Hopkins and visiting students engage in annual 36-hour medical hackathon

By JAKE LEFKOVITZ | October 3, 2019

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COURTESY OF JAKE LEFKOVITZ MedHacks hosted its annual Hackathon this weekend at the med campus.

The student organization MedHacks hosted its fifth annual 36-hour Medical Hackathon at the School of Medicine from Sept. 27 to 29. 

Despite putting on a smaller event than in years past, organizers of the hackathon said they felt confident that their efforts to improve the overall experience for participants had succeeded. 

Junior Claire Chiang, MedHacks co-head of logistics, explained why she believes students enjoy participating in the event.

“Honestly, people come to hackathons to have fun,” Chiang said. “They come to win money, but they also come to have fun, and that’s what I really care about: making everyone happy, making everyone feel like we care about them. And we just have done everything that we can to care about them.” 

In every hour between 10:30 p.m. on Friday and 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, students from Hopkins and other universities were busy “hacking” — in this case, coming up with solutions to pressing public health issues.

In order to improve participants’ experiences, the organizers also included opportunities for participants to do other things throughout the weekend, MedHacks Tech Lead Julian Orillac explained.

“We had a bunch of really great hacker events that were just for fun,” Orillac said. “We had a Smash tournament, a Nerf gun war. Having these small brief moments where people were just having fun for fun’s sake and were really getting to know each other, those were really awesome.” 

Another innovation of this year’s MedHacks, Chiang noted, was to ensure that diverse skill sets not traditionally associated with hacking were also rewarded. She explained that this was a part of the larger evolution of MedHacks. 

“People who aren’t the most talented at coding and stuff like that have things to do,” Chiang said. “We really hit it out of the ballpark this year.... We were really able to make everyone happy.”

Co-Director of MedHacks Ryan Lu said that this larger evolution was the result of a major initiative at the executive board level. Organizers created a new board position to represent the interests of the hackers themselves and make the hackathon as comfortable for them as possible.

Lu said he also took a personal interest in ensuring hackers’ experiences were positive. 

“When I first took this position, I went to a hackathon just to see — if I was a hacker, if I was a participant, what am I looking for? What stuff annoys me a lot? What stuff doesn’t really matter?” he said. 

Another innovation driven by this kind of thinking, Lu said, was the decision to solicit the participation of clinicians at the Hopkins School of Medicine, who came to the Hackathon on Friday evening. The clinicians presented issues they often face in their practice to the hackers in order to help spur project ideas. Some also served as judges.

Junior Vedant Chandra, co-head of logistics, explained that he thought this practice helped set MedHacks apart from its peer hackathons.

“One thing in particular that I’m really proud of here is that it’s not just about the competition,” Chandra said. “A lot of people say that, but I think we have some impetus to mean it because most of our judges are people who actually work here at Hopkins every day doing the work that people here are developing solutions for.”

On Sunday morning, the hackers submitted their projects for judging in one of three tracks: improving health outcomes, global management of chronic disease and post-operative care. 

In addition, there were branded prizes that hackers could win.

Lu explained that some of these branded prizes were attempts to encourage participants to take the projects they left with on Sunday and push them toward becoming fully fledged products.

“We’re trying to find ways to make sure that what happens at the Hackathon becomes something more,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why we had a branded prize from FastForwardU.... This year we had them find a team of Hopkins students that they would fund for $1,000 and provide mentorship over a period of six months in order to get [their] idea rolling.” 

Sophomore Dennis Gong, an organizer who also served as the liaison for another MedHacks sponsor, Jhpiego, described how he saw firsthand the opportunities that bringing in partners like Jhpiego, a University-affiliated global public health organization, afforded participants.

“During the pitching sessions they were really excited about the solutions that students were able to provide,” he said. “I thought that was really cool that we were able to bridge the gap between students who actually have these cool ideas and the people who are actually able to implement them.”

Tyler Lynch, a software director for Cengage who participated as a mentor for teams, said that he was particularly pleased with the improvement he said he has seen in the ability of organizers to get the smaller details of event-planning right.

“The logistics this year were really great. Very, very well done,” he said. “I just felt that the logistics this year were tighter this year than they had been in previous years.”

Lynch extended his congratulations from the student organizing staff to the whole custodial staff at the Ross Research Building. 

“There’s a big round of applause for our janitorial staff that helped. There was a lot of work to do, and I really appreciate how vigilant they were about keeping everything clean,” he said. 

Some of the student participants also stated their appreciation for different parts of the Hackathon experience that they received.

Michelle Fang, an undergraduate student from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, said that while she felt fatigue due to the length of the hackathon, she found the event to be more invigorating on the whole. 

“I felt so motivated the entire time I was working here,” she said. “I pulled close to all-nighters like I’ve never done before for regular schoolwork because I feel like I’m choosing to do this and that I should do it right because I chose to do this and [it’s] something I’m really passionate about.”

Stephen Price, an undergraduate student from Carnegie Mellon University, reflected on how attending MedHacks exposed him to a type of community that was different from the one he was used to back on his home campus. 

“The coolest part has been having all these tech-minded people focusing on health problems,” he said. “I study computational biology, and most of my friends are computer scientists, so having a place where computer scientists are also doing biological stuff is pretty cool. I feel validated.” 

Charan Pasupuleti, a graduate student at Hopkins, said that he too felt that there was something special about the community that he found at MedHacks this year. 

He had planned to come to the Hackathon with two other teammates. However, both unexpectedly ended up not being able to make it. So Pasupuleti said he just approached two friendly-looking people.

“I said to them, ‘Hey, do you guys have a team?’ And they were like, ‘No, feel free to join us!’” Pasupuleti said. 

Absorbing these comments from participants is what made the organizers confident that they had performed well.

Chiang said that she had been struggling to feel that confidence on the first day. 

At that time, she said, it was hard for her to see past the absences that were very glaring to her.

“We weren’t able to get most of the people that we usually do, so the first day it felt like everything was just crashing down,” Chiang said. “I think being able to realize that even though we got less people, we were still able to have a really good event for everyone that was here, that was really good.” 

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