Lockdown had just been imposed, and hundreds of semester projects were suddenly in question. Two long weeks of uncertainty followed, until an announcement was made of how students could earn their course credits – the Lauzhack. Despite skepticism, anxiety and doubt, a number of students spent their Easter weekend on a hackathon devoted to finding real-world solutions to problems raised by the pandemic.
We spoke with several participants who, far from defeated, came out of the experience with a new sense of their capabilities.
An emotional roller coaster
Their names are Lison, Florence, Camille, Ekaterina, Aurélien and Tristan. Their reactions ranged from genuine enthusiasm to misgivings and apprehension. Having been very keen on their planned semester projects, it was difficult for them to put them aside, not knowing if they would later come to fruition. But without access to a lab or equipment, they had to overcome their frustration and welcome this new challenge.
“I was at a loss about what to do,” says Camille Montemagni, a Bachelor’s student in computer science. “Since I couldn’t reuse the basis of my original project – calibrating an avatar in augmented reality using motion capture – I had to start from scratch and find a new project. It was really stressful, especially since I’m not very fond of hackathons, but I needed those eight credits.” In the end, Camille and her team designed a collaborative virtual environment.
Even for those who didn’t need to start fresh, joining Lauzhack was not an obvious choice. “I didn’t see what I could contribute, since I’m not a biologist or an epidemiologist,” says Ekaterina Svikhnushina, a PhD student in computer and communications science. “But then I realized that the hackathon wasn’t just about finding a vaccine, but rather involved all sorts of crisis-related issues, above all ones related to helping people.” She oversaw the COVER project, a support service for people at risk. The idea came to her when her grandfather called her with a computer problem. She didn’t need the credits, but she wanted to participate and be of service.
Florence Stoffel, a Master’s student, had the same reaction: “I saw the hackathon as a chance to put my skills and expertise to work. After all, we’re trained for this, and now is the time when we chemists can and should play a part. This is our moment.” She came up with the idea of creating an application to identify new medicines that could target viral proteins, based on existing drugs that already have this property. Even though she is not a computer scientist, she quickly contacted experts using the Lauzhack platform and the team got to work.
A scientific experiment with a human dimension
Finding a project and team members wasn’t obvious. “I switched projects partway through because I didn’t feel sufficiently useful; my skills didn’t match what was needed,” says Aurélien Kinet, a Master’s student in electrical and electronic engineering. “I felt on more familiar ground when I joined the COUGHVID project. For example, I was able to use my skills in Python coding, machine learning and dataset management. I was really happy with my team, and it was also interesting how my teammates’ nationalities shaped their visions.”
A lucky few were able to work on projects related to their studies. Lison Marthey, a Master’s student in materials science and engineering, thought the hackathon would focus on coding and IT. “I wanted to concentrate on materials, so tackling questions related to surgical masks was the obvious choice – how to sterilize them, to make them more comfortable, and to add a moisture indicator so that wearers would know when to change them.” The Maskimal project was born. “It was a great opportunity. At first I had my doubts, but in the end the group really worked well together and I’m glad that I took part,” she says.
It was an intense, exhilarating experience for everyone involved. “The goal was to have a concrete and transferable result by the end of the weekend,” says Tristan Vouga, a member of the Indie-Pocket team. “Working against the clock was inspiring for the team, and it forced us to focus on what’s most important.” Indie-Pocket, designed to be integrated into the SwissCovid app, locates exactly where people carry their smartphones. He adds: “It fostered a spirit of healthy competition, and confirmed that this was the right way to move forward. In the end, the hackathon was tough, but it brought out the best in us.” Florence, however, expressed some reservations: “Of course, the goal was to come up with a working prototype. However, due to the nature of the project, certain details were not given adequate attention, even though they might make all the difference. If I had been more relaxed, I would have spent more time on them. People work differently under pressure, and our team had the added challenge of being spread out over different time zones.”
As for Camille, the experience was a real shot in the arm: “Seeing something tangible come out of the project gave me self-confidence, even though I started from zero and worked in areas in which I’m not proficient. I’m much more sure of myself now.” The same is true for Ekaterina, who “tried, accomplished and learned things that I wouldn’t have under normal circumstances. We were motivated and convinced that our problem was worth solving.”
The hackathon may be over, but the projects continue. The media attention garnered by COUGHVID enabled the team to collect even more sound samples in order to fine-tune their project. “The dataset is growing and it’s taking me longer and longer to clean up the data,” says Aurélien. “We now need to incorporate medical data from confirmed COVID-19 patients. After that it should go faster, but the app will be released only when it’s 100% reliable.”
Things are also going well for Tristan: “We were able to produce several deliverables: data collection, the app to harvest it and the algorithm for the tracing apps. It’s invigorating to work on a concrete project. It is a real breath of fresh air compared to our usual research work.” Florence, who had the bad luck of losing all of her raw data, reflected philosophically, “Sometimes you learn the hard way. But if this were easy to solve, it would have been done by now.”
And now? “Once lockdown is over, I’d really like to meet – in person – the members of my team I don’t know,” Lison says.
For most of these students, this was their first hackathon. Given the unique circumstances and the lessons learned, we’re willing to bet it will remain an unforgettable experience.