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Behind the Headline: Allisa Song

Research scientist Allisa Song didn’t just get outraged when she read ProPublica’s story on medical waste. She organized a dream team of fellow scientists and engineers to invent a solution.

David Ryder for ProPublica

Impact has been at the core of ProPublica’s mission since we launched 10 years ago, and it remains the principal yardstick for our success today. For our 10th anniversary, we’re presenting stories of people whose lives have been affected by our work.

When research scientist Allisa Song read ProPublica’s 2017 story “Drug Companies Make Eye Drops Too Big — and You Pay for the Waste,” she didn’t just get outraged. She got organized.

The story, by reporter Marshall Allen, exposed how drug companies are making patients waste money by manufacturing eyedrops much larger than what they can actually use. Every eyedrop is bigger than what the eye can contain, many two to three times too large, causing the excess to spill out. “I already have such strong feelings about health care in the U.S. right now,” said Song, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, who’s starting medical school next semester. “My reaction to the story was, ‘How do I stick it to the drug companies that are trying to screw over the patients?’”

Song assembled a team of like-minded friends and colleagues — her partner Elias Baker, a biomedical engineer; and Cristina Sainati, Jennifer Steger, Josh Cohen and Mackenzie Andrews, all graduate students from the pharmacology, bioengineering and MBA programs at the University of Washington — to develop a solution. They call it the “Nanodropper”: an affordable, universal adapter for eyedrop bottles, which minimizes the droplet size and reduces barriers to expensive prescription medicines.

After winning first prize in the Johns Hopkins Student Healthcare Design Competition, the team is currently seeking funding to manufacture the Nanodropper. “All the reactions we’ve gotten have been, ‘How does a simple solution like this not already exist?’”

As scientists, Song and her team gained tremendous insight from ProPublica’s reporting. “We felt like we could really trust the article because of how well all the references and citations were done,” said Song. “I read it as if it were a review in a scientific journal. Going through all the sources that were cited in the article was super helpful because we knew where to start in making a product that gave power back to the patient.”

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