• Melanie Ramnauth and Calvin Won

In Conversation with Peter Zhang: On the Role of Grassroots Initiatives & 3D Printed PPE


For the third instalment of our 2020-21 speaker series, we connected with Peter Zhang to explore the empowering work he and his fellow students embarked on to help bridge the personal protective equipment (PPE) gap local municipalities faced during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.


We learn how a small group of determined UofT medical and pharmacy students were inspired by a program at Queen’s University where medical students identified a novel method of addressing the ever-growing need for PPE – 3D printing. Identifying an opportunity to implement a similar program locally, UofT and McMaster University students organized a network that grew to produce thousands of much needed 3D-printed face shields for frontline workers throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).


The story of the 3D PPE GTHA initiative is one that demonstrates not only the ingenuity of healthcare students, but also their commitment to the wellbeing of their local communities during times of crises. It highlights how new technologies and innovations can be used to empower grass-roots organizations to create a positive impact in situations where large, traditional organizations struggled to adapt. Most importantly, 3D PPE GTHA serves as a model for students across Canada to be inspired by and learn from as they embark on journeys that will develop the initiatives of the future.


Please enjoy this interview!


A special thanks to both Peter Zhang for participating and Melanie Ramnauth, UTIHI Director of Collaborations, for organizing.



Peter Zhang is a Doctor of Pharmacy/MBA candidate at the University of Toronto. His clinical experience revolved around critical care, oncology, infectious disease, and virtual care for indigenous populations. Additionally, Peter provided consulting services at health technology startups and the Canadian Armed Forces. Peter had also previously conducted wet lab research examining corticosteroids signalling pathways. Outside of the lab, Peter had worked with the Reach Alliance at Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy to conduct research in India studying polio elimination and vaccine hesitancy. As an avid science communicator, Peter gives annual lectures to undergraduate students at the University of Toronto. He also enjoys writing, publishing health-related articles in the Toronto Star, Windsor Star, and the Hamilton Spectator.





Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your current studies?


My name is Peter Zhang, and I am currently a combined degree Doctor of Pharmacy/MBA student with the University of Toronto. Prior to COVID-19, I was rotating through a variety of different clinical placements, including oncology, intensive care, and infectious disease, at various Ontario hospitals. Currently, I’m placed with the Canadian Armed Forces. Outside of school, I also work as a Residence Don and a Researcher. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I served as one of the co-founders of 3D PPE GTHA and led the logistics team in Toronto.



What is 3DPPE GTHA and its overall mission?


3D PPE GTHA is a grassroots initiative led by medical and pharmacy students to fill the PPE gap created by COVID-19. Our mission is to produce face shields for frontline healthcare workers by mobilizing 3D printers, which were predominantly idled by the effects of the COVID-19 quarantine.



How was 3DPPE GTHA formed and what motivated you to join this initiative?


The inspiration came from medical students at Queen’s University who were the forerunners in creating this type of initiative. We connected with various students from both McMaster University and the University of Toronto who were motivated to start a 3D PPE initiative for Hamilton and the GTA. A lot of us, like myself, were taken off of our clinical rotations due to the pandemic, and were unable to contribute at the bedside. Because of this, I was really motivated to find alternative ways to support my preceptors and colleagues, who were still out there working on the front lines.



What inspired the idea of utilizing 3D-printers to produce PPE?


The initiative founded by medical students from Queen’s University really demonstrated the feasibility of leveraging 3D printers for face shield production. Additionally, we realized that Toronto had a large capacity for 3D printing due to its number of well-equipped libraries and universities that, for the most part, was not operational anyways due to quarantine. Taking all of this into account, we decided that 3D printing would be viable for PPE production in the form of face shields and have the potential to make a tremendous impact.



How did the team mobilize the production of over 25,000 face masks and their distribution to 167 facilities?


We quickly reached out to potential printing partners through cold calls and emails. Although this started slowly, we were able to garner the support of various media outlets which allowed our message to get broadcasted to the wider public. Eventually, we were able to mobilize close to 100 printers. We also relied heavily on our volunteers. We recruited a network of over 80 drivers who supported the initiative by collecting 3D printed frames from printers, and upon completion of the product, deliver them to healthcare facilities. It was really this combination of donors, media support, volunteer drivers, and community printers that made our face shield contributions possible.



What were some challenges faced by the 3DPPE team?


Being a grassroots initiative meant starting mostly from scratch. We didn’t have an existing capacity for large-scale printing and a lot of the steps required to get to the final product required testing and fine-tuning. For example, sanitization of the frames required testing in a laboratory setting, and our sanitization experts had to trial a variety of different chemical and non-chemical processes. We needed a lot of community buy-in, and while this was achieved eventually, growth in the initial stages was slow. Lastly, many of us in the leadership team initially lacked the technical expertise of engineers and manufacturers. In this respect, we relied substantially on manufacturing experts who could troubleshoot the technical issues that our community printers at times encountered.



What has this experience revealed about the supply chain in regard to our healthcare systems?


There are definitely vulnerabilities in our PPE supply chain. For one, we need to do more to encourage domestic production of PPE. This pandemic has shown that international sources can be unreliable. We also need to plan ahead. A national reserve should be well-maintained and well-supplied in preparation for future pandemics.



What has been the most rewarding experience so far?


There are a couple things that immediately come to mind. We were motivated to support our frontlines workers and protect our colleagues/preceptors/mentors. When that came into fruition, there was an incredible sense of fulfillment. I’ve also personally learned a lot from this experience, and met a lot of amazing people along the way, which was tremendously rewarding.



What are your goals for the 3DPPE as the pandemic and PPE needs continue to evolve?


3D PPE GTHA has entered a hiatus due to an adequate supply of PPE from manufacturers. In the meantime, we are conducting quality improvement evaluations of 3D printed PPE to better inform future initiatives.



How do you envision this initiative post-COVID in terms of other healthcare applications?


In terms of other healthcare applications, I think the lesson that really stands out to me from this experience is that medical, pharmacy, or healthcare professional students shouldn’t be afraid to approach healthcare issues with what unfamiliar technology. On this note, while it is true that 3D printing may have the potential to produce other PPE such as N95 masks, future studies should evaluate its capacity for producing medical supplies outside of PPE.


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