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April 3, 2020

COVID-19 impact: How engineers are making a difference

Written By: Staff

As a global community, we are experiencing unprecedented change on what seems like a daily basis. Here in the College of Engineering, we are committed to our educational and research mission. At the same time, many of us also have, as they say, dropped everything and devoted our expertise to help our state, country and world combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some examples of this work.

At UW-Madison, contactless thermometer helps monitor student health

Lennon Rodgers, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Laboratory, created a prototype “contactless” thermometer by borrowing the sensor from a commercially available thermometer and adding a microcontroller and distance sensor controlled by open-source code.

Now, devices based on that initial design are helping UW–Madison students monitor their COVID-19 symptoms. They’ve been deployed in residence halls on campus set aside for students isolating for at least 10 days after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Rodgers passed his initial idea to Nathan Strachen, a UW–Madison electrical and computer engineering graduate student and a Fab Fellow at the innovation lab. Strachen has made his own set of tweaks.

Read more about this project.

Regaining balance: How women faculty can navigate expectations in a pandemic world

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted academia as a whole, the crunch of balancing research, teaching and family responsibilities has fallen particularly hard on women faculty members. With that in mind, Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Pamela Kreeger and frequent collaborator Kristyn Masters, a Vilas Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering and H.I. Romnes Faculty Fellow at UW-Madison, have put together a list of 10 suggestions for women principal investigators to better navigate the juggling act of research, teaching, mentorship, service and at-home commitments during the pandemic. Their article, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology and coauthored with seven other women faculty members from across the country, drew more than 5,000 views within 24 hours of publishing online, along with a steady stream of tweets.

Read more about their suggestions.

COVID-19 data model quantifies region-specific impact of social distancing orders

As the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold in regions across the United States in spring 2020, governors, mayors and local leaders hoping to quell the spread of the virus turned to the only actionable defenses available at the time: They closed schools and businesses, banned mass gatherings, issued stay-at-home orders and enforced other social distancing measures. Now, a study published Oct. 27, 2020, in the Annals of Internal Medicine by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers quantifies the region-specific impact of social distancing measures on the COVID-19 caseload in three distinct areas: New York City, the Milwaukee metropolitan area and Dane County in Wisconsin.

Oguzhan Alagoz, Proctor and Gamble-Bascom Professor of industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering, and Nasia Safdar, professor of medicine in the School of Medicine and Public Health and UW Health medical director of infection control, led the research team. The group also included School of Medicine and Public Health researchers Ajay Sethi, professor of population health sciences; Brian Patterson, assistant professor of emergency medicine; and Matthew Churpek, associate professor of medicine.

Read more about the study.

More poll workers and no arenas: Operations researchers offer guidelines for resilient voting systems

As cities and other municipalities prepare for a 2020 presidential election that will be unlike any before it, set against the backdrop of a pandemic, they face dilemmas in how to structure and staff their in-person polling places: How can they best protect voters and poll workers from COVID-19? How do they minimize wait times? What if there are shortages of poll workers? Should they consolidate polling locations or turn to sports arenas as voting sites? Laura Albert, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and PhD student Adam Schmidt have analyzed some of the options in a report they’ve shared with the Wisconsin Elections Commission ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Read more about the researchers’ recommendations for elections officials.

Fitter increases the benefits of wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic

Whether homemade or commercially manufactured, breathable cloth and disposable face masks fit everybody differently, leaving gaps at the top, sides, bottom—or any combination thereof—that could allow virus particles to escape. Now, a team of University of Wisconsin–Madison engineers has developed a simple and inexpensive do-it-yourself fitter that ensures a tighter mask seal around the wearer’s nose, mouth and face.

Known as the Badger Seal, the mask fitter is a soft, adjustable “frame” with elastic worn either as ear loops or behind the head. With readily available materials, such as elastic cord, foam wire or pipe cleaners, the fitter is easy to make at home in minutes. When worn over non-medical-grade disposable masks, the Badger Seal significantly improves the masks’ filtration performance, according to research conducted by Scott Sanders and David Rothamer, UW–Madison professors of mechanical engineering and experts in measuring gases and particles in internal combustion engine processes.

Read more about the Badger Seal project.

Everybody poops, some shed the virus that causes COVID-19. Wisconsin’s wastewater surveillance is looking for it.

