Polacheck said his students rose to the challenge. One group worked on new ways to change resistance in ventilators so that a single machine could serve two patients with different lung capacities. Another team sketched out a design for how to make a lung on a chip to understand how the virus moves from the vasculature into the alveoli, the tiny air sacs of the lungs. And several student groups looked at how particles move through porous structures to quantitatively design better masks.
“A lot of the students emailed me to say ‘Now I understand why we covered this in class. Because I can use it to understand how air moves through a mask or how a virus moves through a blood vessel,’” Polacheck said. “They feel like they are addressing a real-world problem, and they are starting to really understand the material taught in the class.”
Polacheck, who has research expertise in microfluidics and developing new microfluidic devices, also worked with a group of students on a senior design project from Hubbard’s BME capstone design course that involved developing a microfluidic diagnostic for COVID-19.
“What they’re trying to do is to develop a closed-form microfluidic chip – something that is less than the size of a business card – that would allow health care providers to put in samples from a nasal swap and, all in one, process the sample and give a readout on whether or not there is coronavirus present in the patient,” he said. “You can think about it a little bit like a pregnancy test – it’s a self-contained system.”
The goal of the device is to make COVID-19 testing, which could be performed at the point of sample collection rather than at central processing location, faster and more accurate. One of the students has plans to continue development on the diagnostic through the summer, Polacheck said. But regardless of where this diagnostic project lands, he wants the students to keep a longer-range message in mind.
“I’ve been impressed with – not only the ideas that students have – but also their true belief that they can make these things happen and make a difference,” he said. “And I hope that’s a lesson they take with them even beyond the coronavirus – that their classroom work and time on campus can be used to make a difference. That would be a really strong positive to come out of a bad situation.”