Rising to the challenge

The Case School of Engineering is marshalling its resources to confront the pandemic


GLEIAs they considered what information people needed to have to weather a pandemic, professors Ken Loparo, PhD '77, and Yanfang "Fanny" Ye, PhD, pictured normal life. Even while social distancing, they thought, people still needed to know if it was safe to go to the grocery store and the doctor's office and maybe a park.

They also thought they could help. 

Loparo, a systems engineer, and Ye, a computer scientist, worked with their students to design a tool that helps people gauge the coronavirus risk in various locations in real time. After it debuted online, reporters started calling, and a blizzard of interviews followed.

Loparo, the Arthur L. Parker Professor at the Case School of Engineering, was happy to help spread the word.

“Certainly, in these times we can help from the engineering side, and I think it is our responsibility to do so,” Loparo said.

His peers heartily agree. Case faculty and researchers are throwing themselves into projects that harness the power of science and engineering to confront the health crisis. The full-court press is supported by the dean, who sees a challenge and a calling.

“When the world needs us, we have to step up,” said Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering. “We should be able to contribute in a meaningful way locally, regionally and globally. It’s a responsibility of being an engineer.”

Case graduates know well the school’s commitment to using engineering  to benefit humanity. That value may never have been more important. 

“The key question now is, ‘What can we do quickly to help people on the front lines?’ the dean asked. 

Several efforts are underway, in addition to the work of Loparo and Ye. Balakrishnan said the resources and skills of Sears think[box] are proving especially useful. He points to new devices coming out of the campus innovation center, where staff are using its rapid prototyping capabilities to design critical equipment for hospitals. 

  • Ian Charnis ’05, the Director of Innovation & Technology at think[box], is working with industry partners on face shields that can be injection molded for speedy manufacturing. Hospitals hoping to protect their staff are placing orders.
  • Jason Bradshaw '02, the Director of Design and Manufacturing, designed a ventilator valve that will divert airflow to allow it to be used by two patients. A prototype went to Cleveland Clinic for testing. 

Meanwhile, applied science at Case is being redirected. Across the school, top researchers have pivoted to focus on the crisis. 

  • Jing Li, PhD, is working with infectious disease experts at Cleveland Clinic to analyze the genomics of the coronavirus and understand its transmission patterns. The National Science Foundation is considering his rapid funding proposal.
  • Anant Madabhushi, PhD, is applying his lab’s expertise in computerized medical imaging to diagnose COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. The university boosted his access to high-performance computers.
  • Blanton Tolbert, PhD, a professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, is leading a global collaboration of scientists targeting COVID-19 at the molecular level

Lopara and Ye began working together in early March. They resolved to get actionable information to people who wanted to avoid getting sick. Ye, the T. and D. Schroeder Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Data Sciences, mustered her graduate students to assist.

The team designed a tool, called Alpha-Satellite, that uses artificial intelligence to collect data on where people are gathering and where the virus may be lurking. It  presents a “risk assessment” relative to other areas, a guide for decision-making as people try to go about their lives. It’s intended to be used in combination with all
other available data from local, county, state and federal agencies.

“Until there’s any kind of a vaccine, the only option that we have to slow the spread of this virus is with social distancing,” said Loparo, the faculty director of ISSACS, the Institute for Smart, Secure and Connected Systems. “The question always is, how do you do that?”

On April 1, the team made Alpha-Satellite available for public testing. Anyone can access it online HEREenter an address into the text box, or point to a location on the interactive map, and it will generate a risk assessment. 

Loparo, a faculty member in the Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering Department,  said they’re hoping to enhance and update the tool based on feedback and new data.

If media interest is any indication, people are hungry for innovations that fight the pandemic, especially when they come from a research university. 

There’s more to come, the dean promises.

“This is emergency mode,” he said. “There’s an urgent need and we’re responding as fast as we can.”

Want to help Case faculty find solutions? The Dean's Discretionary Fund is supporting research and projects that confront the pandemic.