Student ideas a hit with Disney

For doc, it's a vision thing

If Mickey Mouse and Snow White seem to know you by name someday when you visit Disneyland, it might just be thanks to two students at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham.

Lara Clark and Yrinee Michaelidis took second place (and $1,500 each) combining their creativity and engineering skills in this year’s ImagiNation’s competition sponsored by Disney Imagineering.

Imagineers are people who dream up the fantastic and bring them to life (the term combines the words imagination and engineering ). The Disney competition was launched to encourage students to pursue careers in creative and technical fields such as digital arts, engineering, and architecture — while also putting out feelers for prospective Disney employees.

Of course, the folks at Disney are no fools: All those competing sign away the rights to their submitted ideas. Whether Disney will pounce on those of the Olin duo remains to be seen.

Entrants were asked to design a theme park attraction, restaurant, hotel, or amenity (from vending stands to public toilets). A team of Imagineers in both California and Florida evaluated the submitted work.

“Our idea was to create a video capture system throughout the park,” said Michaelidis, who grew up in Hyde Park. “To take still-frame shots — like photos of visitors with Mickey Mouse — and video footage of guests on various rides and turn it into a DVD of your day at Disney.”

The team also developed the technology to make it work. Visitors to the parks would wear a Radio Frequency Identification wristband — a bracelet that emits a radio signal recognized by receivers all over the park. The receivers would be located in anything from statues to street lamps, so Mickey would know not only who you are but where you are.

The 21-year-old mechanical engineering students also designed reception rooms where guests would be greeted by name, interact with Disney characters on a big screen, and view footage of themselves on rides.

Coming up with the idea and technology was only part of the battle. Next, they had to pitch it. And a Power Point presentation — the tradition tool of engineers — just wouldn’t do for Disney.

“They wanted us to tell a story and tug at the heart,” to promote something that every family would want, said Michaelidis.

The team dreamed up a scenario in which three friends in their 30s reminisce while watching a DVD made of a childhood trip to Disneyland.

To make the DVD, the students created their own Disneyland with the help of Photoshop and scenes shot around campus and at a local Disney store. For instance, they turned a freight elevator at the college into a Tower of Terror.

They packaged their presentation in a leatherbound storybook — as though it were a fairy tale. Along with technical behind-the-scenes background, they included ticket stubs, the mock Radio Frequency ID wristbands, a photo album, and the DVD “Your Story.”

The pair collaborated on the final stages while thousands of miles apart: Michaelidis in Greece, where her father lives, and Clark in Australia. They talked via Internet, taking turns staying up late to bridge the nine-hour time difference.

“We’ve never loved working so hard,” said Michaelidis.

After graduation, Clark and Michaelidis plan to apply for an internship at Disney. Perhaps some day, statues in the western suburbs will be speaking to us by name.

AN EYE ON THE FUTURE: Dr. Stephen Foster‘s arsenal for battling eye disease contains weapons so new only a handful of surgeons have used them and so old that they were already ancient when Hippocrates wrote his oath.

“If it’s inflamed, I absolutely love it,” said Foster . “It can be the eyelid or all the way back to the brain in the optic nerve — I’m absolutely in love with trying to snuff out [disease] and put out the fire.”

Foster’s latest tool is the size of a grain of rice. Implanted in the back of the eye, it releases steroid medication for a 2 1/2-year period for treating chronic uveitis. The disease causes the inside of the eye to swell and can bring on blurred vision, floaters (small spots in the field of vision), and result in permanent vision loss. Up until now, its victims — 37 out of every 100,000 people — relied on pills and monthly injections of steroids into the eye.

The new treatment is called Retisert and was just approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Foster, the founder and director of the Massachusetts Eye Research and Surgery Institute in Cambridge, is one of only seven ophthalmologists trained in its use. Surgery takes about an hour and costs $18,000, most of which is often covered by insurance.

The 64-year-old Weston resident was raised on a West Virginia farm, where his first chores were collecting eggs and feeding pigs. But he says that even when he was only 5, he knew he wanted to become a doctor like an uncle whom he idolized.

While Foster never accompanied his uncle on his rounds, he wound up being his patient often enough. He had pneumonia, tonsillitis, and mononucleosis.

A graduate of Duke Medical School, Foster initially considered going into heart surgery but found it too depressing. “I really couldn’t handle the patients dying,” he said.

His foray into ophthalmology nearly ended just a few months after it began.

“I’d gone from hard-core medicine to looking after people with dry, itchy eyes and patients who needed glasses,” Foster said. “It was as boring as could be.”

A professor overheard him on the phone complaining to a friend. It might well have been one of those career-altering moments.

“The professor didn’t say anything to me at the time, but at the end of the day he asked me if I’d be willing to help him out with a research project,” said Foster. The research involved corneal transplants. “I was forever hooked.”

Foster moved to Boston in 1975, where he did research fellowships at Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary and Harvard Medical School. He is now a clinical professor of ophthalmology at Harvard.

After building a reputation for his work treating corneal diseases with chemotherapy, he opened the Massachusetts Eye Research and Surgery Institute in March 2005.

While keeping up with the latest technology, Foster has also delved far into the past. He has a patent on a molecule derived from an ancient Chinese herb. It has been made into a medicine that he hopes to use for patients with various forms of keratitis (inflamed cornea) and for conjunctivitis.

“You have to figure that a practice that has existed for 5,000 years cannot be all bunkum ,” he said, noting that doctors today are formulating treatments derived from herbs used centuries ago.

“When patients ask me about acupuncture, various herbal preparations, meditation, and massage, my answer is always the same: If you’re confident that it can’t hurt you, why not keep an open mind?”

AROUND THE TOWNS: They read and wrote their way to lunch with Red Sox player Gabe Kapler. The New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton announced that the following children from the western suburbs were grand prize winners of this season’s essay contest for Gabe’s Reading Group: Nicholas Tocco, 5, of Newton; Hailey Fuchs, 8, of Newton; Jake Davidson, 9, of Needham; and Katie Everts, 11, of Needham.

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