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Sisters on the frontline of PPE preservation efforts

Ray and Erin Cowen inside a decon chamberRay (left) and Erin Cowen inside a decontamination chamber getting ready to load it with masks. They are wearing “level 4” PPE, which includes a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) filter and hood, lab coat, hearing protection, gloves, and rubber boots.The coronavirus crisis has sidelined summer plans for many, but Ohio State Engineering sisters Erin and Ray Cowen weren’t thrilled with the idea of sitting idly by for three months.

Near the end of the semester, Erin learned of a unique internship opportunity with Battelle involving its Critical Care Decontamination Systems, which have been the focus of global media coverage this spring. Located around the country, this equipment can disinfect as many as 80,000 N95 respirators a day for health care workers to reuse during the COVID-19 outbreak. The first-year biomedical engineering major immediately applied and when she found out she was selected, her sister quickly followed suit.

“I really wanted to do something to help out in the pandemic. I had been staying at home for the past few months, but when the semester ended I wanted to do more,” said Ray, a third-year materials science and engineering major. “I had planned to work in a university research lab over the summer, but since in-person research was suspended, I had my time wide open.”

The Cowens set out for their first deployment on May 9, just a week after spring finals. Since then they’ve been stationed in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, about 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia. The days are long—they work 12 hour shifts, seven days a week. From start to finish, it usually takes around 18-24 hours for a complete decontamination process, including receiving and sending out the boxes.

Ray and Erin Cowen process incoming shipments of masksRay (left) and Erin processing boxes of masks.“We have four decon chambers, so we can have up to four processes occurring at once. Here in Glen Mills, we usually have at least two chambers full of masks at any given time,” said Ray.

Despite the hard work, the sisters are enjoying their time together and realizing that working with family has its perks.

“It’s been a lot of fun. It has been really great having her here,” said Erin. “We work really well on a team, so it’s been good for the whole crew I think.”

“I know how she operates and vice versa, which allows us to work together efficiently, especially when communication is limited due to loud noises,” added Ray.

Strong communication and teamwork are essential in a high stakes situation working with contaminated masks and potentially dangerous chemicals. These are skills the Cowen sisters say they’ve acquired from their Buckeye family as well.

“My experience in my first-year engineering classes taught me that I can't slack off on a team because everyone else is depending on me,” said Erin. “So even if I'm tired, I know that I have to keep working. And with the problem solving and troubleshooting skills I’ve gained, I feel very prepared on this team. I feel like I'm contributing greatly and I think that Ohio State has helped me a lot with that.”

For Ray, her experience in labs—both in class and for research—has helped her get used to following directions precisely.

“In labs, an error can cause the experiment to fail or give inaccurate results,” said Ray. “Especially in this job, where we work directly with COVID-19 contaminated masks, it is essential to do every step of the process correctly to protect both ourselves and the hospital workers that receive the masks from us.”

As their three-week rotation in Glen Mills comes to an end on May 29, the Cowens are excited for their next deployment, which will send them to Denver, Colorado. Erin said they’ll likely do four rotations total, wrapping up in early August.

“It's so rewarding for me to be doing this and actually helping to solve the problem. Even though it's tough to be away from my family, I know that other people are making sacrifices, too. I think the benefits far outweigh the costs,” she said.

“I'm a very hands-on person, so having the opportunity to do something that has a tangible impact during this crisis is extremely fulfilling,” added Ray. “When we unload clean masks to send back to the hospital, being able to see that we saved hundreds or thousands of masks from being discarded is awesome.”

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu