they notice a strange, dark spot, so the goal is for the app to serve as a first resource before people go to the doctor, and to help monitor any changes,” Graubard says. “Smartphones are now so prevalent, and they can provide a means to revolutionize health care as we know it.”
The work has already had an impact on Graubard’s family. Her grandfather recently had a suspicious lesion on his arm. She showed him how to use the app, and it indicated there was an 85 percent chance it was cancerous. A visit to his dermatologist and subsequent biopsy led to a diagnosis of melanoma and an appointment for removal.
“It’s a huge relief to know that the melanoma was caught early enough to be removed before it spread,” Graubard says. “I’m hoping the app can help other people be proactive in checking for signs of skin cancer and seeing a doctor.”
Graubard, who plans to attend medical school, has some words of advice for incoming students.
“Make sure to take advantage of all the amazing opportunities this school has to offer,” she says. “I really recommend exploring different areas of study and taking classes outside your major, so you can find something you are truly passionate about. Oh, and wear sunscreen! We live in Texas!”
Helping Students Thrive
The Freshman Research Initiative’s DIY Diagnostics stream collaborates with labs, companies, agencies, foundations, and individuals, who have helped it grow by donating funds, expertise, and materials. You can support this and other student research programs at cns.utexas.edu/giving.
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