Q&A with the winners of 2020 Technical Leadership Capstone Award

Kian Talaei (IEOR), Ryan Zolyomi (ME), Fang-Jhen Su (BIOE), and Tianyi Xing (IEOR)

Five young men and one young woman stand for a group photo in a nighttime setting.

The Fung Institute Technical Leadership Capstone Award is awarded to the capstone team that most effectively demonstrates MEng Leadership principles:

I. identify (or enable others to identify) a problem, opportunity, and/or vision;
II. generate or elicit a solution to a problem;
III. include and convince stakeholders of the proposed solution;
IV. manage and include all stakeholders in solving the problem, exploiting the opportunity, accomplishing the vision.

This year, the recognition goes to the Smart eye-drop bottle to monitor medication habits of glaucoma patients capstone team, advised by Dr. Scott Lee of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Taiki Nishihara from Ocuelar, and Professor Tarek Zohdi of the mechanical engineering department.

Project Overview

More than 75 million people worldwide suffer from glaucoma — the leading cause of irreversible blindness. The majority of these patients lack a proper and consistent medication routine, a concept referred to as poor medication adherence. The team developed a smart device to track patients’ eye drop medication adherence. Their smart eye drop bottle holder incorporates multiple onboard sensors paired with an algorithm to actively monitor the timing of medication administration. The data is collected via an integrated patient-physician smartphone application. Accurate tracking of medication adherence will improve physician treatment decisions and patient quality of life.

We had a chance to speak with the capstone team members Kian Talaei (IEOR), Ryan Zolyomi (ME), Fang-Jhen Su (BIOE), and Tianyi Xing (IEOR) about their experience.

How did you define the scope of the capstone project?

“The main goals for treating glaucoma are to slow disease progression and preserve the patients’ quality of life, with regular eye drop medication as the most common means of treatment. The team visited a local ophthalmology clinic to conduct informational interviews with glaucoma patients. The interviews demonstrated a significant unmet clinical need and the impact glaucoma progression has on the patients’ quality of life. In addition, literature research and studies show that poor medication adherence rates are generally high, in fact as high as 80% in some populations.

The primary reason for the glaucoma patient population suffering from low levels of medication adherence is the insidious nature of glaucoma disease progression. The gradual increase in eye pressure is often not noticeable until irreversible blindness occurs. As a result, our team wanted to develop an integrated smartphone application and bottle sensor product that would seamlessly monitor medication compliance of glaucoma patients.

Understanding the project’s short timeline and our team’s strengths and weaknesses, we focused primarily on the novel value-added components. Therefore, we narrowed to scope and utilized a commercially available sensor chip. However, we spent much of our efforts on the development of our signal processing and algorithm in order to transform sensor signals into medication compliance data.

What was your most significant teaming challenge & how did you tackle it?

Our team faced many challenges throughout the year. Our initial idea and vision required extensive hardware background which was certainly not our area of expertise. While we ambitiously generated numerous innovative concepts, many of these would be nearly impossible to implement in a year-long project. We quickly grew frustrated over the lack of consensus on which concepts to pursue.

Nevertheless, we grew as a team through this challenging time. We began to understand team dynamics, each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to productively work together leading us to progress efficiently through the rest of the project. We achieved this by developing a team culture encouraging open discussion where everyone’s views are listened to. Also, we identified each other’s strengths and utilized these to our advantage to increase productivity.

However, the most important achievement was that we dedicated time to get to know each other. We would meet outside of project work and just talk, grab food, or hang out. These team activities brought us much closer together and fostered relationships that allowed us to tackle all the difficult tasks ahead of us.

“We began to understand team dynamics, each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to productively work together leading us to progress efficiently through the rest of the project. We achieved this by developing a team culture encouraging open discussion where everyone’s views are listened to.”

What was your most significant project management challenge & how did you tackle it?