It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack. Except the haystack is human excrement. The needle, a tiny fragment of the tiny genetic material of a tiny virus that has, since December 2019, had a massive impact on the world. Scientists at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, with collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, are sifting through raw sewage collected once or twice per week from nearly 100 wastewater treatment facilities statewide, and at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in search of the genetic fingerprint of the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. Detecting and measuring how much virus there is may provide an early warning signal that cases of COVID-19 may soon rise and provide a readout of how levels of virus change in a population over time. It could give hospitals time to prepare for an increase in patients.

At UW–Madison, wastewater surveillance also provides an opportunity to target campus testing (UW–Madison is offering no-cost testing for all students and employees), isolation and quarantine, and limit disease spread. This is especially important since the virus can transmit from person-to-person before symptoms begin, and some people with the virus never develop symptoms at all. “We picked this up in late March and said this is really something we should be doing,” says Martin Shafer, a scientist at the WSLH and the UW–Madison College of Engineering. “We put a proposal into the (Wisconsin) Department of Health Services, and it was funded … It’s the largest in terms of the number of wastewater facilities in the country.”

Read more about this effort.

A research-based guide to choosing the right mask for you

For many Americans, face coverings have become a way of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And whether citizens are wearing a mask to comply with an order, trying to stay healthy, working to keep the community healthy—or all of the above—there’s a mask option that works with people’s preferences, lifestyle and goals, says Scott Sanders, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A researcher who uses optical techniques to study and measure particulates in internal-combustion engine processes, Sanders more recently has applied his expertise to studying the efficacy of non-medical-grade mask alternatives. In his latest tests, Sanders used a mannequin not wearing a mask to show how particles from a human breath and droplets from a sneeze spray forward. Then, he studied how adding various face coverings—including a face shield, a homemade four-layer tightly knit mask, and a disposable non-medical-grade filtering mask—to the mannequin trapped or released those particles and droplets.

Read more about the research.

UW experts design masks for campus from scratch

Students and staff returning to the University of Wisconsin–Madison can protect each other from COVID-19 with masks designed by the university’s experts in textiles, filtration and infectious disease, and made by one of Wisconsin’s oldest companies. By the time the fall semester begins, as many as 24,000 of the new face coverings will be available to help people comply with the campus requirement to wear masks in buildings and other situations in which distancing isn’t possible. Each one is the product of an exhaustive — and exhausting — process that wrestled with a feverish, worldwide rush on fabric inventories and ultimately churned through testing of 130 different combinations of materials to field a mask that textile chemist Majid Sarmadi calls “best in class.” David Rothamer, Robert Lorenz Professor of Mechanical Engineering, played a crucial role on the project: He reworked his combustion engine laboratory to measure the filtering properties of prototype masks.

Read more about the effort to design the masks.

Boutilier collaborating on data-driven COVID-19 surveillance system

Justin Boutilier, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, is lending his expertise in predictive analytics and machine learning to a new effort to develop an advanced surveillance system to identify future waves of COVID-19 and responsive training for frontline healthcare workers in Wisconsin. The project, funded through a COVID-19 Response Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), is a collaboration between the BerbeeWalsh Department of Emergency Medicine in the SMPH, UW Health and the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.

Read more about the project.

Simpler COVID-19 test could provide results in hours from saliva

Volunteers at four sites in Madison are being tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 by spitting in a vial, which may prove faster, cheaper and less complicated than other common tests, according to University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers.

Scientists from UW–Madison’s AIDS Vaccine Research Laboratory have tuned a relatively simple genetic testing process to find evidence of the novel coronavirus in saliva. David Beebe, a professor of pathology and biomedical engineering at UW-Madison who has experience in putting lab tests on small, reproducible chips, is collaborating on the project. In addition, Salus, the Madison-based spinoff company Beebe helped create in 2013, has joined the effort. The company is working on a commercial version of the test that can be deployed in small, mobile labs that could be straightforward enough to be operated by people without lengthy lab science training.

Read more about the simpler COVID-19 test.

Grad student helping organize PPE production, COVID response in developing countries

Rebecca Alcock, a recent master’s degree recipient in biomedical engineering and an incoming PhD student in industrial and systems engineering at UW-Madison, is leading a large-scale, United Nations-backed effort to mobilize production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and more in Guatemala and other developing countries around the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is a collaboration among engineers and other experts at UW-Madison, Marquette University, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Colorado Mesa University, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Read more about Rebecca Alcock and her work.

