WASHINGTON D.C. – April 26, 2010 – All his life, Wilson To wanted to be an inspiration to those around him – not on the basketball court or in the classroom, but out in the real world.
On Monday, student peers, technical leaders from Microsoft, and film director James Cameron were among those who applauded To’s inspirational work to help fight disease in the developing world.
To is the team leader of Mobilife, a group of students from University of California, Davis who won the grand prize in Software Design at the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals. Mobilife will go on to represent the United States this summer at the Imagine Cup world finals in Poland. There they will face off against teams from all over the world with the mobile application they built that can diagnose vascular diseases.
Standing with his team on the podium after the award ceremony, To struggled to find the right words to convey his feelings.
“They called out our name, and I just started crying,” To said. “I first got involved with the Imagine Cup not because of the chance to go to Poland, or because of the prize money, but because I just wanted to help people.”
Mobilife’s capture of the top prize brought to a close the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals. More than 22,000 students from across the country registered for the event, and the top 80 competed this weekend in Washington, D.C. The Imagine Cup, the world’s largest student technology competition, called on students to use technology to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.
Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, said the Imagine Cup was more than just a software competition. “I look at the teams that are here today to inspire the world to use technology and make a real difference,” Mundie told the finalists during his keynote speech.
Joining Mundie were filmmaker James Cameron and Karen Cator, the director of education technology at the U.S. Department of Education. Cameron, who was in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 40th Earth Day last week, said he volunteered to speak at the Imagine Cup because he believes in its approach of having technology students tackle tough social, environmental, and educational problems.
“What I appreciate about what Microsoft is doing with the Imagine Cup is that they’re taking the natural enthusiasm and curiosity of students who are interested in science and technology, and channeling that toward a sense of social responsibility,” Cameron said.
The presence of an Academy Award®-winning director provided star wattage at the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals, but the most distinguished guests at the competition were the finalists themselves, said Anthony Salcito, vice president of Worldwide Education at Microsoft. “The Imagine Cup is a celebration of talented students bringing together their passion for technology and their desire to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems,” he said.
Team Mobilife’s To explained that his team’s project tackles a tough problem in many rural areas around the world. Vascular diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and sickle cell anemia are difficult to diagnose in developing regions that often lack the necessary tools.
To said he’s been researching the idea for a long time. “It started when I did some volunteer work at a pathology lab. I decided I wanted to keep doing the work and really expand it,” he said. “It’s my baby.”
So To surrounded himself with the “best and brightest” at the University of California, Davis to create Mobilife. Computer-assisted microscopy has been around for a while, To said, but it was never before used on a mobile platform.
To’s teammate Kayvon Ghaffari said that “being among all the other teams (on the podium) is the highest honor.” At the team’s presentation in front of the judges early that morning, they ran into a few technical problems. “I thought it was over after that,” Ghaffari said.
David Sanger, chief Washington, D.C., correspondent of the New York Times and one of the judges at the event, pointed to the team and said, “First U.S. winners right here,” referring to the fact that the U.S. has never before won in the Software Design category at the Imagine Cup world finals.
In the Game Design category, team To Be Announced was named grand prize winner. It took Nic Colley a moment to realize his team had achieved their ultimate goal.
“We’re sitting there, then I go running down the hall like ‘The Price is Right,’” Colley said. “If there’s a word for this, it has to be ‘awesome.’” Teammate Will Isenhour wasn’t sure what to make of winning. “It’s still sinking in,” he said, explaining that the team put so much into the project that it completely consumed them. “The process is kind of like being beaten in the head, but at least it comes out as something without a hospital bill.”
Earlier that morning, Cameron and Mundie walked the showcase floor for the event, asking students about their projects, including team LifeCode from Wayne State University.
“So is this a report on someone’s medical condition?” Cameron asked the team. They explained that their project monitors people with chronic health conditions that could result in them requiring immediate help when they are out and about. Their phone tracks their vital signs and lets paramedics know immediately if they need help. “My mom needs that,” Cameron said, and when someone laughed, he added “she does, seriously.”
As Kun Wang – his hands shaking – used his phone to demo the project for the pair, teammate Steve Markovitch explained how it worked.
Moments later, Markovitch was still absorbing the fact that he had just talked to the guy who made the most popular movie of all time. “This was the most interesting person I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. “Certainly the most famous.” He said Cameron’s “Terminator 2” is one of his favorite movies, but that he likes them all. “He’s always on the cutting edge of using the latest technology in his movies,” Markovitch said.
Meanwhile, Wang was feeling the moment in a different way. “It’s hard to use words,” he said. “I’m running out of words to explain how I feel. I still can’t believe that I even shook hands with him.”