It would be impossible to go without mentioning the effects of COVID-19 on our project management. COVID-19 impacted our momentum and planned ventures for the device following the first iteration of the smart bottle holder. Our weekly team working meetings were transitioned to remote work, which negatively impacted our progress and collaboration on device design. With a lack of access to a maker space or mechanical designing tools, we had to get creative and fabricate a DIY prototype of the bottle holder at home. Additionally, with our team members no longer able to have face to face meetings, we moved to Zoom meetings on a weekly basis to collaborate on project deliverables and update our industry advisors. Nevertheless, we were able to continuously support each other and work through the difficult times to create an accurate minimum viable product that we hope to beta test at the clinic very soon.

What was your most significant technical challenge & how did you tackle it?

Our most significant technical challenge was the process of selecting and implementing technologies that would accurately measure eye drop medication compliance. There are many ways to approach this unique problem, from psychological solutions to microfluidic devices that can count droplets. However, we prioritized seamless integration into patients’ lives and minimal regulatory barriers for entry into the market. With these requirements in mind, we developed a smart eye drop bottle holder with a series of onboard sensors.

Transforming completely external sensor data into a binary compliance data point also proved challenging. Initially, we were unsure if this approach would be successful. As a team, we dedicated many hours iterating through various signal processing and machine learning techniques. Some approaches worked better than others, but we pivoted multiple times to find statistically accurate solutions. We may have faced many difficult barriers along the way, but our motivation, teamwork, and trust allowed us to reach a feasible solution.

Have you had a capstone project in your undergrad and, if so, how has this capstone experience been different?

The MEng capstone project provided a holistic engineering design experience. The process of applying to projects after the capstone fair, to delving deep into the first-hand needs finding in the clinic, and finally iterating through multiple prototypes and testing phases allowed us to grow as engineers.

We can attribute our success to three key components. First, the Fung Institute’s culture attracts fellow teammates who are driven to collaborate and innovate towards finding solutions. Second, the leadership coursework taken throughout the semester builds up leadership and communication skill sets that enhance the capstone experience and promote project success. Most importantly, throughout the entire process, we had access to world-class faculty and industry mentors. Without their dedication and support, this project would not be as successful as it was.

You probably had a number of course-based projects during your MEng year. How is the capstone different?

Our experience with many course-based projects is that they tend to have very limited scopes. It makes sense that a course would tailor its projects to focus on content related to only the course. The capstone project is completely different. The project is interdisciplinary and requires skill sets from multiple engineering disciplines. In our case, it was bioengineering, mechanical engineering, and industrial engineering & operations research. Each team member utilized their specialized knowledge and skills for the project. However, the group’s diversity allowed new perspectives to be contributed in order to develop an innovative solution.

The MEng capstone project places a strong emphasis on engineering leadership and as a result, provides first-hand experience to practice and fine-tune the engineering leadership and communicative skills learned during the span of the program, all of which contributed to the success of our project.

“The capstone project is completely different. The project is interdisciplinary and requires skill sets from multiple engineering disciplines.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This award means a lot to all of us. We would like to thank the Fung Institute, our professors, our MEng peers, and of course our faculty advisor Professor Zohdi, all of whom immensely supported us this entire year. We appreciate all the advice they have given us this semester and would not be here without their efforts.

We would especially like to thank our industry partner Dr. Scott Lee and our amazing advisor and mentor throughout this process, Taiki Nishihara. Taiki motivated us every single week to go above and beyond and we loved the energy he brought in from the first day to the final moments of our project. We are confident he will go on and do amazing things. Thank you both for the guidance and mentorship.

For the incoming MEng candidates and those after, the capstone project is not just a graduation requirement. It is instead a great adventure that will give you the opportunity to learn new things and collaborate with a diverse group of students to solve societal needs. And the best part is you get to make a bunch of life-long friends.

We look forward to staying in touch with you all.”

Edited by Lauren Leung

Connect with the team: Kian Talaei (IEOR), Ryan Zolyomi (ME), Fang-Jhen Su (BIOE), and Tianyi Xing (IEOR)

Learn more about the Fung Institute at funginstitute.berkeley.edu

Master of Engineering at UC Berkeley with a focus on leadership. Learn more about the program through our publication.

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