Two University of Utah engineering students under electrical and computer engineering chair Florian Solzbacher are part of a team that has won this year’s Bench to Bedside Competition for their device that makes it easier for doctors to diagnose a middle-ear infection in children.

The contest, sponsored by the U’s Center for Medical Innovation, awards student teams from Utah colleges for their medical and global health projects. Winners were announced at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City April 8.

Suzette Mastrangelo and Nicholas Witham, who work for Solzbacher, are part of a team of biomedical engineering students that took the grand prize with their modified otoscope, the Mapping Otoscope, which can better detect when a child is suffering from an ear infection. The team also includes Tarek Marrouche, Allison Kachel and U otolaryngology assistant professor Bryan McRae. Solzbacher is also an adjunct professor in biomedical engineering.

Typically, doctors must pump air pressure into the child’s ear and visually determine if the tympanic membrane in the ear moves. If it doesn’t, that’s likely because fluid in the ear is preventing it from moving, signaling that the child is suffering from an infection. But it’s difficult for the doctor to make that determination because the otoscope can only be in the ear for a very short time when the child gets anxious. That leads to a misdiagnosis rate of 50% among pediatricians.

The team’s new Mapping Otoscope, however, measures how much the membrane moves and displays the results on a touchscreen. The device also makes a video loop of the procedure so doctors can more clearly see if the membrane is moving.

“It’s the same device, but we innovated it to address an important clinical need,” said Marrouche, a master’s student in the biomedical engineering department’s bioInnovate track under associate professor Robert Hitchcock. “We’re making advancements on a device that had problems that needed to be addressed.”

The team won $25,000 to go to the development of the device. The group also is in the process of forming a company, Heimdall Health, to ultimately manufacture it.

“It feels surreal,” Marrouche said about winning the competition. “We are very excited because we have the chance to represent the U in a global competition in Singapore. It’s an amazing feeling to see that hard work paying off.”