Engineering Student Works with Team Designing Isolation Chamber for COVID-19 Patients

June 1, 2020

The Class of 2020 graduate also earned Duke's Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate to complement his engineering degree

The COVIAGE tent is a portable isolation chamber that protects medical workers treating patients with COVID-19.

This article originally appearing on the website of the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative:

Max Sondland E’20 was on spring break when he learned of the changes Duke was implementing for the remainder of his final semester at Duke in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—changes that would prevent him from finishing work on his senior design project, a robot built for a large international construction company.

He was devastated to have to halt work with only the final stretch remaining. But then his professor, Neal Simmons, contacted Max and his project partner, Dimitrios Bailas, to ask if they’d like to help out remotely with a different project he was supporting as part of Duke’s COVID-19 Engineering Response Team—a negative pressure isolation chamber to protect those treating COVID-19 patients.

Their first assignment? Help prepare a prototype for a presentation at the hospital—in three hours 

Led by Konstantinos Economopoulos (Surgery/BME), the project sought to develop a tent designed to go over a hospital bed and contain the virus using a negative pressure HVAC system to filter contaminated air exiting the tent. Such a device would effectively protect health care workers attending COVID-19 patients, while also being portable—enabling patients to be moved within a hospital—and usable on a large scale.

Sondland and Bailas were eager to help. Their first assignment? Help prepare a prototype for a presentation at the hospital—in three hours. They worked furiously to ready the prototype, and Simmons took it to the hospital for the presentation.

The School of Nursing faculty on the project team, Jackie Vaughn and Ryan Shaw, gave feedback and asked when an updated prototype would be ready; this was on a Tuesday afternoon.

Sondland remembered with a smile, “Professor Simmons told them, ‘The students will have it to you by Thursday.’”

Since then Sondland and Bailas have been working full-time on the project, called COVIAGE, along with fellow engineering students Ben Wesorick, Theresa Thompson, Kanishka Patel, Shikha Sharma, and Yaas Bigdeli. Working remotely, every two days they would provide a new prototype, followed by another round of workshopping and iterating.

For Sondland, the project’s emphasis on focusing on the problem and the needs of the user (the team drew on interviews with dozens of nurses) drew on what he’d learned in the I&E Certificate program.

Sondland, a Portland, Oregon, native who grew up passionate about building things and came to Duke to study mechanical engineering, started the I&E Certificate to complement his engineering degree with a business side.

The Duke in Silicon Valley program he participated in during the summer after his first year showed him that “some of the best entrepreneurs were engineers who saw something they could build,” he said. “It was eye-opening to see that combination of business, entrepreneurship, and startup culture with engineering.”

When Sondland asked his I&E senior capstone professor, Aaron Dinin, to skip class in order to work on the COVIAGE tent, Dinin didn’t hesitate to give him permission. “This is exactly what we want our I&E students doing,” Dinin said, “building upon what they’ve learned to identify problems, take action, and make a difference.”

“Max’s dedication and innovation have had a real and immediate impact on society. It’s been fun and invigorating working with such energetic and committed students.”

Neal Simmons
Gendell Family Associate Professor of the Practice

Simmons, Gendell Family Associate Professor of the Practice at Duke, is similarly impressed by Sondland and the other Duke Engineering students who have stepped up to work on COVIAGE and other projects in response to the pandemic. “Max’s dedication and innovation have had a real and immediate impact on society,” he said. “It’s been fun and invigorating working with such energetic and committed students.”

Next steps for the team include applying for emergency-use authorization from the FDA, working on IP issues, and hopefully deploying the device for use at Duke in the next couple of weeks, then expanding its use to other hospitals.

As for Sondland’s next steps, the investment banking job awaiting him has moved its start date from July to January due to the pandemic—“Pretty perfect timing for this project,” he noted. In the last couple of years, he had thought perhaps an engineering future didn’t make sense for him.

“But this project showed me the real-world value of my engineering education,” he said. “Doing this has really shown that engineering can be fun, it can be helpful, there are a lot of useful things that I can do to apply it.”

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