Early cancer detection, malaria testing, epilepsy: Sarah Hooper ’17 is using her electrical engineering and computer science know-how to help find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing health issues. Most recently, Hooper wrapped up a 12-week internship at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she explored and evaluated other ways to test for malaria besides the standard finger prick blood test.
“A lot of people have malaria and don’t have symptoms,” she says, “but they can continue transmitting to other people.” Those patients prefer not to have blood taken, because they don’t feel sick.
One possible alternative to finger pricking is a device that detects the disease using a beam of light shined onto a patient’s skin. The light reveals changes in the red blood cells underneath. It’s a tool with the potential to multiply the number of people screened for the deadly disease. Hooper’s back at Stanford this fall, where she’s earning her Ph.D. in electrical engineering, courtesy of the prestigious 2018 Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship for graduate education.
One area she’s focused on in cancer research is machine learning. Currently, to diagnose cancer, radiologists will typically evaluate a medical image such as an MRI or a PET scan and then physicians will monitor patients during treatment.
“Potentially, you can teach a computer to do the same thing,” Hooper says.
At Rice, Hooper minored in global health technologies, and through the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, worked with a team to create a low-cost device that helps prevent hypothermia in newborns with respiratory distress syndrome. She also helped develop an algorithm to predict seizures, a potential life-line for the nearly 1 million epilepsy patients in the U.S. who don’t respond well to antiseizure medication.
Her work has taken her across the globe. While at Rice, she spent a summer in Malawi, partnering with local university students to design low-cost medical devices. “It was rewarding and motivating,” she says. “I’m in a place now where I feel like I can really contribute something,” Hooper adds. “I’m very driven by impact.” — D.L.B.
This profile originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Rice Magazine '20 under 30' list.