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Emergency mode

The Case School of Engineering marshalled its resources to confront the pandemic

By Robert L. Smith

As they considered what in-formation people needed to have to weather a pandemic, professors Ken Loparo, PhD ’77, and Yanfang Ye, PhD, pictured normal life. Even while social distancing, they thought, people still needed to know if it was safe to go to the grocery store or the doctor’s office or maybe the park. 

They also thought they could help. Loparo, a systems engineer, and Ye, a computer scientist, worked with their students to design an online tool that helps people gauge the coronavirus risk in various locations in real time. After it debuted online, reporters started calling, and a blizzard of interviews followed. 

Loparo, the Arthur L. Parker Professor at the Case School of Engineering, was happy to help spread the word. 

“Certainly, in these times, we can help from the engineering side, and I think it is our responsibility to do so,” he said. 

His peers heartily agree. Case faculty and researchers have thrown themselves into projects that harness the power of science and engineering to confront the health crisis. The full-court press is backed by the dean, who sees a challenge and a calling. 

“When the world needs us, we have to step up,” said Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering. “We should be able to contribute in a meaningful way locally, regionally and globally. It’s a responsibility of being an engineer.” 

Case graduates know well the school’s commitment to using engineering to benefit humanity. That value may never have been more important. 

“The key question now is, ‘What can we do quickly to help people on the front lines?’” the dean asked in early April. 

Balkrishnan said the resources and skills of Sears think[box] could be especially useful. He pointed to new devices coming out of the campus innovation center.

  • Ian Charnas ’05, the Director of In-novation & Technology at think[box], helped design a quicker way to make face shields that protect healthcare workers from the virus. Soon, area manufacturers were preparing to fill orders from hospitals.
  • Jason Bradshaw ’02, think[box]’s Di-rector of Design and Manufacturing, designed a ventilator valve that can divert airflow to allow it to be used by two patients. A prototype went to Cleveland Clinic for testing.

Meanwhile, applied science at Case is being redirected. Across the school, top researchers have pivoted to focus on the crisis. 

  • Computer scientist Jing Li, PhD, is working with infectious disease experts at Cleveland Clinic to analyze the genomics of the coronavirus and fathom its transmission patterns, a key step toward a vaccine. 
  • Biomedical engineer Anant Madabhushi, PhD, is applying his lab’s expertise in computerized medical imaging to diagnose COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. The university boosted his access to high-performance computers. 

MAPPING THE RISK 

Loparo and Ye began working together in early March. They resolved to get actionable information to people who wanted to avoid getting sick. Ye, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Data Sciences, mustered her graduate students. 

The team designed a tool, called Alpha-Satellite, that uses artificial intelligence to collect data on where people are gathering and where the virus may be lurking. It presents a “risk assessment” relative to other areas, a guide for decision-making as people try to go about their lives. 

“Until there’s any kind of a vaccine, the only option that we have to slow this thing down is with social distancing,” said Loparo, the faculty director of the Institute for Smart, Secure and Connected Systems (ISSACS). “The question always is, how do you do that?” 

On April 1, the team made Alpha- Satellite available for public testing. Anyone can access it online HERE, enter an address, or point to a location on an interactive map, and get a risk assessment. 

Loparo said they’re hoping to enhance and update the tool based on feedback. 

If media interest is any indication, people are hungry for innovations that fight the coronavirus, especially when they spring from a research university. 

There’s more to come, the dean promises. 

“This is emergency mode,” he said. “There’s an urgent need and we’re responding as fast as we can.” 

To support these projects and learn more, click HERE.

Ken Loparo

Yefang Ye

This face shield was designed at Sears think[box] to be mass produced quickly using injection molding.

“When the world needs us, we have to step up, we should be able to contribute in a meaningful way locally, regionally and globally. It’s a responsibility of being an engineer.”

— Dean Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan

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@2020 Case Alumnus Magazine
Case Alumni Association, Inc.
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