From engineering masks to caring for patients, Tufts students fight COVID-19

Mechanical Engineer Courtland Priest, Lead Firmware Engineer Chris Markus, Electrical Engineer Klare Hu, and QI/QA Engineer Shounak Bose from the Ventilator Project are pictured. Courtesy Chris Markus

COVID-19 scattered Tufts students across the country after campus’ closure forced classes online and students indefinitely indoors. From emergency rooms to engineering labs and Zoom calls, a select group of students worked tirelessly to mitigate the impact of the novel coronavirus. Below are nine of their stories.

Building medical solutions

For Chris Markus and Courtland Priest, joining The Ventilator Project was an easy call. In mid-March, both engineers received an email from Tufts professor Eric Miller notifying them of the Seaport-based organization — a new operation composed of engineers working to develop a low-cost ventilator, specifically for COVID-19 patients. They both applied online and were quickly invited to join the team.

“It wasn’t difficult at all,” Priest said of the decision to join the project. “My gut was, it’s the single most gainful thing that I can do with my engineering experience right now.”

Both engineers now work on the project for seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day. Priest, who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in December 2019 and will return to Tufts this fall for a mechanical engineering M.S., often stays in a hostel downtown leased to the project, in order to remain close to his job. Markus, a graduating senior, has balanced full-time work in the office with his final semester of electrical engineering coursework.

“People there work longer [hours] than me,” Markus said. “Nobody’s under any illusions about the direness of the circumstances. It’s really important that we get this out as fast as possible.”

The Ventilator Project draws from a network of over 200 employees, who contribute both remotely and through in-person work at the Seaport office. The team aims to accelerate development so that its ventilator prototype can gain approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Emergency Use Authorization process as soon as possible.

“We’ve been following the engineering process, so you make a design, test it, iterate on it … which is how any engineering company develops a product, but faster,” Markus said. “So instead of our iteration cycles being months, they’re days.”

The Ventilator Project recently made first contact with the FDA, Markus said, and is currently undergoing testing for Emergency Use Authorization. The project is currently seeking to recruit more medical and engineering professionals and is accepting donations through its website.

As Markus and Priest found a local operation in The Ventilator Project, rising senior William Liu, who is studying mechanical engineering, joined a bicoastal effort when he signed on to help build an adapter connecting goggles to a surgical mask.

In late March, Liu got an email from James Intriligator, a Tufts mechanical engineering professor, inviting him to collaborate on a project with Barrett Larson, founder and director of Stanford Anesthesia Innovation Lab, and Scripps Mercy Hospital anesthesiologist Jan Sliwa (A’06, M’11). The project aimed to build an adapter that could transform a snorkeling mask by connecting it to antiviral filters used in hospitals, helping health care workers reduce their risk of exposure through more extensive facial protection.

“The adapter connects a snorkel mask to a medical grade filter. Most hospitals have a lot of [filters] … Everyone wearing this mask is already wearing an N95 mask. And this mask provides an additional layer of protection because sometimes even N95 masks leak a little bit,” Liu said.

Liu, who frequents the Tufts makerspace, got in contact with a student at Stanford who sent him a design file for the adapter. He was tasked with determining how to print the adapters, after adjusting the file to ensure that it would print correctly on Tufts’ equipment.

“I went into Nolop, the makerspace at Tufts, and printed 120 in the first round,” Liu said. “I threw out a few of them and I think I saved around 80 of them. The second day I sent 60ish to Stanford and the Scripps Mercy Hospital.”

After printing the adapters, Liu immediately brought them to the Somerville UPS store; they arrived in California the next morning. After Scripps Mercy Hospital confirmed that the adapters worked, Liu sent 21 more adapters to other locations in California. He thanked Professor Intriligator for getting him connected with the successful project, and added that he believes Tufts has made exemplary efforts to respond to the pandemic.

“The hospital covered the shipping costs, but the material costs, my hours on it, the machine and all that, everything else is covered by Tufts. I think that’s pretty amazing,” Liu said.  

Samia Tariq, a rising junior who spent the month of April working at CVS pharmacy in Davis Square, expressed similar pride in how the Tufts community has responded to the pandemic.

“The unexpected hardship fund that’s out, Tufts Mutual Aid, the FIRST Center, Margot [Cardamone], Jared [Smith] — they’ve all done such a good job at helping students in need, and I could not be more thankful for that,” Tariq said.

COVID-19’s first responders

Jacob Stavis planned to spend the spring semester of his junior year abroad in London. Now he works up to 72 hours each week as an EMT with Boston’s Armstrong Ambulance Service, after his abroad program ended mid-semester due to COVID-19.

Stavis, who first began working with Armstrong in February 2019, returned to a work environment dramatically different from the one he knew before the pandemic.

“There’s been a massive rise in 911 calls and cases, at least that we’ve been getting sent to,” Stavis said. “It’s an entirely different atmosphere. In bases, even when we’re not on calls, when we’re hanging out we have to wear masks. It’s kind of surreal.”

When responding to each call, Stavis and his team double up with both surgical masks and N95 masks, along with full-body gowns, face shields, goggles and gloves.

Rising junior Charley Sun, who works alongside Stavis as an Armstrong EMT, noted that between calls, they now thoroughly spray down their ambulances to mitigate any possible spread of germs.

