For faculty, March represents a big milestone in the academic calendar. It marks the halfway point of the semester and provides a much-needed break to catch one’s breath before the big push to reach the end of the semester. Unfortunately, this spring break will live long in our memories—the Coronavirus started showing up on the shores of the United States, and everything changed. Within the span of two weeks, I went from enjoying time on the beach, relaxing with my family to leading an interdisciplinary team that has grown to over 380 people with the singular aim of helping healthcare workers at Penn State Health and local hospitals fight COVID-19. The initiative is called Manufacturing And Sterilization for COVID-19 (MASC), and the story behind it highlights the power of partnership at Penn State to help ensure the health and welfare of lives across the commonwealth.
For me, it began on the return from Spring Break. Forced to move my classes online, I struggled to think of ways for the undergraduates in my 3D printing class to get a meaningful experience in my course because in-person labs were cancelled. As you can imagine, it is difficult for students to gain hands-on experience with 3D printing when they cannot access and use the 3D printers, but the students could still design parts and components to 3D print later in the semester when things returned to normal—or at least I thought at the time.
As I shifted the project in my class, I started seeing stories about 3D printing being used in other countries to help address shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) as they became overrun by the Coronavirus. A team in Italy 3D printed replacement parts for the ventilators in a nearby hospital, saving 10 lives. A team in Czechoslovakia designed and developed a 3D printed face shield and freely shared their design with anyone that wanted to make it. Likewise, teams in Belgium and New Zealand were sharing designs on the Internet for hands-free door openers that could be easily 3D printed and attached to a handle to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Immediately, a lightbulb went off in my own head, and I challenged the undergraduates in my class to consider doing the same—design something that could be 3D printed and used to help limit the spread of Coronavirus. I steered them away from medical devices and PPE given the regulatory hurdles that they would encounter, and instead they developed novel ideas to cover shopping cart handles, desktops and surfaces, and even computer mice to reduce transmission of the virus. Of course, our labs never reopened to students in the spring, but I was able to partner with the team at the new makerspace in town, The Rivet at Discovery Space, and they helped 3D print prototypes of each team’s idea and send pictures to them for their final reports.
While all of this was playing out in my class, a much larger story began to unfold around me. As a member of the Advisory Team for the College of Medicine’s Advanced Medical Technologies Program , I reached out to my contacts at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center right after spring break and asked how 3D printing might be able to help address any PPE or supply shortages that they were facing. I shared several of the articles and stories that I had found online, and I quickly learned that their thinking—and rising level of panic—was aligned with mine. Consequently, I started reaching out to other faculty, staff, and students involved with 3D printing at University Park while Kevin Harter and his team in the Center for Medical Innovation were doing the same in the College of Medicine and Penn State Health.
Within a few days, my emails and our grassroots effort reached over 30 people, and our team’s mission was crystallized by the rapid response of Charlie Tricou and his team of engineers in Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory (ARL). Within two days of our email exchanges, Charlie and his team had 3D printed and prototyped the face shield designed by the team in Czechoslovakia, and we were quickly reaching out and ramping up to produce more. As this was going on, I reached out Maureen Mulvihill and Roger Bagwell at Actuated Medical Inc. in Bellefonte, PA and Michelle Crowl and Camille Sogin at The Rivet, knowing that at the end of the day, Penn State is a university, not a manufacturer, and we do not have FDA-compliant facilities in which to make stuff, nor do we have product liability insurance (except for ice cream).
By the end of the week after Spring Break, word of our efforts had reached the ears of several senior leaders and administrators at both University Park and Hershey, and on the evening of Friday, March 20, 2020, Lora Weiss, Senior Vice President for Research, asked me to lead the effort on behalf of Penn State. I had met Lora once before when she toured CIMP-3D, the 3D printing lab that I co-direct with ARL, but that did not stop me from saying yes. Perhaps I was overconfident from our win the day before with ARL, but in the end, it was an opportunity for me to see how my network of friends and colleagues across the university could step up to help the healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic—little did I know what was coming.
