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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

June 2020

Creative facemasks ease pandemic stress

An institute contest inspired staff and contractors to use their imagination while protecting against COVID-19.

Travis Young wearing his winning mask “Is it a French chef, an Italian pizza man, or evil genius?” asked Young. “Whatever brings you that moment of happiness. Don’t let dark times steal your joy!” (Photo courtesy of Travis Young)

Like many workplaces, NIEHS is turning to innovative ways to keep staff connected while working from home. In May, the Administrative Services and Analysis Branch sponsored a mask contest that received 36 entries.

A winning smile

First place went to the reversible mask by Travis Young of the Comparative Medicine Branch. “My cousin Charlie Gaul is the talented designer of this mask and yes, the mustache is reversible,” Young said. Their goal was to make folks smile, he explained.

“The idea for the contest came from our institute’s leadership team” said contest organizer Ed Kang, from the Administrative Services and Analysis Branch.

“As an organization whose mission includes disease prevention, the contest was a way to creatively showcase best practices for the community we serve. Plus, getting staff engaged despite our physical distance has been hugely important during this crisis.”

The contest received three dozen submissions, and about 300 NIEHS-ers voted for their favorites. Kang said he heard many comments about people getting together in groups — virtually, of course — to enjoy the photos together.

Keep your distance

Second place winner and biostatistician Clarice Weinberg, Ph.D., was inspired by nine-year-old Alex.

Clare Weinberg wearing a mask “I have not made a second one like that and I do not recommend it,” she said. “Breathing through a thick layer of permanent marker is frankly both challenging and icky.” (Photo courtesy of Clare Weinberg)

“He helped me with the toothy evil clown smile,” she said. “We figured that a scary smile like that could help promote social distancing.”

Weinberg started making masks when a fabric store gave out free kits. “I made 40 or 50 of them, distributing to friends, family, and Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill, where my daughter works,” she said. “When the NIEHS PPE [personal protective equipment] contest was announced, I thought I’d try entering.”

Strengthening communication

Gary Bird, Ph.D., from the Signal Transduction Laboratory, took Third Place with The Emoji Mask, which lets the wearer share emotions that might otherwise be obscured by the protective fabric.

“Select and display your emotion, while your mouth is safely covered! All emotion settings fully upgradeable,” he wrote.

Gary Bird showing his N-95 Mask: version E The "emoji" mask Bird quipped that further production of the N-95: version E, as he dubbed it, is pending authorization under the Defense Production Act. (Photo courtesy of Gillian Bird)

Many more

Contestants took the opportunity to have fun with the contest. The entries shown in the slideshow below represent just a sampling of the humor and ingenuity displayed by folks from around the institute.

Many went on to make masks for others, whether friends, family, service workers, or strangers — through donations to local organizations.


Whitney Murphy with 2 her children and husband, Jimmy Murphy in masks From right, NIEHS contractor Whitney Murphy, her two children, and husband and fellow contractor Jimmy Murphy wear masks made by Leslie Meadows, a family member in Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Murphy)
Gwen Collman, Ph.D. models a mask NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., modeled a mask made by her daughter Rachel. (Photo courtesy of Gwen Collman)
Cassandra Hayne, Ph.D. wears and shows several masks Postdoctoral fellow Cassandra Hayne, Ph.D., responded to health care providers’ needs by making about two dozen masks for a friend and her team. “It felt like something I could do while I was safely working from home,” she said. Hayne’s machine broke after the third dozen, but now that it is fixed, she plans to make more. (Photo courtesy of Cassandra Hayne)
Cheryl Thompson wearing a sewn mask “It was a nice blouse,” said NIEHS Web Manager Cheryl Thompson of the garment that was sacrificed to the mask effort. Her husband pulled it from their donation pile and sewed the mask from instructions he found online. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Thompson)
Kristi Pettibone, Ph.D. wearing a sewn mask Kristi Pettibone, Ph.D., from the Division of Extramural Research and Training, used fabric leftover from headbands her daughter made for her soccer team. “I’ve known how to sew since I was about 10, when my dad and my grandmother taught me,” she said. Next up, masks from sheets her father gave her. (Photo courtesy of Kristi Pettibone)
red bandana masks on a Schelp family photo puzzle John Schelp, from the Office of Science, Education, and Diversity, said the bandana masks on the family photo puzzle were made by a neighbor and have washable filters. “I’m COVID-19 block co-captain,” he said. “We set up a network to keep in touch with neighbors, especially those living alone.” (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
Bradley Klemm, Ph.D. wearing a Pokemon mask Bradley Klemm, Ph.D., from the Genome Integrity and Structural Biology Laboratory, and his wife used leftover Pokemon fabric. “She was pregnant,” he said. “I needed to remain COVID-19-free, so the hospital would allow me in the delivery room.” They are now home with a healthy baby girl. (Photo courtesy of Bradley Klemm)
Serena Dudek, Ph.D. wearing a mask The mask worn by Serena Dudek, Ph.D., deputy chief of the Neurobiology Laboratory, started as a T-shirt purchased for her niece several decades ago. “It has a brains-as-Hawaiian flower design,” she pointed out. “My sister gave it back to me for my daughter, and I was reluctant to toss it out when she outgrew it. The mask was the perfect use.” (Photo courtesy of Serena Dudek)
Jacqui Marzec wearing a mask

Jacqui Marzec, from the Immunity, Inflammation, and Disease Laboratory, had not used her sewing machine in 25 years. “My mom is in an assisted living community, and my brother is an essential worker. They both needed PPE,” she said. “I made 20 masks for the caregivers at my mom’s place, six for my brother, and several for friends and extended family, who have been really appreciative!”

(Photo courtesy of Jacqui Marzec)
Susan Booker wears coveralls, a mask, and an Elizabethan cone as her dog steps on her lap Susan Booker, from Environmental Health Perspectives, models painter’s coveralls bought for poison ivy removal. “My dog had just finished a stint in the cone of shame, so I added that to my usual bandana face covering. My dog was baffled and none too happy with my outfit,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Susan Booker)
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