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Meet The Girl Taking The COVID-19 Crisis Into Her Own Hands

Karina Popovich is 3D printing 20,000 units of PPE - each week

All images courtesy of Karina Popovich
All images courtesy of Karina Popovich

Imagine you are a college freshman sent home during the COVID outbreak. You hear about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare workers and you have 3D printing skills. Maybe others do too. You reach out to a few friends and news quickly spreads to hundreds of other makers across the globe. They want to help. You start a group, Makers for COVID-19, that begins to print and donate PPE to medical professionals in need. Within fourteen days you are producing over 20,000 units per week. Your name is Karina Popovich, and you are inspiring girls everywhere.

Être, a mentorship platform for girls, was honored to speak with Karina to learn more about her early love of STEM, how a month of lockdown can turn into a lifesaving mission, and what she wants girls to take away from her experience.  We dare you not to be inspired.

Ê: You launched Makers For COVID-19 during your first year of college, but it seems like you’ve loved STEM for a long time. What people or events first inspired you?

KP: My dad is an electrician, and for as long as I can remember I have wanted to take things apart and then fix them. I really fell in love with STEM in the second grade, when I made my first closed circuit and a light bulb lit up. At that moment I thought to myself, Oh, now I can actually understand how the world around me works. I’ve loved STEM ever since. 

That only grew when I took robotics in middle school, and then in my freshman year at Brooklyn Tech High School I found 3D printing. I did lots of clubs like Girls Who Code and I enjoyed programming, but 3D printing became, to me, the symbol of engineering.

The ability to make something out of nothing and then put it to good use – that was everything.

Ê: So 3D printing was your passion in high school – how did you find ways to pursue that?

KP: I spent my sophomore summer as an intern at NYU MakerSpace and my junior summer at MIT in a business-meets-tech program. Both of these experiences taught me a lot, and actually gave me the name of a company I started in my senior year, Alpha! At MIT some of the guys started asking me for help with their prototypes, and jokingly called me an ‘alpha female.’ I didn’t love the nickname at first, but then I warmed up to it – I took it as a sign of respect for my skill.  So I launched Alpha, a retail company showcasing clothing with inspiring slogans, 3D printing and even live circuits, to empower girls in STEM.

Ê: Is that also when you started to teach younger girls about 3D printing?

KP: Yes – it’s important to me that girls not be steered away from pursuing their STEM skills, but to be proud of their abilities! I want every girl to have access to STEM training and 3D printer capability if that’s her passion, and I started looking for ways to have an impact in schools.

Wanting to solve this problem for all students, I started traveling with my 3D printer and teaching students of all ages how to 3D print and some interesting applications of 3D printing onto clothing.

It’s also why I serve as an AAAS/IfThen Ambassador – I want to educate people about the myth that 3D printers are not easily accessible. I own two of them costing under one hundred and fifty dollars…the more that people can access these printers, the more good we can do in the world.

Ê: Like how you are printing personal protective equipment for COVID-19 medical workers? By the way, is it true that you have a global team printing over twenty thousand units each week?

KP:  Yes, that’s true. I was in my second quarter at Cornell and could no longer do workshops or travel once the COVID crisis hit. When we were sent home I wanted to do something to help, but I initially thought printing things like masks and ventilator valves was too complicated. I thought, I can’t print those – there have to be too many regulations and hospitals probably wouldn’t take them anyway.

Ê: But you were wrong.

KP: I was so wrong.  I started researching the requirements to make and print masks, face shields, ventilator valves and mask clips and had to get really into the details: How to satisfy NIH and other regulations, how to make sure that the right materials get used (the plastic can’t be too porous and you can’t use foam if you want the shields to be reusable) or that the face shields don’t have forehead gaps where droplets of liquid can get in, and how to sanitize each unit before donation. And guess what I found?

I realized that I could 3D print these items, and that I could organize others to do the same. I created a Slack channel and we started printing on March 30th – now we have two hundred makers in twenty-five U.S. states and six countries.

Ê: It’s incredible. Can you give us more details? How long does it take to produce the PPE and how quickly can hospitals receive deliveries?

KP: We’re pretty quick. Requests are made on an intake form that links to our group database. A volunteer directs the request to a maker and from there it’s about two days to print (depending on the item and quantity) and another two days to ship. Overall, requests are being satisfied within four to five days. As for the timing, face shields take about three hours to print, face masks take between two and three hours, ventilator valves print in one to two hours and mask clips are done in about thirty minutes.

I am running my printers 24/7, setting timers, and waking up in the middle of the night to start a new print the minute a previous print is complete.

Ê: What is the response when the materials are received?

KP: Overwhelming.  We dropped off a donation to a hospital last week and got pictures back from medical professionals wearing all of our face shields – they didn’t have enough before. Another nurse messaged me today to say that the bloody sores on her ears are going away now that she has our plastic clips to attach the mask behind her head. We’re seeing Facebook videos and responses to our PIX 11 video, and it’s gratifying every time.

Ê: What can people to do help you continue? And specifically, what can kids who are quarantined do if they want to help from home?

KP: There are a lot of ways to help! For the grownups: We set up a GoFundMe page to help our makers get reimbursed for their materials – we are all buying supplies out of pocket. If you are a 3D maker and want to help, download our Maker’s Guide and join our Slack channel to be onboarded. If you are a medical frontliner and are in need of PPE, fill out our Request Form and you’ll get a response within twenty-four hours.

For the students: In addition to helping with printing or volunteering to identify hospitals in need, we are soon launching Note To A Doctor where people can submit a note to a medical professional anywhere in the country, sending positivity along with the PPE. You can collaborate with other kids and makers to send some love to the doctors and nurses receiving our equipment. Subscribe to the newsletter on our website to stay updated!

Ê: Last question – what do you want young girls in STEM watching you to take away from this experience?

KP:  Always stay ambitious. Remember the power you harness as an engineer – you can make or build anything to solve any problem. And when your time comes, like it did for me, you’ll be ready to get to work and make a difference.

Words to live by, girls – from a teen like you finding ways to save lives.

Follow her work on social media and share it with your friends. Ask your school how to get involved and thank frontline workers every chance you get. And know that in the midst of a global crisis, when adults seemed at loose ends and answers were scarce, one motivated girl matched a smart solution to a need.

There is no right age for a good idea, girls.

Yours could be next.

* * * * *

To learn more about Makers For COVID-19 and how you can help, head to their website, Maker’s Guide or GoFundMe page. Être is grateful to Karina Popovich, her team and all medical professionals everywhere serving on the front lines of this health crisis.

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