What to do when a global pandemic upends a community and threatens the health of its most vulnerable residents? For Deborah Orlik, manager of the Fab Lab at Milken, the answer is simple: Roll up your sleeves and get to work.
From the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Orlik knew Milken had a role to play in supporting first responders and other caregivers. With the region’s only MIT-inspired Fab Lab – a hands-on, digital makerspace designed to spark creativity and nurture innovation, Milken had the capacity to contribute much-needed supplies in the fight against coronavirus.
“We have six 3D printers, which very few places can say,” Orlik points out. “When the scope of the pandemic became clear, I contacted the Fab Academy, a program set up by MIT to teach people how to run Fab Labs, to see if they had ideas about how to help. They brought us together with other Fab Labs around the world for an online meeting with Neil Gershenfeld, the MIT professor who runs the academy. He encouraged us to do our part.”
During the session, Orlik recalls, Gershenfeld offered some very insightful advice: “He said, ‘The only thing worse than having no respirator is having a bad respirator. So make what you can make, and do it well.’”
Assessing her equipment and materials, Orlik decided to fabricate face shields – critical personal protective equipment (PPE) for care providers coming into contact with the virus. Milken’s campus was closed, but with support from the school’s administration, Orlik reported to work and fired up the printers. Using the specs from a highly regarded shield made by Prusa Research, a 3D printing company based in the Czech Republic, she ramped up production, working double shifts and ultimately turning out between 40 and 50 per day.
Orlik’s next challenge was figuring out where to send the completed shields. “There was no effective system in place for donations, but we were fortunate because a Milken parent was able to put me in touch with the right person at UCLA,” she says. “I emailed them, and within two minutes they had responded, saying ‘Please send your stuff here!’”
There was something serendipitous about the UCLA connection, Orlik notes. “One of the people on the committee who was approving coronavirus-related donations at UCLA was Ben Wu, chair of the division of advanced prosthodontics, chair of the section of biomaterials science and director of the UCLA Weintraub Center for Reconstructive Biology. Long before my time, when the Fab Lab had first been built, Dr. Wu consulted on setting it up,” she says. “So, all these years later, when he saw our name, he was extremely excited.”
It was also the Milken network that turned Orlik onto to another donation destination. “Hilary Hellman, our director of development, has ties to the Los Angeles Jewish Home. She made the introduction – and they were absolutely thrilled with my offer,” Orlik recalls. “Right now, I’m making 100 shields for them each week, and they couldn’t be more gracious or grateful.”
As the COVID-19 crisis wore on, UCLA developed an internal production line to meet its full range of PPE needs, which freed Orlik up to identify other institutions that might benefit from her assistance. “We found out through another of our parents that USC Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale and Olive View Hospital in Sylmar were short on PPE, so now the shields we were sending to UCLA will go there,” she says. “This whole process has been so organic, with one person connecting me to the next person, and so on. What’s especially great is that Milken families are helping do the legwork, and Milken resources are being invested in the community. It really showcases the power of our school to make a difference.”