The buzz of UC Santa Barbara’s normally vibrant campus has fallen to a whisper as students study from home, researchers halt their work until further notice and stay-at-home orders with no end in sight keep most people inside.
But while most of the campus remains silent, the 3D printer in the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), located in Elings Hall on campus, hums steadily day through night, producing protective face shields for medical workers at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
Daniel Magnuson, a third-year mechanical engineering student at UCSB, usually starts his shift in the lab in the afternoon once he’s finished with his classes for the day; he works into the evening, sometimes staying until 9 p.m., or returns to the lab after having dinner.
The routine makes for a long day for Magnuson, but the extra hours in the lab and late nights are worth it, he said.
“After a long day of work, your body starts to hurt and you’re really tired, but it’s reinvigorating to know that these devices are going straight from our hands to the hospital,” Magnuson said. “I think that that’s really what’s keeping me going right now, just the fact that we can have such an immediate impact.”
The urgent production of face shields on campus is just one example of how skilled students, researchers and scientists from UCSB are uniting to help the community through the coronavirus pandemic. When the campus was still open, another group of researchers in the Materials Department made batches of hand sanitizer for community use. And presently, professors across campus are developing a coronavirus test that would be simpler and faster than the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) coronavirus test.
Face Shield Production
Back in the CNSI lab, Magnuson and David Bothman, the organizer behind the face shield production, work opposite shifts to keep the 3D printer running to produce as many parts as possible for the face shields. The shields, which are meant to go over medical goggles and face masks, consist of a transparent shield, headband and strap, all based off a design created by a 3D printer manufacturer. By early April, the team had created and delivered 40 face shields to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and had 40 more ready for delivery. But the hospital’s needs are “tremendous,” said Bothman, who normally lectures on mechanical engineering at UCSB.
“The hospital needs 10,000 shields of the style we’re making. We can make, you know, 20 or 30 a day … but it’s clear that a lot of other people and people with a lot more manufacturing capability are going to need to be involved,” Bothman said.
Other groups on campus have joined in the production of face shields, including Roger Green, manager at the chemistry and biochemistry machine shop. He and Andy Weinberg, the machine shop superintendent, obtained enough materials to make 3,000 face shields. The two had finished cutting the clear plastic covers for 200 shields with a 3D printer in early April and with the help of a couple more people in the production process, Green said his team would likely soon be able to produce about 200 clear plastic covers a day.
Hand Sanitizer Production
Over in the Materials Department, Assistant Professor Angela Pitenis had been worrying about the coronavirus pandemic early on. Before UCSB canceled in-person classes on March 10, she cut the normal lesson plans she had for her graduate class, Colloids and Interfaces, and instead presented on the colloidal formation and stability properties of hand sanitizer.
Taking notice of the rising anxiety over coronavirus among the students in her class, she decided to dedicate a lecture to demonstrate how to make basic hand sanitizer. Then she had the idea to produce hand sanitizer for the entire campus community.
“This whole project really began as a truly class exercise to demonstrate basic principles, but it also links back to the work that we do every day in materials science,” Pitenis said. “I think it was a very good lesson for the students to be able to see how lessons in the classroom can translate to practical engineering solutions, especially in response to COVID-19.”
Joining forces with colleagues Rachel Segalman, Raphaële Clément, Craig Hawker, Christopher Bates and Michael Chabinyc, all professors in the UCSB Materials Department, the group pooled together their reagents to begin manufacturing hand sanitizer in their labs for community usage.
“Basically, any kinds of solutions we could find, we would put them together,” Pitenis recalled. She said she isn’t sure how much hand sanitizer they made altogether, but she estimates “gallons.”
One of Segalman’s lab members, chemical engineering doctoral student Audra Destefano, came up with the creative idea to design a label and call their hand sanitizer “Universal Corona Sanitizing Balm.”
“[The name], which was very clever … really encapsulated the efforts we were trying to do here, which was to support our community,” Pitenis said.
