At a time when UCSB’s Elings Hall is uncharacteristically dormant, work is continuing inside the university’s California NanoSystems Institute.
The Innovation Workshop lab inside the institute serves as a place where students can make prototypes or researchers can build experimental instruments. The lab is now being used to 3D print protective facemasks for healthcare providers which will be used in attempts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Lab Manager David Bothman has been working with the institute for about 10 years. He has been running the Innovation Workshop since it opened about a year ago, and also runs a similar lab on campus where microfluidic devices are made.
“I love building things and tinkering and helping the students and researchers here do the same things,” Mr. Bothman told the News-Press.
These days, Mr. Bothman is often the only person inside Elings Hall — which typically features hundreds of people — due to the campus closure. He is far from alone, however, as numerous campus departments are joining together to help provide healthcare professionals with the items they need to treat patients during the global pandemic.
Dr. Eric McFarland, with UCSB’s Chemical Engineering Department, has become a tremendous liaison for Mr. Bothman and company in recent days. Dr. McFarland serves as an emergency room physician at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and he has been able to shed light on some of the most sought after personal protective equipment that Cottage needs to have on hand to treat COVID-19 patients.
This could be anything from repurposing snorkeling equipment or experimenting with filter and filter holders. The Innovation Workshop can make about 10 of the more complex mask designs per day, and up to 100 per day of simpler designs. While some designs call for the use of the lab’s 3D printers and laser cutter, there are other designs that can be made with scissors and a stapler.
Cottage also has a specific protective face shield with a transparent cover that Mr. Bothman can’t make, but Roger Green, the manager of the Chemistry Department machine shop, has worked out an arrangement to manufacture the shields.
“There are really a lot of people here that are trying to lend a hand,” Mr. Bothman said. “I think everybody is looking for a way to help. Those of us with access to manufacturing equipment — whether it’s at home or here on campus — we’re happy to do it.”
In recent days, Mr. Bothman has been contacted by several faculty members to describe what tools are available, as well as a former student who is now a physician in Indianapolis who described some of the things he was doing in his community.
“I think it feels like we’re not at all alone,” Mr. Bothman said.
Some of the materials have come from unexpected places. For example, there was a shortage of the transparent film for face covers so Mr. Bothman reached out to campus staff to see if there was any available.
“I remembered that the overhead projectors that we used to have in every classroom here on campus had rolls of transparent film that instructors would use to hand write lecture notes instead of using the blackboard,” Mr. Bothman said, adding that he sent out an email Saturday morning and received a reply within minutes reading “come by at noon and you’re welcome to whatever we have.”
On Friday, the group of researchers and professors held a conference call with some officials with the hospital, which Mr. Bothman described as “a turning point” in production.
“I think the leadership at Cottage has their hands full with a lot of other things and wasn’t prepared to start talking to a bunch of really enthusiastic people, but ones who are inexperienced, making medical equipment,” Mr. Bothman said. “Eric has really bridged that gap and made contacts in both places and facilitated the purchasing of materials. It’s been a big help.”
Mr. Bothman is no stranger to jumping into projects that he is unfamiliar with, though being part of a large-scale project with a quick turnaround is rather new.
“Usually the things I work on don’t have a sense of urgency and sort of direct benefit to the community,” he said. “They remind us all the time that the university’s focus should be on teaching and on research and on community service.
“This is one of the times where community service is taking the forefront.”