It is the middle of the night and Julienne LaChance is hunkered down in a garage in upstate New York trying to solve a design problem. Her group has not had a full night of sleep since the COVID-19 crisis hit the U.S., they have spent thousands of dollars purchasing spare parts, and yet they feel more focused and inspired than ever. What was once a fun, DIY shop they used to tinker around in on long weekends for blacksmithing projects has been transformed into a workshop designed to make an accessible ventilator prototype.
“This project has been inspiring in a time of great uncertainty and worry,” says Julienne, a fourth-year PhD student in MAE at Princeton. “We read the news every day and hear about how bad it is out there, especially in New York City. We are all consumed with wanting to find some way to help.”
Julienne is one of many virtuous experts across the country using their talents to help solve the COVID-19 pandemic. When news broke in mid-March that personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply, many Princeton graduate students and professors went to work finding unique ways to manufacture lifesaving equipment for health care workers. Julienne was helping fabricate face shields when she began discussing the anticipated ventilator shortage with Dan Notterman, MD, professor of molecular biology and a former pediatrician who works closely with nearly 150 ICUs in the tri-state area. She immediately refocused her efforts and began plans to design an easy-to-manufacture ventilator.
“The project is all about rapid assembly and deployment,” describes Julienne. “It has been a fast-paced whirlwind involving little sleep. Within two weeks we went from knowing very little about ventilators, to having an automated, breathing prototype. I sincerely hope we can get our designs out to the broader community soon so that people can start improving upon our work.”
Julienne first became interested in engineering through a high school robotics club. In many ways, she says, the ventilator project reminds her of high school robotics because the team has to find the most convenient way to assemble the parts. Her group also includes two researchers Julienne met during her undergraduate studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Lorenzo Seirup and Chase Marshall, director of research and development at a robotics startup in Boston.
The goal of the project is to create as many ventilators as possible. While other teams at Princeton are building simpler emergency devices for short-term ventilation, Julienne and her team are developing a design for critical-care patients that can be accessed and produced by basic manufacturers with very little experience all over the globe. To make the ventilator truly accessible, the team needs to avoid machining and use as many off-the-shelf parts as possible. Eventually, the goal is to release the plans so anyone can access them.
“Think about how bad things are here, and then imagine what it is like to be in a place with extremely limited resources during this crisis. While a hospital in a wealthy area like Princeton has about 40 ventilators, the facility where my friend in Brazil lives has none,” explains Julienne. “My biggest priority is making sure people in other countries will be able to replicate the design. We want to create a low-cost version of our prototype and rapidly deploy these devices so people can start building them immediately.”
While it can be challenging to be three hours from campus, designing and manufacturing in a garage with makeshift equipment, in many ways it is the perfect environment for the project. There are no expensive machines at their fingertips, just a simple 3D printer that anyone in the world can access in a standard makerspace lab.
Many of their ideas go back to the basics. For example, Julienne is using 80/20, which she describes as engineering LEGOs, for the framing. To save time, the team is also using a Raspberry Pi computer system to operate the ventilator. Instead of writing original code, they can plug and program all of the sensors into an existing operating system.
Finding the right parts has been the greatest challenge. The group is coming up with creative solutions for a lower-cost design like repurposing oxygen and flow sensors normally used in automobiles. The entire Princeton community network has been willing to lend a helping hand.
“Everyone just wants to help out,” she explains. “For example, the sensors we need are extremely specific—they are very low pressure and high flow. Since they are mainly used in medical devices, the parts are in short supply right now. The physics team we are supporting located a different type of sensor and is finding an easy way to convert it into the type of flow sensor that we need.
To understand the design requirements for a critical care ventilator, the team is working closely with Dr. Dan Notterman. He is also advising the post docs that are still on campus to build and replicate a shadow project of their device. In addition, Julienne and her team were able get a meeting with a senior staff member at ANSI, which controls the ISO engineering standards for the U.S. They provided technical specifications, such as the type of alarms and hospital connectors, the ventilators need.
Julienne’s group has poured not only their hearts, but their wallets into this passion project. For the first few weeks, the project was entirely self-funded. While they were able to order many free sample spare parts, they had to spend a few thousand dollars of their own money to get the project off the ground quickly.
“We knew it would take time to get the funding approved and the longer we waited the more people would suffer. We did not want to waste time, so we decided to pay for it ourselves,” she explains. Around the one-month mark Princeton began to fund the project.
Surprisingly, Julienne did not have any biomedical engineering experience before the ventilator project. Her previous work at Princeton has involved machine learning and computer vision. In particular, her lab studies collective behaviors in cells and how they organize themselves into living tissues. By stimulating living tissues with an electrical current, they are learning how to drive cells to specific areas. Says Julienne: “Being able to drive living tissues could enable us to make wounds heal faster and more cleanly.”
Julienne is also passionate about sharing her knowledge with others. At Princeton, she helped start AI4ALL, a summer camp for high school students that targets underrepresented minorities. The students learn about artificial intelligence (AI) as well as AI ethics and policy.
Prior to coming to Princeton, Julienne worked in New York City as a firmware engineer and programmer at MakerBot Industries, and then at General Electric’s Global Research Center, designing jet engines and building tools for other design engineers. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also had a variety of engineering internships—working on everything from submarines and helicopters to smart grid optimization.
Despite her wide-ranging background, the ventilator project, she says, has been an incomparable learning experience. Every aspect of engineering from flow control to electrical engineering to coding has been involved. Julienne says it has pushed her to seriously consider a future in research and design after graduation.
“This has been a unique experience unlike anything I have ever done before,” she says. “Because of the quarantine, there is this sense that nothing else in the world matters right now but getting this project to work. It is incredible to be a part of something so worthwhile.”