New shield couples COVID-19 protection with a clear view of the face

University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers worked with partners from UW Health, Midwest Prototyping and others to create the Badger Shield+, a face shield that provides a full, clear view of the face while still filtering virus particles through surgical fabric that cinches around the wearer’s chin and jawline. Just days after its public “launch” in mid-July, the Badger Shield+ has generated requests from more than 300 organizations from 44 states. Midwest Prototyping is fulfilling orders for the Badger Shield+; however, as is the case for its predecessor, Rodgers says the team plans to make the new version available to manufacturers as open-source design drawings, also.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the team’s focus was on ensuring healthcare professionals in particular had enough personal protective equipment. This time, with the Badger Shield+, engineer Lennon Rodgers, director of the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Laboratory, or engineering makerspace, at UW-Madison, and colleague Karl Williamson developed a design that not only met the UW Health requirements, but they also sought to broaden its reach.

“Karl and I started working on this two months ago when we saw this wave of public openings,” says Rodgers. “We were starting to think outside the box for PPE that didn’t exist. Most PPE is designed for hospitals; we wanted PPE that members of the public could use as they went about their lives. It’s well suited for schools, and for people who need others to see their mouth or need an alternative PPE solution for various reasons.”

Read more about the Badger Shield+ project.

Coughing visualization illustrates the benefits of wearing a good mask

UW–Madison Mechanical Engineering Professor Scott Sanders’ team made a video that demonstrates how droplets from a single cough escape from or remain inside of varying mask styles and materials. While the visualization doesn’t directly track the spread of virus particles, Sanders believes it will help people see a risk that is otherwise invisible.

In his tests, Sanders found that in general, the homemade mask shape most effective at containing droplets is a neck-gaiter-style mask that combines a nose piece with an elastic cord that wearers can toggle to snug the mask to their face. He also has created a video that shows a simple way to sew the neck-gaiter mask using a rectangle of tightly woven fabric, a toggle, cord and metal nose piece.

Read more and this project and watch the videos.

Model response: Alum helps launch COVID data hub

James Tamplin (BSIE ’06, MSIE ’07) worked with a handful of fellow veterans of the Silicon Valley tech scene to develop, a website that tracks, among other data points, each state’s infection rate. The site, which bills itself as “America’s COVID warning system,” drew roughly 8 million visitors in the first week after its March 20 launch.

Early on, the Covid Act Now team created projections for disease spread under several policy approaches, ranging from no restrictions to a full lockdown. States such as Michigan and Kentucky cited the group’s model in announcing their respective stay-at-home orders. “We showed people pretty clearly—which wasn’t being done in late March—what each of these scenarios would mean to the hospital capacity in the local area, and I think it really hit home,” Tamplin says.

Read more about the effort behind Covid Act Now.

Engineering projects selected for UW/WARF COVID-19 Accelerator Challenge

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has selected four innovative projects led by College of Engineering faculty for development funding through the UW/WARF COVID-19 Accelerator Challenge. Each is designed to be rapidly advanced over the coming months to help combat the pandemic. The grants, says Steve Ackerman, UW-Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education, “are critical to helping our research community more quickly advance commercially promising technologies closer to the marketplace in response to COVID-19 impacts. It’s partnerships such as this one with WARF that allow us to tackle the immediate and ongoing challenges that this pandemic presents. We are grateful to WARF for offering this opportunity to UW-Madison and Morgridge Institute for Research researchers, from faculty to staff and students.”

Read more about the grants.

Wisconsin’s COVID-19 stay at home order drove changes in state’s traffic volume

Traffic along Wisconsin’s highways had an unprecedented drop and remained well below normal in the weeks since Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order took effect March 25, 2020. The findings are the result of an ongoing traffic study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety (TOPS) Laboratory in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Interstate traffic volumes began to decline in the week leading up to the World Health Organization declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 12, 2020, and a U.S. federal emergency declaration the next day.

The pandemic’s unprecedented circumstances afforded David Noyce, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the TOPS Lab, and researcher Jon Riehl an opportunity to study real-world traffic pattern shifts that are typically only theoretical. Observing real-world performance with reduced volumes on traditionally busy highways can allow engineers to better understand traffic flow compared to predictive computer models, and then pinpoint jam points on highways. “With the reduced traffic volumes, we can now more precisely understand different highway segments’ performance characteristics and compare this to the theoretical values used during highway planning and construction,” Riehl says. “Traffic data like this provides the opportunity to tune the empirical equations we use in highway design and to improve our performance models—which ultimately leads to improvement in highway design and traffic engineering.”

Read more about the study.

