COVID-19 impact: How engineers are making a difference

// College of Engineering

Photo of person wearing a face shield and mask

Photo courtesy of Lucy Jung, Cambridge Judge Business School

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.

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 and explore how you can get involved. Help support this effort.

Author: Staff