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Scientific seamstress tries to pin down Ebola

When biomedical engineers at the Johns Hopkins University hosted a weekend-long challenge last month, asking participants to make protective garb for medical workers treating Ebola, an unlikely participant emerged — Baltimore wedding gown maker Jill Andrews.

"I'm surrounded by kids," Andrews said with a laugh. "Everyone is really young — like 23, 24. And they're all Ph.D. candidates, medical students or master's students."

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Andrews, 47, is part of a group attempting to create personal protective equipment that is functional, cool, compact and can be easily and safely removed.

The effort is in response to a U.S. Agency for International Development initiative that will award up to $1 million to innovators who can successfully develop a better protective suit. The group at Hopkins is in the process of perfecting a suit it hopes to patent and eventually mass produce.

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"We have parts of the suit that they want to develop further," Andrews said.

Andrews found out about the project by luck. A friend at Hopkins forwarded her a "closed email" initially intended to seek interest among students and staff. Andrews, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who has run her custom gown studio for five years, decided to apply anyway.

"I read all the directions and submitted the application. I kept my fingers crossed that they would let me in," she said.

And Andrews was chosen — the only fashion designer of the bunch. About 60 people are participating in three groups, each tackling a different aspect of the suit.

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The Ebola virus has killed more than 5,000 people in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization. There have been more than a dozen cases in other countries, including the United States, where the infection of two Texas nurses highlighted the difficulties medical personnel face in using protective gear.

Since the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids, health-care providers must wear suits, but current versions have limitations. The suits – especially in high temperatures like those in Africa — can overheat quickly and exposure to the virus can occur if they're not put on and taken off in a very deliberate manner.

"Just imagine yourself covered with chocolate sauce — you don't want to get it near anything, and you're dealing with this life-threatening illness," said Andrews, whose group of 16 is tasked with developing effective ways of safely taking off the suits. "I want this to be more user-friendly."

Another group is responsible for coming up with ways to improve ventilation to make the suit cooler. The third group is responsible for devising a modified suit for family members of Ebola victims. Each member of Andrews' group spends about five to six hours a week working on the project — typically on Sundays, when they meet at her Wyman Park showroom or at the university, she said.

"This is all being done on a volunteer basis," she said, adding that the group expects to complete the project within a three-month period — if not sooner.

The project takes on added importance for Andrews because several of her close friends are from Liberia.

"I had been aware of it because their sisters were still living there," she said. "I've met them. I kept thinking about that."

Initial designs have earned Hopkins semifinalist status in the USAID competition, according to Dr. Soumyadipta Acharya, a physician and graduate program director for the Center for Bioengineering, Innovation and Design at Hopkins, who has helped organize the challenge at the university.

"I suspect the winners will be named very rapidly. This is a nontraditional contest because of the urgency of the situation," he said.

Regardless of the outcome, Acharya said, the university will pursue the production of a better suit. "Real lives are being lost," he said. "Something needs to be done about it."

Acharya said Andrews has made a noticeable contribution to the effort.

"Having her there amid ... scientists was a way for us to pass around several ideas. We were able to do things on a quicker timeline," he said. "She was very enthusiastic. We were happy to have her. We were very overjoyed."

Melody Tan, who is pursuing a master's degree at the Hopkins Center for Bioengineering, Innovation and Design, is part of Andrews' group. Tan, who did not work with Andrews on the initial weekend in October, has seen the positive effect of having a dress designer on her team.

"She's able to turn our ideas into actual prototypes," Tan said. "She's able to create things that we would only be able to sketch out or conceptually describe. [Without Jill], we were stapling and gluing things together. It was a lot less refined."

Andrews doesn't think there's much difference between the construction of a wedding dress or an Ebola suit.

"The whole production of an evening gown — or wedding dress — has to be very, very thought out," she said. "You have to think about the end use. The same can be said for an Ebola suit."

Andrews has drawn from her extensive design background — she worked as the master draper at Center Stage for 14 years — to approach this project. She said her experience has helped her understand how the suit functions.

"Sometimes weddings are really aggressive. You're up. You're dancing for hours," she said. "In the suits, you have to take care of people. You have to have a range of movement."

In designing the suits, the group has attempted to mirror the precise nature of the gown-making process.

"I like parameters," Andrews said as she draped a swath of $260-a-yard French lace over a dress form for a gown she was completing for a client. "That's what I get with wedding dresses. The same goes for Ebola suits. Those parameters say to me that I can help. I can modify."

The project has resulted in Andrews and the other participants making frequent trips to home improvement and craft stores for supplies such as zippers, adhesives, rubber gloves and aluminum tape.

"We're culling all the stuff together," she said.

A lot of the process has been trial and error — as was the case when team members got excited about using aluminum tape, only to discover that it didn't fold properly.

"The minute you started working with it, we realized it has to break down into small packages," she said.

Despite the setbacks, the result is what keeps Andrews motivated.

"You have to look at it as a problem solver," she said. "I'm constantly redesigning in my brain. It's a lot to think about."

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