Badger Talks video: A look at reopening after lockdown

Risk analyst Vicki Bier, a professor of industrial and systems engineering, shares insight about the decision-making process that goes into how to reopen a community after quarantine. There may be an inclination to hurry, with so many people eager for their lives to return to normal, but there are good reasons for moving slowly, Bier says.

Watch the Badger Talks video.

Schauer leads COVID-19 testing efforts at WSLH

As Wisconsin faces unique challenges prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, a University of Wisconsin-Madison environmental engineering professor has helped a critical testing lab rise to the challenge. James Schauer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, also is director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (WSLH), which has played a leading role in the state’s testing efforts during the pandemic.

Schauer holds a unique position as both an air pollution expert and as a leader in the state’s response to the pandemic. COVID-19, as a primarily respiratory disease, crosses boundaries from infectious disease research to some of the challenges facing air pollution researchers, such as air filter efficacy for keeping out contaminants. In part, that relates to the relatively new U.S. concept of wearing masks—something Schauer predicts will become more common long-term as COVID-19 ebbs and surges in the population.

Read more about how Schauer and the WSLH are helping Wisconsin respond to the pandemic.

Yin receives two National Science Foundation grants to study coronaviruses

A University of Wisconsin-Madison chemical engineer has received a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant and an Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) to work on projects related to human coronaviruses. John Yin, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement professor, is leading the projects, which include colleagues from chemical and biological engineering and the interdisciplinary Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, where Yin is a faculty member. For the RAPID project, the team will take an ecological view of these viruses to better understand how they enter cells, spread and cause varying immune responses in different individuals.

Read more about the projects.

UW-Madison faculty, students help create COVID-19 app for Wisconsinites

COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect, a free desktop and mobile app that provides accurate information, social support and helpful resources to Wisconsinites, launched on May 4, 2020. The Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS), based in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, developed the app in partnership with government, academic, medical, business and community organizations statewide. The desktop app can be accessed at ​​; the mobile app is under review by the Apple App and Google Play stores, and is expected to be available in early May. The CWC app is designed for all Wisconsin residents, including those sheltering-in-place, under quarantine, working in essential jobs or soon returning to work as Wisconsin opens.

Read more about the app and the contributions by CHESS.

Healing from home: UW-Madison engineers support telehealth providers

Before mental health or addiction treatment providers launch telehealth services, researchers in the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison can offer training and preparation guided by detailed, proven healthcare systems engineering models. The COVID-19 pandemic has afforded little time for such gradual, deliberate planning. Outside of residential treatment centers, the vast majority of providers have quickly shifted to telehealth.

Nonetheless, as the home of U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-funded technology transfer centers for mental health, addiction and prevention services across the Great Lakes region, CHESS is helping providers navigate this abrupt transition. The center, based in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UW-Madison, is sharing best practices and resources, hosting webinars featuring clinicians with previous telehealth experience, and bringing together state leaders in the fields to share approaches and discuss policy changes.

Read more about how UW-Madison engineers are helping.

Researchers aim to develop alternative COVID-19 testing method

The availability of COVID-19 tests in recent weeks has been limited, and demand is only expected to increase going forward. David Beebe, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and biomedical engineering at UW-Madison, is among the researchers working on developing a viable alternative. Beebe is an expert in microfluidics, with experience developing low-cost assays for infectious disease. He is collaborating with David O’Connor, a professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and Thomas Friedrich, a professor in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, to develop an alternative COVID-19 testing method. The team aims to create a high-throughput, low-cost test that can be quickly and broadly implemented, using instruments that are available in nearly all clinical labs. Beebe estimates that about 100 samples could be tested in an hour using this method.

Read more about the research project.

Going online on the fly: Faculty adjust to teaching, supporting from afar

When UW-Madison announced plans on March 11 to shift to alternate delivery of courses—initially temporarily, then through the end of the spring 2020 semester due to the global coronavirus pandemic—College of Engineering faculty had their own homework: converting all their in-person classes to an online format without substantially sacrificing the quality of education. And they had less than two weeks to do it. In the run-up to the return of classes on March 23, faculty and staff across the college worked feverishly to shift more than 1,000 courses, lab sections, independent studies and seminars to online formats.

Read more about how our faculty have transitioned to teaching and supporting students online.

UW–Madison engineer works with local health leaders to develop COVID-19 prediction models

A University of Wisconsin–Madison industrial engineer has led the development of models that are among the tools aiding health officials in Dane County and south-central Wisconsin as they prepare for and respond to COVID-19. Oguzhan Alagoz, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at UW-Madison and an expert in infectious disease modeling, has worked closely with colleagues in the School of Medicine and Public Health and at UW Health to develop and refine them. He has also shared his efforts with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The models use a swath of relevant, research-based parameters to predict the number of cases of COVID-19 in the region.