Over the weekend, I came up with the name and MASC acronym after a brainstorming session with my wife, and I enlisted the help of Chris McComb, an assistant professor in SEDTAPP and whiz with websites, to establish a domain, website, and email list-serve for MASC. While he was doing that, I reached out to Lora Weiss, Justin Schwartz, the Harold & Inge Marcus Dean of the College of Engineering, Matt Parkinson, Director of the Learning Factory, and Clive Randall, Director of the Materials Research Institute, asking each of them for $10,000 toward our effort, and I offered to match their contribution with $10,000 from an innovation/entrepreneurship gift that I oversee in Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering. My experiences working with local entrepreneurs over the past few years had paid off as I found myself “pitching” for resources to launch MASC.
By Monday, our team had a name, a website, an email list, and $50,000 to support materials and supplies for design, development, and prototyping. I also secured the help of three staff members that became essential to MASC: Lisa Keller, Administrative Coordinator in the Lora Weiss’s office, Lisa Sharkey, Assistant Financial Officer in the College of Engineering, and Jeff Berda, a senior Programmer/Analysis in MRI. They provided critical administrative, financial, and IT support to keep MASC functioning. Everyone’s time was voluntary, and I have long since lost track of the countless hours, evenings, and weekends that I and so many others have put into MASC. In many ways, it felt like I had founded and launched a start-up that day. By Tuesday, I was president of a small-sized firm, and by Wednesday, I was CEO of a medium-sized company as our numbers quickly swelled to over 100 people.
Within 3 weeks my daily updates about MASC were being emailed to over 300 people, and that number is 380 as of this writing. As our numbers grew, email updates and exchanges became overwhelming, and we shifted much of our communications to Microsoft Teams, which now boasts over 350 people on nearly two dozen channels. The MASC website has since pivoted and been overhauled in collaboration with Dr. Anthony Tsai and his team of medical students at Hershey. They helped us curate relevant information that was being shared online along with content being generated by our project teams, and we organized it into an invaluable resource that continues to bear fruit for everyone involved.
To keep MASC focused, Kevin Harter and his team organized daily calls with key individuals and project leaders at University Park and Hershey. What began as a simple spreadsheet with a handful of projects, quickly grew into a dashboard to monitor nearly 50 projects. Our project dashboard was updated live during our daily calls and color-coded red/orange/yellow/green to indicate urgency and priority with red being the most critical, and green denoting a solution had been achieved. It was quite harrowing to see more and more projects in the red as the weeks wore on, but everything was finally in the green by Memorial Day Weekend.
A central figure in MASC was Michael Brignati, Associate General Council at University Park. Every day, Michael would update us on the latest change in FDA regulators or new Emergency Use Authorizations that impacted what we could (or could not) do. His role was critical to the success of MASC from the beginning given the regulatory, legal, and liability landmines that pocket the healthcare industry. Michael ensured that we stayed on the right side of the legal and regulatory hurdles we faced and worked magic time, and time again, to expedite contracts, waivers, risk assessments, and who knows what else to keep MASC out of the morass that comes from working within a large organization and healthcare system. I continue to be amazed at how much time he helped support projects on MASC, and it just reinforced my belief that you can do a lot more by working together to make an impact versus being at odds with one another.
I am extremely proud of the milestones and impact that MASC has had over the past 100 days—it exceeds anything that I ever had imagined for my career. From watching Universal Protective Packaging, Inc. in Mechanicsburg, PA ramp up and produce 500,000 face shields in 10 weeks, to doctors and physicians at Hershey providing feedback on masks designed and 3D printed by engineers and artists at University Park, to architects and engineers collaborating remotely to design, develop, and deploy an isolation booth to protect nurses and staff working in University Health Services at University Park, to enclosures designed and made in the Applied Research Laboratory to keep physicians cardiologists safe at Hershey, to gowns patterned and sewn by costume designers in the College of Arts & Architecture, sealed and packaged in the Meats Lab in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and sterilized by gamma rays in the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor in the College of Engineering.
These are but a few of the successes that MASC has had, and I am forever indebted to everyone that stepped up to help out in this dire time of urgent need. I have done my best to recognize and thank everyone I can in my daily updates to MASC, including starting the MASCed Marvel and MASC Force Awards each week to recognize the unsung hero (or heroes) that have shared their time and talent working behind the scene to fight COVID-19. As they say, it is not necessarily about what you know, but who you know, that makes all the difference, and I consider myself very fortunate to know and have experience working with so many great people at Penn State. It is the power of partnership and the diversity of our ideas and our people that make Penn State the great institution that it is, and I am lucky to be a part of it.
Finally, to everyone on MASC, thank you all for all you do!