Across disciplinary borders

Celebratory applause at the finish: after an intensive ETH Week, on Friday the t

Celebratory applause at the finish: after an intensive ETH Week, on Friday the teams presented their ideas for the health of tomorrow. (Image: Alessandro Della Bella / ETH Zurich)

From genetics and personalised medicine to health insurance and climate change: at ETH Week 2021, 120 students from all degree programmes and from 31 countries grappled with the topic of "Health for Tomorrow".

"It’s exciting to see how quickly you can delve into complex problems and start developing solutions," says Lea Rotondi, a Master’s student in her second semester in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology (D’HEST). Together with 120 other students from 31 countries, she launched into ETH Week 2021 a week ago on Sunday. In only five days, the students - divided into teams - had to familiarise themselves with the broad topic of "Health for Tomorrow" and, on the sixth day, present innovative project ideas.

Two locations for the first time

ETH Week took place for the sixth time this year and for the first time, it was held as a "hub edition". The 15 teams were distributed between two locations: nine on the ETH Zurich campus at Hönggerberg and six at Balgrist University Hospital. They connected via live streams for the opening event and the expert lectures. All the teams assembled at Hönggerberg for the closing event.

This was also the first time the event included comprehensive reporting on various social media channels to complement the hybrid format.

Innovative ideas about health and wellbeing

The focus on health furthered ETH Week’s original idea of developing solutions to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 3 is to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.

"Health is one of humanity’s most important issues and encompasses many levels," says Margrit Leuthold. She participated in the Future Health Technologies programme at the Singapore ETH Centre SEC, conceptualising the ideas and content of the event together with Wolfgang Langhans, professor emeritus at D’HEST. "In addition to the personal level - genes and psychosocial factors - there are also expert and social levels. Health is an important economic factor." Global aspects are also important, including the health effects of the environment and climate change.

To help students learn as much as possible about health as quickly as possible, excursions to health sector companies and organisations were on the agenda last Monday, followed by a knowledge fair with talks by experts on Tuesday. To help them combine these inputs and develop ideas for resolving notable health problems, the teams were introduced to design thinking on Wednesday, a method of structuring the innovation process. Experienced coaches were on hand to assist the teams throughout the entire week.

Time pressure and complex team process

The amount of information and the time pressure were not the only challenges the students faced. "People in different degree courses think differently," Michelangelo Gautschi says frankly. He will shortly finish his Master’s degree in Health Sciences and Technology and is personally affected by the topic. He lost a leg in an accident and because of that, his team - team 2, "BETHER" - decided to develop a solution for more comfortable prosthetics.

"It’s a highly iterative process," says Jonas Heitmayer, also completing his Master’s degree at D’HEST. "To some extent, you talk past each other and a lot of work is scrapped."

That is precisely why Teruyuku "Teru" Yamasaki registered for ETH Week. The biology student from Japan is at ETH Zurich for one semester. He wants to learn more about the technologies and was impressed in particular by the Cybathlon experts.

Finding feasible new solutions

"It was difficult to find an entirely new approach that’s actually viable," Luana Schena says. The geography student is in the fifth semester of her Bachelor’s degree and is almost blind due to an eye disease. Her team - team 3, "Eye of Providence" - also decided to sketch out a solution to Schena’s real problems. They developed an idea for a smart navigation device that can help blind people find their way around unknown buildings such as hospitals. Mazda Farshad, medical director at Balgrist University Hospital, was impressed by the presentation on the final day: "Our hospital has repeatedly considered developing a solution like this not only for blind people, but for everyone living with an impairment."

The closing event on Friday at Hönggerberg brought home how worthwhile all the discussions and effort of the preceding days had been. After the teams received additional input on their ideas from experts on Thursday, they presented their projects in creative ways - without PowerPoint - to the expert juries and other teams to great applause.

Cheers for presentations and new friends

Rector Sarah Springman, patron of ETH Week, and Julia Dannath-Schuh, ETH Vice President for Personnel Development and Leadership, then jointly announced the winning teams. The jury award for the Balgrist teams went to team 3, "Eye of Providence"; at Hönggerberg, it went to team 12, "Shi-er sharks", which wants to improve hospital hygiene using a fluorescent disinfectant. Both received a saucepan with ingredients for a team evening. Team 15, "Peace & Love", designed a protective tent made of innovative materials for panic attacks, winning the overall peer-to-peer award for both locations. The team can look forward to a yoga class and brunch together. Team 4, "No Pressure", came in second with its app for personalised, holistic medicine, and similarly can look forward to the now-traditional saucepan.

All the participants went home with new ideas and interdisciplinary contacts after what was, in Rittiner’s words, a "super long and intensive week". Exchange student Teru enthuses: "I met so many people in such a short time." And Heitmayer says: "I’m thinking of participating again next year."

Inken De Wit

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