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People of Helpful Engineering: Dr. Jocelyn Songer, MakerMask Founder

Researching reusable mask designs and materials in order to inform and unite a global community of local mask makers.

Written by: Sophia Li

Can you give us a bit of background on who you are and how your background prepared you to join Helpful Engineering and the creation of the Cloth Mask Project?

I’m a biomedical engineer, a researcher, and a scientist. I got my B.S. and Masters in biomedical engineering, with a focus on electrical engineering and medical devices. I’ve always been fascinated with how the brain can interface with electronics. So I got a Ph.D. in health sciences and technology at MIT and Harvard. Unfortunately, during my postdoc and junior faculty position I developed occupational asthma. I was literally allergic to my job, and all of the fuzzy furry critters in the research facility… 

Occupational asthma is what bumped me off the traditional academic track and gave me my first real insight into N-95s and masks, not just as a first responder (I also used to be an EMT) – but I because I had to get fit for an N-95 because I was allergic to the particles in my airspace. 

Eventually, my pulmonologist told me that I had to make a choice: I could either keep breathing or I could keep my job. I did everything I could to try to keep my job, but it turns out it’s not really a choice. Breathing isn’t optional. So I left my faculty position and backpacked the Appalachian Trail to try and get my health back. When I was in the backcountry dealing with forest fire smoke, I could not go out and buy a mask. That gave me this really interesting perspective, and meant I already had real-world experience making masks on the fly before COVID-19.

It’s not a traditional trajectory. But in a strange way, all of these different components of my life all became relevant in ways that I never would have imagined. My asthma suddenly meant that I had a decade of experience thinking about masks, particles, and respiratory health.

Through Helpful Engineering we created something bigger and reached more people.

How and when did you join Helpful Engineering?

I joined Helpful Engineering on March 11th. I’d finished a literature review, preliminary safety analysis, had tested half a dozen prototypes and was making them for my family. However, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just my family that benefited because we had come up with a solution that we thought could help more people. Through Helpful Engineering we created something bigger and reached more people. I shared the ideas, designs, and the research that I had done on masks with a bigger audience. Now, through MakerMask, we are able to share information about masks and mask designs with people – wherever they are.

When did you start looking at the specific masks design processes?

I started looking at the nitty-gritty parts of it in 2010 because that’s when my asthma was really bad. The masks I was using, N-95s, didn’t protect from everything, only 95%. So I started looking into the research of particle sizes, distribution, and airflow and looking into different masks and mask types. Besides, the N-95s I had to wear for work were not the most comfortable things in the world. I hated them. By 2016, I had gone through the research on all the commercially available reusable masks, and I have carried them with me ever since. 

Zooming up to Covid-19, I went to a neuromodulation conference in Las Vegas in January, and by the time I got back, people were already having trouble getting masks. So, I reviewed all the current literature in terms of what kinds of improvised, hand-made face masks you could create. It was pretty thin, focused on cotton masks, and there was only one pattern that the CDC directed everyone towards. One of the challenges is that a lot of the information on commercially available masks is stuck behind paywalls because it’s patented, trade-secret, and not generally available to the public.

What does the day-to-day work on the Fabric Mask Project look like?

It’s whatever needs to be done. It’s grown and evolved a lot. We spent a fair amount of time doing research still and moving things quickly. We worked with the MakerMask team and the group chat at Helpful. When I’m lucky I get to make a few masks for additional prototypes and work on testing, working on protocols and getting samples prepared to send out. Designing for the real world is different than designing for theory. I also spend a lot of time translating the research and science into information that can be understood by people who aren’t in those fields and spreading information to the people who can use it.

The challenges and consequences of not having the infrastructure fully developed before this pandemic made a lot of us realize that as we move forward, we want to be better prepared.

What were some of the greatest challenges you faced when developing the Fabric Mask Project?

You have to have more than a good design and a good idea. You have to have good protocols and practices and focus on usability and human factors. You can have the best mask design in the world but if people aren’t willing to wear it, or if it’s uncomfortable, then people aren’t going to use it. Just like in backpacking, emergency equipment is only good if you have it with you, if you know how to use it correctly, and if you’re willing to use it. Another challenge is reproducibility and sourcing materials. Everyone talks about materials differently so how you actually make it so that the materials can be identified by people in the field and that the end results can be reproducible. 

