Students help to clear up pandemic communication
Through 2020, the face mask proved to be an effective barrier to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
But for many people who rely on facial expressions and lip-reading to communicate, masks also proved to be an effective barrier to understanding.
Such was the situation that students in Virginia Tech’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program found themselves in the early days of the pandemic as they served alongside New River Health District staff to help senior citizens living in long-term care facilities.
“In the face of every resident, you see your loved ones and feel the pain and loneliness that isolation has brought them,” Ella Rak, a Vienna native in the MPH-Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine program would later write. “How do you maintain quality and efficiency when communication is limited, resources are constrained, and risks are high?”
Thus was born TransparenSee — a group of four MPH students plus a graduate engineering student, who together produced a clear, fog-resistant face mask to allow for better communication with the deaf and hard of hearing community.
To date, TransparenSee has overseen the design, manufacture, and distribution of more than 1,400 masks sent for free to schools and families as far away as Wisconsin. “We even have a couple of businesses who have requested them so they can better communicate with customers,” said Hannah Reed, of Pulaski, Virginia.
From the beginning, the solution posed by opaque masks seemed obvious to the team of aspiring health professionals, which also included Jaclyn Abramson, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, and Teace Markwalter, of Vienna, Virginia. Less obvious were the challenges of designing a transparent mask that fit snugly on the wearer’s face to keep potential virus droplets from escaping.
An opportunity to advance their idea came when Laura Hungerford, professor and head of the Virginia Tech Public Health Program, and Ron Fricker, professor and interim dean of the College of Science, worked with Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute to launch a campuswide competition called TECH Together Campaign, which called upon Virginia Tech students’ creativity and innovation in fighting coronavirus. Launched in July 2020, TECH Together ultimately received 76 applications from 20 different colleges and departments.
The MPH students — with their faculty advisors, Sophie Wenzel, assistant professor in Population Health Sciences, and Alexander Leonessa, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering — were joined by one of Leonessa’s graduate students, Connor Herron, of Reston, Virginia, who already had some COVID-fighting cred. As a member of Leonessa’s Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls (TREC) lab, Herron had worked with colleagues Zach Fuge, Alex Fuge, Marie Camp, Melanie Hook, Ben Beiter and An-Chi He to design low-cost plastic face shields for area hospitals.
But TranspareSee’s masks — with all the folds and curves necessary to provide a tight seal with the wearer’s face — were another matter.
The material TREC chose was durable, light-weight, relatively scratch-free polyester plastic with an anti-fog coating both inside and out. “It was designed to be one single piece to be sure you trap the large molecules,” Herron said, “but it is also form-fitting to allow people to shape it as they like for particular face structures.”
The competition was held in three phases. For the first phase, applicants sent in a one-page proposal and up to 20 teams were awarded $500 to prepare for phase two. During phase two, 10 teams were awarded another $1,000 to assist with strategy or prototype development to prepare for the final phase. At the end of the final phase, five winning proposals received a grand prize of $4,000 toward implementation.
Among the winners: TransparenSee, which used the prize money throughout fall and winter 2020 to fund experimentation and testing of their mask at nearby NanoSafe Inc. to ensure it provided at least the same protection as its cloth counterpart. Once the final design was approved, prize money went into full-scale production as well as marketing and packaging supplies so that they could make the mask available for free to anyone who wanted one.
“We wanted to use this project more as a community service rather than a business model,” explained Reed.
Delivery of the masks started up in March with orders coming in regularly online at bit.ly/ordertransparensee and social media channels (Facebook @TransparenSeeNRV and Instagram @transparen_see).
And when the prize money runs out?
“We hope that through more marketing and promotion the more businesses and people will want to contribute so we can keep providing more masks to the community,” said Abramson.
Because while the money may end, TransparenSee members’ enthusiasm for public health has not.
“They are really an amazing and dedicated group,” Hungerford said, “currently balancing a full load of classes, serving on the front line of the vaccination and testing efforts, and continuing with the mask work.”
Reed looks forward to the day when with increased vaccinations easing mask mandates their product won’t be as vital.
“But we hope this allows for an opportunity to still effectively communicate with members of the deaf and hard of hearing community,” she said, “and bring awareness to the issues that they face by making things more equitable and accessible.”
Written by Michael Hemphill