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Medical students Alex Gertner, Demitra Canoutas, Ryan Searcy, Alex Gregor, and Sean Donohue are among the student, staff, and faculty volunteers to help make personal protective equipment for front line healthcare workers.

Alex Gertner, who is pursuing both his medical degree and doctoral degree in health policy and management, says he chose UNC-Chapel Hill “because it combined high-quality research with a strong sense of service to the people of North Carolina.”

The MD/PhD candidate has joined faculty, medical students, volunteers from throughout UNC-Chapel Hill and Be A Maker (BeAM) team members during the month of April – all committed to creating tens of thousands of face shields for health care professionals at UNC Hospitals and other organizations. As the BeAM website says: “BeAM spaces are being dedicated to COVID-19 response efforts. Other programs are cancelled.”

Gertner says BeAM’s crucial role included providing professionals with demonstrated expertise in large-scale production of detailed products. BeAM’s face shield effort has been led by Richard Superfine, Taylor-Williams Distinguished Professor; Kenny Langley, BeAM director; and Glenn Walters, BeAM Design Center director, among others.

Student leaders in the face shield initiative helped to develop prototypes, tested materials, received feedback from providers on the front lines of health care, assembled the face shields and coordinated volunteers, among other roles, he adds. Along with Gertner, the student effort has been led by medical students Demitra Canoutas, Ryan Searcy, Alex Gregor and Sean Donohue. Volunteers have included UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, staff, students and administrators.

“It’s been an incredibly rewarding effort that exemplifies all the best of UNC,” he says. “We are a group of students and professionals from different backgrounds with different expertise working together to create a high-quality product that improves care for North Carolinians and can serve as a model for other universities.”

The manufacture of the face shields began at the end of March. By the start of the fourth week in April, 25,000 or so face shields had been produced, “and we will make at least 15,000 more in the next two weeks,” says Gertner.

Gertner, who received a 2019 Horizon Award from The Graduate School for research with long-term potential to benefit North Carolina, plans to pursue a career as a physician-researcher caring for vulnerable patient populations, and researching policies and clinical practices to improve health systems.

He says that his BeAM work has provided much knowledge about developing products for clinical environments, sourcing product materials and working within manufacturing spaces.

“This has been a great exercise in working in a large multidisciplinary team in a high-pressure situation to solve complex problems in short periods of time. We moved quickly to identify and solve several challenges every day, making adjustments as we went.

“I will take these insights and experiences with me into future work in research and practice.”