Innovations abreast at professor's hackathon

by Laura King / Beacon Staff • September 24, 2014

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At a rousing event this weekend full of brain food, dozens of laptops, and heaps of breast-shaped stress balls, Catherine D’Ignazio and her team sought to find ways to improve the age-old breast pump. 

D’Ignazio, a recently hired assistant journalism professor at Emerson, helped run this hackathon—a fast-paced problem solving event—at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. Around 120 breast pump specialists, along with users of the apparatus and their children, attended the two-day session, titled “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck.” 

Though D’Ignazio teaches at Emerson, her roots lie across the Charles River. After receiving her master’s degree in media arts & sciences from MIT in 2012, she stayed on as a research affiliate at the Media Lab. 

“It means I get to hang out here,” D’Ignazio said.

D’Ignazio’s background is in software and social impact studies. She relates to what she calls a lack of innovation in the maternal health field on a personal level; she has used a breast pump for all three of her children. 

“If you look at all the research around breastfeeding... the recommendation is that you feed the baby exclusively breast milk for about a year,” D’Ignazio said. “The World Health Organization recommends two years. Many women have huge amounts of difficulty adhering to that, and a lot of that is due to pumps.”

According to D’Ignazio, poorly made breast pumps can be extremely uncomfortable and some women will switch to formula out of frustration.

This was the inspiration for a smaller, less formal hackathon organized by D’Ignazio and her research partners in May. 

Based on its past success, the team decided to host this most recent hackathon, which began with speakers including nurses, engineers, and sponsors. Attendees were then given the chance to present their ideas in five-minute “rocket pitches,” and groups were formed from there. They had until Sunday evening to develop their ideas and create a presentation. 

Ideas presented included mechanical improvements, public pump stations, and ways to provide comfort to breastfeeding mothers. Engineers, designers, educators, healthcare specialists, and breast pump users who came together in groups generally created the most innovative products, according to D’Ignazio.

The winning group, Mighty Mom, developed a tool belt that allows mothers to be hands-free while pumping.

“One of the things we rewarded was diversity and team skill and [the winning team] really represented that,” D’Ignazio said. “They created things that could be shared by other groups.”

The first place prize, sponsored by Pejman Mar Venture, included $3,000 and a trip for two members of the team to meet investors in Silicon Valley, to pitch their product.

Another group called Second Nature created a pump that focused on the concept of “bio-mimicry,” or technology that’s created to be similar to that of nature. In this particular project, the group—which included designers, engineers, nursing experts, and mothers—simulated a tongue in their pump design based on mothers’ accounts of real baby nursing habits.

D’Ignazio said her in-class techniques are very similar to those of a hackathon; she tries to find out “how we connect the amazing space that is the classroom to real world problems.” She said her assignments often involve her students solving problems in Boston.

“I like having structured classes where students can work on real issues,” D’Ignazio said. “The solutions that they come up with might really have a lot of weight.”


News Editor Christina Jedra and Managing Editor Jackie Tempera, who are in Catherine D’Ignazio’s class, did not contribute to this article.