Read more about how these models were developed through collaboration.

Educational engineering games take stay-at-home kids to the next level

The best-laid plans of many parents are falling apart after weeks of keeping their kids home during the COVID-19 pandemic—and for many families, Netflix binges and video games are replacing any attempts at home schooling. But University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers have developed a few more options for productive screen time. In recent years, they have collaborated with UW-Madison’s Field Day Lab to create educational—but most importantly, fun—games aimed at middle and high schoolers. Over the last four years, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at UW-Madison, a National Science Foundation-funded center that supports materials science research and promotes education and public engagement, has created three games focused on materials science.

Read more about the educational video games.

It could be possible to face a pandemic with reusable PPE

As COVID-19 cases surge across the United States, medical workers have scrambled to find ways to fill critical gaps in the nation’s personal protective equipment supply—in part because single-use PPE such as gowns and N95 masks are being discarded by the millions. Andrea Hicks, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is studying how reusable PPE might help fill critical shortages. The National Science Foundation is funding her research with a one-year, $78,394 Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant.

Read more about this research project.

How a UW-Madison engineer could help beat a virus at its own game

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the United States and the world, many are putting their hope in science to bring an end to the virus, or at least make it manageable. But it’s not just virologists and epidemiologists who will find the way forward. Researchers from all sorts of disciplines are pivoting their research to help out with the pandemic. One is John Yin, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UW-Madison, who uses experimental and computational methods to understand how viruses spread. Yin is working on several projects that could have a direct bearing on COVID-19, and says he’s ramping up work on them to help combat the virus.

Read more about how his research projects could help respond to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Online platform helps healthcare facilities in need of face shields meet their match

Hospitals around the world are scrambling to secure enough personal protective equipment to safeguard their workers while treating the approaching wave of coronavirus patients. Manufacturers large and small are retooling their production lines to try to fill the gap. But that still leaves a huge logistical challenge: matching up the right suppliers with the right buyers. UW-Madison engineers have created an automated online platform to optimize and then facilitate those connections. The project is an outgrowth of the university-industry collaboration that created the Badger Shield, the open-source design for medical face shields that’s now being used by manufacturers around the country, including Ford. Organizations ranging from healthcare facilities to the U.S. Postal Service, fire departments, homeless shelters, nursing homes and more have requested millions of face shields using the online form. Justin Boutilier, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at UW-Madison, has secured a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support his team’s work on the automated online platform. The one-year, $100,000 grant is through NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, which the agency is using to fund timely projects related to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more about this effort and how your organization can find the face shields it needs. Help support this effort.

IE alum races from Utah to Wisconsin to contribute ventilator expertise to GE Healthcare

For Tyler Vermey, a crazy cross-country trip that included the aftermath of an earthquake and a raging blizzard was just the beginning of his role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Until March 15, he and his wife had been keeping an eye on the pandemic from their home in Utah. “Like anyone else, we were just monitoring the outbreak and taking precautions,” Vermey says. “Then I got a call asking me to come back to Madison to help with making flow control valves for ventilators.”

Read more about Vermey’s journey from Utah to Madison and how he still draws on his engineering education today.

Engine emission researchers retool to identify effective N95 mask alternatives

As our world faces massive shortages of N95 masks, there is growing concern for the safety of healthcare workers who rely on these specialized masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to treat COVID-19 patients. Now, new research in an unusual area—internal combustion engines—at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is aiding in the development of alternative N95 masks in response to this urgent need. Dave Rothamer, a mechanical engineering professor and a leading expert in internal combustion engines, is leveraging the tools he uses to measure the particulate matter emitted from combustion engines for a new purpose: He has converted the instruments so that he can measure the filtration efficiency of different candidate materials for face masks.

Read more about what he’s doing and how it works.

In midst of PPE scramble, UW-Madison engineers collaborate with local companies to fill face shield shortage

University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers are working with Madison-area manufacturers, the design consulting firm Delve, and campus colleagues on a product to help meet urgent and growing demand for medical face shields—which are key pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients. The team has built prototypes and launched a website where it’s encouraging healthcare facilities, manufacturers and donors to fill out an intake form to help assess need and build more connections while production capacity is rapidly expanded.

Read more about the effort.