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School of Engineering leaps into making masks

It didn’t take long after news of the global pandemic of the coronavirus hit for members of The University of New Mexico’s School of Engineering to begin using their ingenuity, looking for ways to help.

In particular, news that medical professionals and emergency workers on the front lines lacked basic personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks as well as hand sanitizer were concerning, yet, being engineers, they immediately saw solutions.

Scuba face mask adapters were 3D printed by students of Christina Salas for Dr. Jon Marinaro in emergency medicine. He is handling the critical care patients with COVID-19. (UNM Newsroom)

Although the UNM campus has been largely physically empty the last few weeks – with students banned from campus, and faculty and staff working mostly remotely – there were busy efforts under way to get designs and a production process going quickly to help those in need.

Christina Salas, an assistant professor of the Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation at UNM and special assistant to the dean of the School of Engineering for Health Sciences Center relations, was appointed to coordinate efforts.

Salas is familiar with the medical side, working frequently with hospitals and physicians on biomedical devices, as well as the engineering side of designing, building and producing equipment used by medical professionals.

Students work to set up a 3D printer in Heather Canavan’s garage. (UNM Newsroom)

“We saw a great need in the community, and with both a top engineering school and a top medical school at UNM, these forces quickly became aligned and organized behind this effort,” Salas said. “Our hope is to use UNM’s resources of expertise, equipment and creativity to really make a difference to those in the trenches working with patients.”

Engineering faculty have been focused on producing face masks for medical workers. Although that in itself is a fairly simple job for an engineer, using 3D printers and materials on hand, a lot of work has taken place to make sure the masks can be used by those in the field. Salas was tasked with coordinating the needs of UNM Hospital physicians and the engineers to make sure the masks meet the correct safety specifications.

Salas has worked closely with Dr. Justin Baca, Dr. Jonathan Marinaro (director of the UNM Center for Surgical Critical Care), both from UNM Emergency Medicine,​ and Dr. Benoit Blondeau, acute care and trauma surgeon from UNM’s General Surgery, on the 3D printing efforts.

Last week, engineers at at the research center located near the Sunport were granted a special exception to use their laboratory facilities and have students participate in the production. Following strict guidelines that include social distancing, production began April 10, with the goal being to produce 500 masks a week.

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