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With SUNY funding, UB teams explore technologies to increase pandemic preparedness

UB mechanical engineering student Marieross Navarro and engineering alumnus Daniel Buckmaster.

UB mechanical engineering student Marieross Navarro (right) is leading a project that aims to automate the sewing process for cloth masks at a low cost. UB engineering alumnus Daniel Buckmaster is providing mentorship and feedback on design and prototyping through his company, Tresca Design. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published March 31, 2021

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Supported by grants from SUNY, two UB teams are laying the groundwork for technologies that could improve preparedness during the current and future pandemics.

Both projects are in their early stages. One focuses on developing an innovative wastewater surveillance approach to monitor a wide range of viral infections. The other explores concepts for automating the sewing process for fabric masks through the design of an attachment for sewing machines.

Funding comes from the SUNY Prepare Innovation and Internship Program, which is designed to provide hands-on applied learning experiences for students and actively involve them in the creation of pandemic-related solutions.

Diana Aga in the lab.

Diana Aga, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry and team lead on the wastewater surveillance project. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Wastewater surveillance for infectious diseases

Team lead: Diana Aga, PhD, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences

Grant amount: $10,000

Aga’s team is developing techniques for detecting trends in viral infections, including COVID-19, by monitoring levels of viral proteins, antiviral drugs and other pharmaceuticals in wastewater.

The goal is to leverage mass spectrometry to identify viral proteins and medicines associated with a range of diseases that could include COVID-19, influenza, enteroviruses, hepatitis and HIV. Monitoring the changing levels of these proteins and pharmaceuticals in wastewater over time could help communities and public health officials quickly understand trends and occurrences of infectious diseases, Aga says.

“Our objective is to monitor not only the COVID-19 virus, but many kinds of viral infections, and the pharmaceuticals that are being taken by patients,” Aga says. “We’re really excited because if we could prove that the concentrations of pharmaceuticals and viral proteins in wastewater are positively associated with the reported cases of viral infections in the community, we would have a totally new tool for surveillance, to help supplement testing and predict future outbreaks.”

In addition to Aga, partners on the project include Yinyin Ye, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Lahiruni Halwathura, UB chemistry PhD student; and biomedical sciences undergraduate students Joyce Yan and Haocheng Li. The team will also train additional undergraduates to help in the sample collection and analysis.

Marieross Navarro presents at a meeting alongside fellow team members Jake Ryan and David Ferris to product engineers from Tresca Design.

First year UB mechanical engineering student Marieross Navarro (center, standing in front of the screen) presents at a meeting alongside fellow team members Jake Ryan (second from the right) and David Ferris (far right) to product engineers from Tresca Design who are providing feedback on design and prototyping. Photo: Douglas Levere

Automated Mask Production

Team leads: Marieross Navarro, first-year mechanical engineering student, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Hadar Borden, director of the Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars at UB; and Andrew Olewnik, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education and director of experiential learning programs in the engineering school.

Grant amount: $10,000

Navarro, Borden and Olewnik are collaborating with a large team on a project that aims to automate the sewing process for cloth masks.

The goal is to create a device — an attachment for existing sewing machines — that would allow families, small organizations, nonprofits and other groups to efficiently and cheaply mass produce their own cloth masks. The current design involves a frame that uses mechanized parts to move fabric under the needle, replicating a sewist’s movements. Though the initial focus is on masks, such a system could be used for other small accessories as well, says Navarro, who adds that the group’s goal is to “innovate the sewing industry.”

The idea for the project emerged from a 54-hour LaunchPad Startup Weekend hosted in the fall by UB in partnership with Cornell University and Syracuse University. The event, a boot camp for student entrepreneurs, featured workshops, mentor feedback and a pitch competition.

Tresca Design, a Buffalo-based company founded by UB engineering alumnus Daniel Buckmaster, is working with the team, providing mentorship and feedback on design and prototyping.

“During the pandemic, I took up sewing, and I realized how tedious it could be to have to create the same exact thing over and over again,” Navarro says. “You have people working with 3D printers to make face shields, and they just press a button. I thought, I’m in mechanical engineering. Let’s make something to automate the sewing process. We’re in the midst of prototyping, and we’re excited to start testing the concept to see if it works. Our target market is the sewists who are producing the same thing over and over again. We want to make it accessible and easy for people to tap into the sewing industry. Our team is mainly composed of undergraduates, and it’s amazing that we were able to receive this grant and do all of this in our first year.”

“This project responds to current need in our communities,” Borden says. “Our students are showcasing their talent and leveraging their creative spirit to design a product that aims to innovate manufacturing of masks. This is relevant for the current health crisis and beyond, as we know that this is just the beginning of these type of health challenges.”

In addition to Borden, Navarro and Olewnik, partners on the project include UB computer science and engineering students Ahana Bhattacharya, Vaibhav Prakash Chhajed and Jake Ryan; UB aerospace engineering students Amrith Mariappan and William Kandler, who is also studying mechanical engineering; UB mechanical engineering students Becky Paul-Odionhin and David Ferris; Ram Batta, lead venture coach with Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars and a UB biomedical engineering student; and Buckmaster, Nicholas Phillips and Zachary Carey from Tresca Design.