Carnegie Mellon University

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April 03, 2020

Tartan Ingenuity Fights the Pandemic

CMU alumni tackle COVID-19 with creativity, intelligence and strength

By Sarah Burke

In times of upheaval and crisis, CMU graduates find new ways to put their hearts in the work — and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.  

Whether they are driving innovations that save lives, closing the gap on equipment shortages or building virtual connection in a time of isolation, these talented, courageous Tartans are rising to an unprecedented global challenge.  

Protecting Our Healthcare Providers 

The healthcare industry is experiencing dangerous shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and Alejandro Sklar (E 2014) is working tirelessly to solve that problem in Allegheny County.  

Along with two partners, Sklar created a website that links unused PPE with facilities in need. Using an online form, individuals and organizations can donate new N95 masks, isolation gowns, nitrile gloves and other items.  

“This equipment is definitely out there and available to be donated,” Sklar said. “We just have to uncover it.” 

Sklar and his team have also partnered with local makerspaces like Protohaven to produce DIY face shields, which offer additional protection and help healthcare providers prolong the life of their equipment. 

So far, PPE Connect PGH has distributed 1,870 traditional and DIY protective items to clinics and hospitals. Sklar says they have enough materials to make 4,500 shields and are ramping up production to distribute more in the coming weeks.  

From Spirits to Sanitizer 

A craft whiskey distillery is not the first place you’look for creative responses to COVID-19. But Meredith Grelli (TPR 2010) is pivoting her company, Wigle Whiskey, to help meet an urgent need.

city-of-champions-and-hand-sani-900x600.pngThe distillery recently announced that it is shifting operations to produce hand sanitizer, addressing critical shortages throughout Allegheny County. Wigle will donate its new “City of Champions” hand sanitizer to the Pittsburgh Public Safety Department, where it will be distributed to first responders, healthcare organizations and high-risk groups

“We know how great the need is, and we will do our best to produce as much as we can,” Grelli said.  

Grelli founded Wigle with her husband and family in 2011 and has built a vibrant network of tasting rooms and shops throughout the city. While the physical stores are closed, delivery and pickup sales are available through their website   

Stories to Thaw a Frozen Heart 

For children around the world streaming “Frozen” and “Frozen 2” in heavy rotation while their schools are closedCMU graduate Josh Gad (A 2003) is a familiar voice.  

Gad, who played Olaf in the films, is reading bedtime stories on Twitter and Instagram in response to COVID-19 social distancing recommendations. While he can’t offer Olaf’s signature “warm hugs,” Gad is still providing comfort and humor to countless families during a scary time.

“Since we’re all stuck at home right now, I figured we would have a little fun together,” Gad said in his first video. “I’ve decided I’m going to read to you and your children — or just you, depending on what you preferI’m not going to pass judgement right now.” 

The actor and father of two has performed beloved children’s books like “Olivia Goes to Venice,” “The Day the Crayons Quit,” “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” “The Gruffalo and more.  

Smarter Testing, Earlier Diagnosis 

Coronavirus tests are in short supply — and it often takes days to get results. Dr. Jonathan Rothberg (E 1985), who is a member of the CMU Board of Trustees, and his team are stepping up to change that.  

Homodeus, a startup housed within Dr. Rothberg’s life sciences accelerator 4Catalyzer, is working around the clock to develop a new test for COVID-19 that would deliver rapid results in the comfort of a patient’s home. Using the new procedure, patients would collect their own sample and enter the readout into a smartphone to receive further assistance. The entire process would take about 30 minutes. 

Rather than relying on antibodies, this test would detect the genetic material of COVID-19 itself, allowing for earlier diagnosis and confirming whether or not infected patients are still contagious. 

Throughout his career, Dr. Rothberg has driven advancements in DNA sequencing and medical imaging devices — including a portable MRI machine and a pocket-sized ultrasound that connects to a smartphone.