COVID-19 Series: Dr. Stephanie Willerth's Lab Creates Face Shields for Frontline Workers

In the coming weeks, we will be profiling COVID-19 work and expertise from Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health members. Our first profile is DMCBH researcher Dr. Stephanie Willerth, Affiliate Professor at UBC's School of Biomedical Engineering, ICORD member and Acting Director of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Victoria. 

Dr. Stephanie Willerth is a world leader in 3D bioprinting, and up until a few months ago, her lab’s efforts were focused on using specially designed bioink to print and study cells and tissues.  

But when COVID-19 struck B.C. in March, Dr. Willerth’s team at the University of Victoria quickly adjusted their focus and started using their 3D printers to create medical-grade face shields for frontline workers. With a gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the province, Dr. Willerth says there is still plenty of demand for face shields and as such, her team continues to produce them. To date, about 2,500 face shields have been delivered to Island Health and other locations on the Island.  

“It’s a really interesting project and it’s been great seeing the community come together,” says Dr. Willerth, DMCBH researcher and professor of biomedical engineering. “We’ve developed a really good system for printing the masks and packing them for delivery to Island Health.”

The process involves taking a computer-aided design file for the printed product—in this case, the colourful headband portion of the face shield—and downloading the file onto a 3D printer. Dr. Willerth's team has nine printers working around the clock and each print about four headbands over the span of 15 hours.

The transparent shield portion of the design is being laser cut by Foreman CNC Machining, and each piece of the face shield is sterilized in a UV hood that was previously used to culture cells. Dr. Willerth and her team then assemble a package containing the headband, transparent shield and straps to keep the shield in place and send it to Island Health where frontline workers are able to easily assemble the final product. 

The project is a collaboration between many different groups, including Coast Capital Savings who donated $10,000 for the shields to be created with no cost to Island Health. People in the community as well as local businesses continue to drop off supplies and face shields of their own in a collection bin outside of the University.

Students from UBC's Island Medical Program, delivered in collaboration with the University of Victoria and Island Health, have also lent helping hands to the initiative.

“Dr. Willerth’s face shield project is a great example of the growing and dynamic partnerships between the University of Victoria and UBC Faculty of Medicine, and the inclusion of our students in the initiative helps highlight the benefits of our program’s foundational collaboration between UBC, UVic, and Island Health,” says Dr. Bruce Wright, Regional Associate Dean, Vancouver Island, Faculty of Medicine, UBC, and Head, Division of Medical Sciences, UVic. “One of our fourth-year students, Lisa Jeffery, was heavily involved in the project’s sterilization process, and she was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to such a worthy enterprise.”

Dr. Willerth recently hired 14 co-op students and a project manager with support from Technation and Innovate BC who will be working on the University of Victoria’s Biomedical Response to COVID-19. These students will be tasked with continuing to produce face shields, as well as working on other COVID-19 projects.

Dr. Willerth says that once her lab is reopened for tissue culture work, she’d like to study the effects of COVID-19 infection on 3D printed neural tissues.    

The picture of Dr. Willerth used in this story is courtesy of UVic Photo Services.