The scientists distributed their hand sanitizer around campus, including among their shared facilities, the Materials Research Lab and the CNSI.
“A lot of the hand sanitizer went directly to those shared facilities to support students and staff at the time who were still having to use those shared facilities to maintain their critical research, and also to support our staff, who might not have time in between experiments to wash their hands,” Pitenis described.
However, Pitenis emphasized handwashing over hand sanitizer, noting that it is more effective and a practice that the CDC recommends.
Since campus operations, including most research labs, have shut down, Pitenis and her colleagues have ceased their hand sanitizer production, for now.
“I think we’ve made enough to support the needs of our community,” she remarked, adding that if there was a need for more, her team could always produce additional hand sanitizer.
“I think we’re all trying to help out as much as we can; I think this is a total team effort right now. And I’m just incredibly amazed and I’m just humbled by the efforts of my colleagues,” Pitenis said.
Coronavirus Test Development
Across campus, four professors from the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) are working tirelessly to develop a coronavirus test that would be faster and easier to use and would not “rely on the common reagents that the rest of the world is scrambling to get,” said Max Wilson, an assistant professor in the MCDB department.
Wilson, Carolina Arias, Diego Acosta-Alvear and Kenneth Kosik all know each other from teaching and working together in the MCDB department, but as the coronavirus pandemic tore through U.S. communities and the lack of available testing became more obvious, the group stepped up to help fill the gap in resources and information.
“We saw that there was a massive need for testing and we decided that we would use our labs and our skills as molecular biologists to help,” Wilson said. “We were all scientists studying other things before this. We dedicated funds from [other projects] to develop this because we saw how important it was.”
Using the CDC’s test as a benchmark for accuracy, the team created a test for coronavirus that uses an enzyme similar to the family of enzymes used in a CRISPR test, a method that scientists around the nation have already begun to tap into that targets repetitive DNA sequences. This test uses the enzyme to recognize the presence of the coronavirus viral genome and indicates a positive or negative result on a lateral flow dipstick, a testing device similar to those used for pregnancy tests, according to Wilson.
By the beginning of April, the group was tinkering with adjustments to the test to make it cheaper and easier to use. The professors also began looking into the process of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, which is currently being fast tracked for coronavirus tests but could still likely take months.
“It’s gonna be a long way, unfortunately,” Arias said. “We are still far. I don’t want to give anybody false expectations or false hope that we’re going to have something that can be deployed tomorrow. It is a process [that requires] approval.”
In addition to developing a new coronavirus test, the professors also donated enough critical reagents, an essential component in the current CDC coronavirus test, for 600 tests to the Cottage Health laboratory, the Santa Barbara Independent reported.
Arias’ role in the project has been to coordinate approval processes and navigate protocols for the research to take place. Besides that, she also teaches general animal virology to a class of 185 students remotely –– a task faced by UCSB’s entire teaching faculty and one they had a mere two weeks to prepare for –– and serves on UCSB’s COVID-19 Response Working Group.
“And we have families so we don’t stop. If it’s not one thing, it’s another one,” Arias said. “I cannot even tell you at what time [the day] begins or what time it ends.”
But the researchers are propelled by an extreme sense of urgency to find solutions and provide information to the public, a collective effort they “hope is going to be significant” in the community’s fight against coronavirus, Arias said.
Looking ahead, the team is discussing the possibility of using their coronavirus test in a research project that would focus on the prevalence of coronavirus in asymptomatic patients. The project could reveal information about how the virus spreads, but until the test is FDA approved, patients involved in the project would not be able to know the results of the testing, Wilson said.
While much remains uncertain about the timeline of their projects and the future in general, Wilson, Arias, Acosta-Alvear and Kosik are steadfast in their mission to help.
“A lot of people might feel helpless and I just want to reassure them that many of the best scientists I know are working as hard as they possibly can to come up with solutions that will ease the pain on this pandemic,” Wilson said. “There are things coming.”