Engineering students Ann Bailey, Adam Rogers and Jeff O’Dell are part of a team working to develop a new type of body armor. Jane Haley

All biomedical engineering students have to choose a “real-world” problem when they enter their second year, a conundrum of design that they will try to solve by the end of their fourth year. Jeff O’Dell (Engr ’09) had no problem figuring out his real-world project. Fresh in his memory was the standard-issue body armor he wore during his deployment in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. It worked fine once—but not always twice. While it could stop a single armor-piercing bullet, a second shot in the same area could kill.

O’Dell is now designing a new type of armor that can withstand multiple impacts from armor-piercing rounds. His prototype also is more flexible and lighter than the 30-pound vest now worn by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working with a team of fellow biomedical engineering students, he has created armor made from a unique configuration of ceramic plates. At a ballistics testing lab in Maryland, it stopped as many as eight of 10 armor-piercing rounds.

“Our students really have to get in the lab, work with their hands and build and test their designs,” says Shayn Peirce-Cottler (Engr ’02), an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “They work side by side with doctors, nurses and even patients to get the kind of input that will carry their designs to a practical level.”

In the past four years, 12 of these projects have led to provisional patents and three have received full patents. So far, two have been licensed to commercial interests.

This year, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance awarded $16,000 each to two UVA design teams. One is designing a device to improve gallbladder surgeries; the other is developing a device to help treat hemorrhaging following a cesarean delivery.

O’Dell’s prototype has already drawn the attention of the U.S. Army, which sent a team of experts to the ballistics lab in March to observe tests of his body armor. The interest doesn’t come too soon—O’Dell is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan this year. “It would be cool if I could get to wear the armor I helped design,” he says.