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Innovation in a crisis

Engineering researchers awarded national funding for COVID-19 studies


By Jeff Green

Nearly $100,000 in new federal funding is allowing a pair of researchers from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science to tackle COVID-19 related projects.

Both are partnering with community collaborators for studies aimed at addressing technical challenges and pandemic-related research.

Dr. Ting Zou
Dr. Ting Zou
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Ting Zou, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, is awarded $50,000 for a project titled Remotely Haptic Controlled Medical Robot for Telenursing Without Exposure to COVID-19 Virus.

Her partners on the project are Eastern Health and Proax Technologies.

Dr. Lesley James, associate professor, Department of Process Engineering, secured $49,953 for the project Testing Novel Face Mask Materials COVID-19. Eastern Health is a partner on that project.

The funding, announced on Aug. 5, is awarded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Alliance COVID-19 and Tri-agency Applied Research Rapid Response to COVID-19 grants.

‘New insights’

“Responding to a crisis on the scale of what we are currently experiencing takes innovative thinking and strong collaboration,” said Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research).

“Our researchers, technical staff and community partners quickly mobilized over the past few months and are actively working together to develop new insights and a better understanding of how to respond to COVID-19. I commend Drs. Zou and James for their initiative as they partner with our wider community on their important work. I thank our federal agencies for providing this essential funding during a critical time.”

‘Cutting-edge’ project

Dr. Zou says her project focuses on telenursing and the use of robots with artificial intelligence by frontline workers.

“The tsunami of the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across Canadian health-care systems, causing a lot of doctors and nurses to fall ill,” she told the Gazette during an interview.

“One reason is their direct exposure to COVID-19 patients but with a severe shortage of personal protective equipment. The urgent need to protect our excellent healthcare workers motivates this research.”

Dr. Zou and her team are developing a cutting-edge haptic tele-operated robot.

The machine would physically interact with patients, allowing doctors and nurses to work in a remote location and safely perform procedures such as sample collection, auscultation and blood pressure and oxygen monitoring.

Preventing the spread

From left are Dr. Lesley James, Shervin Ayazi, Fatemeh Goodarzi and Maziyar Mahmoodi. All are research engineers with the Hibernia EOR Research Group.
From left are Dr. Lesley James, Shervin Ayazi, Fatemeh Goodarzi and Maziyar Mahmoodi. All are research engineers with the Hibernia Enhanced Oil Recovery Research Group.
Photo: Submitted

Dr. James and her team have established face mask testing capabilities to meet standardized testing requirements.

Her Hibernia Enhanced Oil Recovery Research Group is also investigating the efficacy of materials used for masks and examining their general and medical use and potential re-use.

“The project is extremely important to contributing to regional and national personal protective equipment security, as it has been proven that wearing masks helps prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. James told the Gazette.

She notes that her group was involved with testing that enabled certification of Newfoundland and Labrador-made isolation gowns and are testing Newfoundland and Labrador-made masks now.

“We are also working with Eastern Health to ensure personal protective equipment received does, in fact, meet standards. We expect similar impact for the mask testing,” said Dr. James.

“We hope to answer questions such as what is the quality of commercially available non-medical masks, determine if medical masks can be sterilized and re-used and how the masks may perform against coronavirus-sized particles in standardized and user-fit testing.”

Collaborative approach

Since the pandemic began, Memorial has partnered with a group of private-sector volunteers to ensure Newfoundland and Labrador has an adequate supply of critical personal protective equipment.

Researchers and technical staff from a variety of disciplines at Memorial are assisting TaskforceNL to design, fabricate and test personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, gowns and face shields.

Among the units directly involved with TaskforceNL are Engineering and Applied Science, MedicineTechnical ServicesScience and Facilities Management.

A variety of other researchers and staff from the university community are also helping ensure Memorial is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in other ways. Learn more here.

As part of this month’s investment, NSERC notes that in collaboration with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, more than $19 million in funding was announced for researchers and their partners across the country.

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