“I think there’s a lot more extreme emphasis on protecting yourself, your partners and the patients … If you get somebody that’s symptomatic, with symptoms that match that of COVID-19 or somebody who has tested positive for [COVID-19], in those cases we always decontaminate the truck with a chemical spray after the call,” Sun said.

Stavis feels fortunate that his company can provide EMTs with adequate protective equipment, yet he expressed frustration upon seeing more groups of people outside as the weather improves.

“I’ve seen so many people who could have [COVID-19] who are really close to death, and it’s a horrible thing to see,” Stavis said. “It kind of brings a new kind of reality to the situation. I feel like if everybody would be able to see how debilitating and how horrible [COVID-19] can be for some people, everyone would just stay inside more.”

Tamara Liang, a rising junior, shared similar concerns. As a patient care associate at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Liang works night shifts on multiple floors housing patients diagnosed with COVID-19. She highlighted the loneliness she sees in patients whose family members cannot visit them.

“They’re so lonely. And if someone does pass away, even then they can’t let family see them just because the family could still get it,” Liang said. “Can people just listen so this can be done with, and people don’t have to suffer anymore? It’s really disheartening.”

Liang said she felt compelled to keep her job at the hospital, which involves drawing blood and labeling samples for lab testing. She works at Mount Auburn alongside her sister and two cousins, all of whom have chosen to continue working during the pandemic.

“If they need help at the hospital why should I not help? They need an extra hand and I’m an extra hand. I’m in my twenties, I’m healthy,” she said.

After each shift at the hospital, Liang takes extra precautions to enter her house, wiping down all of her possessions both when she leaves the hospital and immediately prior to entering her house; once inside, she always takes a hot shower.

“Of course I was scared at some points because I live with my 88-year-old grandmother, and she has a history of health problems. I didn’t want to bring anything back, but I never seriously considered not working there anymore because of it,” Liang said.

Sun, who lives with his parents in Andover, Mass., echoed Liang’s worries of protecting his family. He has taken extra measures to protect them from possible transmission of COVID-19, including avoiding public spaces in the house and wearing a surgical mask when inside.

“Keeping my parents and family safe is actually my number one priority,” Sun said. “My nephew was born at the end of March, and I haven’t really been able to see my brother and sister-in-law except from behind a glass door. It’s really unfortunate, but I think it’s necessary to keep them especially safe.”

Tariq, who is on the pre-medical track, also met concern from family when she decided to keep her job working as a pharmacy technician. Nevertheless, as an aspiring medical professional she felt it was important to stay at work during a health crisis.

“I want to go into the health field. I want to become a doctor. So in my mind it’s something I’m going to have to do in the future,” Tariq said. “I felt better because I was continuing to help individuals that need these things, like their medications.”

At the pharmacy, Tariq said she noticed customers stocking up on three or four months’ worth of prescriptions, many of whom did not want to come into the pharmacy due to health concerns.

To limit cross-contamination risks, CVS stopped checking customers’ IDs when picking up prescriptions and instituted a delivery program so that vulnerable patients would not have to come into the store.

“CVS as a company implemented a variety of precautions for [its] employees — we wear [personal protective equipment] every day from the moment we get in to the moment we leave … as we would come in we would get our temperature checked from our manager before we were allowed to work,” Tariq said.

Crafting solutions over Zoom

Jessie McIsaac, a climate and conflict fellow with nonprofit Peace Rising, saw her job change dramatically with the onset of the pandemic. While she previously focused on efforts to map global environmental conflict, the organization opted to shift its efforts entirely toward fighting COVID-19 through policy advocacy.

Through work with Cambridge City Council Member Quinton Zondervan, the organization has generated plans to combat food insecurity amid rising unemployment, among other issues including supporting local farms. McIsaac, a graduating senior at Tufts studying biology and environmental studies, decided to focus her efforts on increasing accessibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“My policy recommendation that I wrote for the city of Cambridge [advocates] generating a comprehensive list of changes to the SNAP application program and benefits process … as well as a list of resources that are going to be immediately available for people struggling with food insecurity in Cambridge,” McIsaac said.

Peace Rising is currently working with a number of other local organizations in hopes of increasing awareness of resources available for those who need them.

“We’ve been collaborating, communicating with other groups such as Green Cambridge, and we’re scheduling a new meeting with the Cambridge Center for Economic Empowerment. We’ve been meeting with other groups via Zoom as well,” McIsaac said.

Rising senior Saherish Surani also found policy work amid the pandemic, returning to the United States from a semester-at-sea program to join the Watertown Response Team, which is part of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps. As a communications coordinator, Surani helps create graphics communicating optimal COVID-19 safety practices, and parses Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization guidelines to create readable and informative materials — along with translating communications into Portuguese.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot of useful things, even in the logistics of how Watertown is relatively smaller than a lot of cities and towns in Massachusetts — and [in] working with [the city] to find out what kind of marketing channels [it uses] and what kind of graphics appeal to the community,” Surani said.

Concurrently, Surani works with Refugees Thrive International and as a campaign fellow for Massachusetts 4th congressional district candidate Dave Cavell. Across each internship, Surani said she has been both challenged and fascinated by the nature of remote work, especially while campaigning.

“Something that comes up in one of our weekly meetings is … someone asks a question and then we don’t know how to respond, because it’s just such an unprecedented time,” she said. “That’s just something that’s very true in anything I’ve done, even campaigning. No one’s campaigned in a pandemic … it’s really cool how we all pull together.”