It’s been absolutely incredible to see the number of people who dropped everything in March to do what they could on all of these different projects to make a difference for the world. However, now that we’re not in the first few months, we’re figuring out how to balance our lives and how to keep the information out there and improve designs. The challenges and consequences of not having the infrastructure fully developed before this pandemic made a lot of us realize that as we move forward, we want to be better prepared. We don’t want the research, education, or testing, designing, and improving things to stop. So figuring out how to continue moving forward in sustainable ways is definitely a big challenge.

How do you see the MakerMask organization growing in the future?

We are working on better, more sustainable organization, structures, collaborations, and communications across all of the groups that are working on similar projects. We are better together. And if we can make the communications work across all of the groups who are working on projects then that would allow us to work more efficiently and effectively. 

However, there is a brick wall of reality at some point that doesn’t allow us to get all of these things done without paying employees. Part of sustainability is employment, especially in areas like the area I live in where there are not a lot of jobs. Maintaining progress with 100% volunteer-based groups spending 100% of their time on these projects isn’t going to work long term. It would be lovely to see some of these organizations become sustainable and able to create jobs. Most people can’t afford to have a full-time volunteer position. It’s not a popular topic of conversation in these volunteer efforts, but money is jobs is life.

We were able to upcycle around 50,000 bags and get them made into masks.

Over the past few months do you have any stories from various local mask production efforts that particularly inspire/stick out to you?

All of them. It has been amazing to see so many people around the globe come together for these mask making efforts. I have a local makerspace here in Orange Massachusetts who has made a couple thousand masks and is working on sustainable efforts to make masks and get them out into the community. Out on the other coast, the Distill My Heart project got a few thousand masks out to underserved communities in Oakland California. 

MakerMask has been going with water-resistant designs with nonwoven polypropylene. We asked for donations of materials and a whole bunch of companies like QVC, Hollister, and Meetings.net. A lot of groups had spunbond nonwoven polypropylene bags that we were able to upcycle and save from the dump. We were able to upcycle around 50,000 bags and get them made into masks. 

Seeing the different translations of the information, MakerMask has been translated into 8 languages that I know of, and seeing the global impact of the descendants of the information and materials has been really cool. Just seeing everyone come together and stepping up to do everything they can to help has been amazing.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think the big thing is just thank you to every single person who has responded to the pandemic. There are a few subsets of people who get a lot of credit and recognition for their work and efforts but it really has been a global effort: people at home making a mask, people who make bags with materials for others to use, people who’ve donated materials, people who shipped them, and people who kept showing up to work even though the systems weren’t prioritizing their safety so that the rest of us could keep eating and living. Thank you to everybody who is doing what they can and contributing in the ways that they can. 

And also remember that we tend to hear only a small subset of voices in the news and media. However, there are a lot of underserved communities and we don’t hear their stories. It’s easy for people to think that problems are solved because they are solved in the places on the big screens. But we should all seek to listen to voices that aren’t a part of our day to day. There a lot of communities that still don’t have access to supplies, masks, information, materials, and the triage of which communities get served first is very real. This is something we should all get better at thinking about.

Learn More About this Project

Project update: https://helpfulengineering.org/projects-news/project-update-maker-mask/


The MakerMask.org team is currently seeking collaborators and introductions to continue driving these efforts forward.

If you have access to test facilities, materials testing resources you’d like to donate, or interest in reviewing mask sciencefor public use, please contact Dr. Songer and her team at [email protected]

Want to volunteer? Contact the project through the Helpful Engineering Slack: #project-fabric-mask

Contact Dr. Songer: [email protected]

See the project website: www.makermask.org

See mask designs: www.makermask.org

The designs in this article are presented As-Is. The goal is to present designs that can foster further discussion and be utilized in countries that permit this product. These are not finalized designs and do not represent certification from any country. You accept responsibility and release Helpful Engineering from liability for the manufacture or use of this product. This design was created in response to the announcement on March 10, 2020, from the HHS.  Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who issued a declaration pursuant to the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act

Link to Prep act. :https://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/legal/prepact/Pages/default.aspx


ALL WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER, EXPRESS, IMPLIED AND STATUTORY, ARE HEREBY DISCLAIMED. ALL IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE ARE HEREBY DISCLAIMED. THIS DEVICE (INCLUDING ANY ACCESSORIES AND COMPONENTS) IS PRESENTED ‘AS IS.’

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