A conversation with Carlos Ng and Jenny Tam, Ph.D. about how they came together to create and distribute face shields for COVID-19 frontline workers
By Jessica Leff
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wyss Institute has been attacking the coronavirus on all fronts – from developing therapeutic interventions to wearable diagnostic technologies and more. One major issue right now is the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients. The Face Shields Working Group led by Wyss Core Faculty member Jennifer Lewis at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) arose to help fill that need, using the Lewis lab’s expertise and machinery to produce face shields. But across the river researchers from the Wyss Institute’s Longwood campus have also been finding ways to help. Carlos Ng, who is a Research Assistant, and Jenny Tam, Ph.D., who is a Staff Scientist and member of the Wyss Advanced Technology Team, have been making and distributing face shields since early April.
The Wyss Institute is a unique community, full of people who are driven to solve problems and are empowered to collaborate across disciplines to make a greater near-term impact in the world. In the lab, Tam works in synthetic biology and is developing in situ sequencing technology, in particular to visualize gene expression in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Ng is an engineer who designs and fabricates automated drug delivery systems. While their research areas are worlds apart, their paths have crossed before. Ng developed a system to help automate some of the processes that Tam performs for her research. Over time, their hours spent troubleshooting and working together led to a friendship that sowed the seed for future collaborative efforts, like these face shields.
We sat down with Jenny Tam and Carlos Ng to discuss how they initially got involved in creating and distributing face shields, what they’re doing now, and what it feels like to make an impact during such an unprecedented time.
Jenny, how did you become involved with COVID-19 related efforts at the Wyss?
Jenny Tam: My son’s friend’s mom, who is also a friend, works at the Brigham as an infectious disease specialist. Since we’re in the same mom’s group, we’d been speaking a lot with the COVID-19 school shut-down. We were talking about how stressed we were, and she mentioned that they didn’t have the face shields they needed at the Brigham and they were short on PPE in general.
I wanted to find a way to help her. Like all of the people on the frontlines, she goes into work every day and is dealing with sick patients, and then she has to worry about bringing something home to her family. I wondered if there was something immediate and quick the Wyss could do to reduce the likelihood that she and her colleagues would get sick.
What happened once you became aware of the need for face shields at the Brigham’s Infectious Disease Department?
Jenny: I knew my friend Carlos who works in microengineering had a 3D printer. I spoke with Richard Novak, who organizes the microengineering team and has been leading a multi-institutional effort to develop nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing and research. Richard encouraged me to contact to Carlos. Carlos and I get along well, so I reached out, and that’s when we started texting a lot.
Carlos Ng: Richard was actually the one who bought the 3D printer in the first place, but it arrived at the Wyss during the ramp down. It’s the kind of 3D printer that hobbyists use, so it’s a bit more affordable and it was okay for somebody to take it home. We bought the printer as a kit, instead of pre-assembled, because it would be delivered faster that way. Assembling it was a lot of fun, it was like building with Legos.
My first project was a face shield, because of the increased interest, but I had intended for it to be just a test. I used the design shared by Prusa 3D, which they made available to the public and validated with feedback from the Czech Ministry of Health. I didn’t plan on distributing it because I didn’t have all of the materials. But after hearing Jenny’s story, I was inspired to gather the necessary supplies to try and make a face shield that could actually be used.
How did you go from experimenting with the 3D printer to developing PPE that is now actually being used in hospitals?
Carlos: When you make a face shield with a 3D printer, you’re actually just printing the frame. I researched which thickness would work best and ordered the clear plastic sheets. They couldn’t be too thick because I had to be able to cut them and punch holes in them without special equipment. Then I ordered the elastic bands that go around the back.
While I waited for those pieces to come in, I optimized printing time, parameters, and anything else I could vary so I could get the most optimal frame. Once the elastic and sheets came in, I made the first two face shields and contacted Jenny to ask if her friend could test them and give me feedback.
Jenny: Once Carlos called me, I picked them up and delivered them to my friend’s house and they used them the next day. They absolutely loved them. Face shields they’d had previously were too close to their face, causing their glasses and the plastic to fog up. The way Carlos designed the visor, the plastic was set farther in front of their faces. Also, his version had a longer plastic sheet, so there was fuller coverage. Once we got the feedback from those two, Carlos became like his own machine shop. He made more and then we distributed those to the rest of the department.
They were incredibly grateful. In the span of a week we were able to help a significant number of people at the Brigham to get the PPE that they needed. I think it was just a really great example of how several people came together to solve a problem through serendipity, friendship, and teamwork. This is what can happen when you have such a supportive community.
Since delivering these shields, have you made and delivered more?
Jenny: I had worked in infectious disease and immunology for ten years. Once I realized my friend at the Brigham needed face shields, I wondered if others that I knew might need them as well. One of the people I reached out to was a former colleague who is an infectious disease physician at Mass General Hospital. His team is treating COVID-19 patients as well as conducting clinical research studies. He was interested in obtaining face shields for his team, so I immediately asked Carlos. He made them within the week so I could deliver them to my friend.
Carlos: In addition to that initial batch for the Brigham and the 20 I made for MGH, I also made a few for Beth Israel, and six for a collaborator at the University of Alabama. The request from the University of Alabama Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine came from Di Feng, who is a member of the microengineering team at the Wyss. The recipients were very grateful and relayed to us that they have used the shields while performing high-risk procedures such as intubations and bronchoscopies in patients with COVID-19 or patients who were under investigation for COVID-19.
Why do healthcare professionals need face shields in addition to face masks?
Jenny: I’m not a clinician, but essentially, the face shield offers a lot more coverage than the mask. It covers your eyes and your entire face. So, if someone sneezed on you, you’d have a lot more protection. It’s also a solid piece of plastic, whereas a mask is a filter. For example, an N95 mask filters out 95% of particles that are a very small size. Anything larger won’t go through, and most virus particles should be filtered out, but it’s not solid. You’re also breathing through the mask whereas with the shield you have ventilation from the top, sides, and underneath, but not through it. Usually, people wear a face shield over a mask for extra protection.
What is the biggest challenge you face in creating the face shields?
Carlos: Getting the materials is the biggest challenge, since there are delays in the supply chain with COVID-19. The polyethylene terephthalate clear plastic sheets take a few days to be shipped, and in some places, they are out of stock completely.
What does it feel like to have an impact on the coronavirus pandemic?
Jenny: I think it’s great. COVID-19 has impacted so many people across the spectrum. It doesn’t matter who you are, everybody has been affected. People are dying and getting sick. I am so grateful to all of the healthcare workers and other workers on the frontlines, such as grocery store workers and mail carriers. These people inspire us. It feels good to contribute as scientists in any meaningful way. Hopefully we can beat it back down, but anything we can do to flatten the curve would be fantastic.
Carlos: I agree that being able to provide physicians and frontline healthcare workers with a way to protect themselves from this disease is really remarkable. It’s amazing to contribute directly. Our frontline workers are the ones putting themselves at risk to treat patients, so being able to help protect them is so meaningful. Even though I don’t know these people personally, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to help them. The whole network of the Boston-area science and healthcare community is amazing.
Jenny: To piggy-back off of that, it’s bringing together a lot of people who wouldn’t have normally come together, and that’s incredible. Carlos, who I know from work, and my friend who asked for the masks, who I know through my kids, and the rest of the members of the infectious disease department, who I don’t know personally at all, would never have intersected at all if not for the pandemic. The fact that we can come together to solve a problem gives me a lot of optimism for people as a whole. We can get down to it, break down barriers, help each other out, and get it done.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.