TEWKSBURY — “What is the ideal mask?” That’s the question Tewksbury resident Stephanie Tam asks in her project video for her summer internship.
The answer? A lightweight, functional mask made from accessible and affordable materials, designed by Tam and her fellow interns.
Tam graduated as salutatorian from TMHS in 2018. She’s now a rising third year student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, double majoring in biomedical and mechanical engineering.
Tam’s virtual summer internship came from the BME Alliance, a collaboration between Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. Over 500 undergraduate students across the country competed in teams on “a small group-based design challenge to develop, design and test a solution to address the need for enhanced use of personal protective equipment (PPE) — particularly on college campuses — to help mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.”
Tam explained that the BME Alliance “gave weekly seminars teaching students about the formal engineering design process, and our project was to apply this newfound knowledge to developing a mask or application involving masks (e.g. mask design, mask cleaning treatment, mask adaptations, informational platforms, etc).
“Groups of four students were arranged based on time zone, since this internship stretches across the US with over 500 participants; this arrangement of students in the same time zone but from different colleges gave other students and me the opportunity to work with students from very different places around the country while still making it easier to meet up via Zoom.”
Tam worked alongside Elizabeth Recker from Florida Gulf Coast University, Pravalika Irukulla from the University of Georgia and Ella Evensen from the University of Maryland, all engineering students.
“My group and I worked for weeks to design over 17 prototypes, each reproducing a shared design individually and reconvening weekly to review findings,” said Tam.
The group researched filtration efficiency studies, and using the principles of mechanical and electrostatic filtration, designed a three-layer mask made of cotton and chiffon to be breathable, with a customizable nose, chin, and ear piece that lets users talk comfortably and flexibly.
The mask is machine washable, and has a filtration efficiency of 97 percent (for reference, an N95 mask in the same conditions has a filtration efficiency of 85 percent).
In the group’s video, mask-wearers easily lift weights, strum a guitar, play badminton, and work in the garden.
“[The ideal mask] should be one that moves with you, and it should be one that you can take anywhere at any time,” said Tam.
The group sought to build a better mask, but also wanted to make it available to as many people as possible.
“When we started discussing marketing, we knew we wanted our design to reach a wider population of users so we could help more people, and to take it one step further, we decided to make it for charity as well,” said Tam. “Since there are only the four of us working on this project, making masks and selling ready-made masks seemed implausible. My groupmate, Beth, proposed we share the template, and we absolutely loved the idea! We immediately started working on a package to share this template digitally, including instructions for any user to make it.”
The group sends the template to donors; all funds raised go to support different coronavirus relief charities. The BME competition will be won by the group that receives the most “likes” on the YouTube video describing their project.
Tam’s group has raised more than $500 in donations so far, and provides donors with templates, instructions, and tutorial videos to make their own masks.
Tam hopes to work in the field of biomechanics and biomedical engineering; she has a particular interest in prosthetics advancement. She says that the project taught her about the engineering design process, which will be useful in her future career.
But the most important thing she learned is that “students should not underestimate the power of their knowledge due to the sheer limitation of age.”
Tam said, “I find that many students — including myself — have a great deal of doubt in their abilities because they’re only halfway through college or they only know so much as a student. To see my project make such a difference and reach so many people makes me realize how remarkable of a difference I can make as ‘just a student.’”
To view and “like” the video, please visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHO1idy33GA. The BME Alliance competition runs through Aug. 29.