Newswise — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mary Frecker, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering and the Riess Chair in Engineering at Penn State, felt much of the same trepidation and anxiety that most are grappling with facing the emergence of COVID-19. But she realized that, as the director of the recently created Penn State Center for Biodevices, she had a role in helping to explore solutions, as so many others have at the University.
The launch in March of the Manufacturing and Sterilization for COVID-19 (MASC) Initiative at Penn State provided a catalyst for Frecker to rally researchers affiliated with the new center in the ongoing fight against the global pandemic.
“In the face of so much uncertainty and fear, channeling their energy into this initiative may help everyone cope,” Frecker said. “In this short time, it is apparent there are a lot of people within the University who are willing and able to help. Through the center’s ability to connect researchers, we can help maximize their impact.”
MASC is a highly collaborative, grassroots initiative drawing together faculty, students and staff across Penn State, spanning disciplines, academic units and expertise. As a diverse cohort of researchers, MASC aims to help accelerate the work of Penn State experts to potentially address many of Pennsylvania’s critical needs prompted by the emergence of COVID-19.
Drawing upon the momentum of MASC as a whole, Frecker sent out the call for additional Penn State researchers in the biomedical field who could contribute. Demonstrating the strength of the center’s existing network, reactions were immediate.
“The response was overwhelming,” she said. “Especially graduate students, many of whom are still in State College and can’t work on their research projects because research labs are closed, are ready and willing to contribute.”
As of April 7, MASC is comprised of more than 280 researchers who are actively pursuing potential, scalable, novel research endeavors.
Overall, the center has received commitments from more than 100 additional faculty members and students.
“This pandemic has highlighted the need for us as researchers to be agile and adapt quickly,” Frecker said. “MASC has done that tremendously.”
With so many minds focused on a singular humanitarian cause, their hope is that they will quickly be able to innovate potential, impactful solutions, particularly with sensing and diagnostic devices.
A recently funded project spearheaded by a researcher in the center, Weihua Guan, assistant professor of electrical engineering, aims to create a fully automated and streamlined device that potentially could provide an accurate diagnosis of COVID-19 in less than 45 minutes.
“We need better ways to test people that are feasibly scalable to huge numbers,” Frecker said. “That is work well suited for us.”
In addition, the center has also begun coordinating with Dr. Anthony Tsai, a physician at Penn State Health, and a group of medical students to help identify and potentially address COVID-19-related needs.
“The students have organized themselves into teams and now, the center is helping to connect them with MASC teams that need medical expertise,” Frecker said.
Serving as a hub for researchers in the biodevices field, the center has a new sense of urgency in light of the pandemic.
“We have this research center to draw collaborators together from across many fields,” Frecker said. “Especially now, we know we can’t help solve these problems within a single discipline.”