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Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Tufts Student Project Picked From Among Thousands for Clinton Global Initiative

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tufts dental student Shawn Kim, D20, fused dentistry with medicine and entrepreneurship to create an affordable HIV diagnostic kit.

Shawn Kim with Tufts Students and President Bill Clinton at CGI U in Northeastern
Shawn Kim, second from left, with other Tufts Students and President Bill Clinton at CGI U 2017.

Shawn Kim is not your typical student,—not even your typical 2nd year, high-achieving dental student. On October 14, Shawn was one of only 30 students chosen from a pool of thousands of applicants to present a project at the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U). His project: an affordable, mobile HIV diagnostic kit.

The Clinton Global Initiative University is a nationwide conference that brings together students, topic experts, and public figures to brainstorm solutions to pressing global challenges. Tufts University is a member of the CGI U network of universities, and Tisch College spearheads the University’s partnership and offers support for students like Shawn who apply to present their projects at the organization’s annual gathering.

Since high school, Shawn has been studying the connection between infectious disease and periodontal (gum) disease, with a particular focus on HIV. After comparing different HIV diagnostic kits on the market, he created his own viral infection diagnostic kit—all while still a high school student and later college undergraduate.

The kit’s procedure is very simple: by providing all the materials necessary in a ready-to-use package, it can detect the presence of HIV-1 Proviral DNA and RNA with swabs of either liquid or dried blood. It’s competitive compared to other kits on the market, which are expensive, can require auxiliary equipment, and are difficult to transport in developing countries. Shawn’s kit is light-weight, mobile, can travel without refrigeration, and cheap—a mere $9 as opposed to other kits that can cost hundreds.

Manufacturing and marketing these kits isn’t easy, however, so the busy second-year dental student sought out a partner to make and distribute the product. A biotech company in San Diego agreed to pilot and produce the kit, and already 200,000 units have been manufactured. The kits are on the market in Vietnam, with plans to spread to other countries in the near future. Shawn himself will oversee that expansion, as the company offered him the position of Chief Marketing Officer for developing markets in Asia.

For Shawn, being one of just 30 projects chosen for CGI U 2017 has been an honor, but even more so, a learning experience. He displays a remarkable degree of humility regarding his accomplishments, and he particularly attributes a lot of his success to the service trips he went on as a younger student. “This was teamwork,” Shawn says. “Through my service trips, I was really exposed to the reality of income gaps and the prevalence of poor oral health. It really changed my perspective on how to approach my work. And it reminded me of the global responsibility I have to improve the lives of others. I am so grateful to be in the position where I am.”

Traveling to produce and market his kit has also given Shawn a mature global perspective, one that has allowed him to see the current challenges facing global health, as well as their potential solutions.

“The global problem is not only about medicine,” Shawn says. “It’s about markets being open. The product needs to be suited for the culture.” Shawn explains how fields like dentistry, technology, and communications need to come together, instead of focusing on their own projects and customers. “I think we need more collaboration, more talking to each other, more communication to attack this global project. We cannot just work separately.”

Fusing those seemingly disparate fields is Shawn’s dream. “As a dental student in this huge biotech world,” he reflects, “I hope to see both dentists and physicians working together side by side on HIV, global health, and poverty.” His vision is to see the medical, dental, and technology fields blending together, seeing each other’s goals as shared responsibilities. Considering he is a 23-year-old who has already made significant strides in all three fields, the future of global health definitely looks brighter.

To learn more about Shawn’s project, contact him at Shawn.Kim@tufts.edu.