Back in March 2020, as COVID-19 took root in communities across the country and hospitals began filling up with the sick and the dying, protective gear for first responders and health care workers was in short supply.
Plastics engineering major Molly Teece wanted to help.
She and fellow members of the UML 3D Club decided to put their 3D printers to work, churning out components for personal protective equipment (PPE) for family, friends and others working on the front lines in the battle against the novel coronavirus.
Between March and July, Teece and her partners cranked out more than 1,000 PPE components and donated them to area hospitals.
“It was a great project,” says Teece, who is now a senior. “And we learned a lot while doing it.”
Leaders of the 3D Club — Teece and co-president and co-founder David Barry and vice president Ethan Chen — learned plenty about supply and demand. They also got a chance to show off their beloved 3D printers.
Teece’s leap to action did not surprise her research advisor, Assoc. Prof. of Mechanical Engineering Christopher Hansen.
“Molly is a driven individual who is both technically capable as well as interested in making a positive impact on the world,” Hansen says. “The PPE project was an excellent example of putting her knowledge and skills into action to solve a problem affecting all of us.”
Teece is a natural leader, he adds.
“Her ability to combine technical competency and lead people in meaningful directions will result in transformational changes,” Hansen says. “She is forward-thinking.”
Teece was born in Scotland and was raised in Methuen, Massachusetts, when her dad’s job brought the family to the United States. She was “always” good in science and math, but she had an artistic side, too. So Teece figured the perfect profession for her was an architect, which combined her talents and passions.
By the time she entered high school, Teece knew engineering was the path she wanted to take. A family friend who earned a plastics engineering degree at UMass Lowell recommended the program to Teece. That endorsement sealed the deal for her.
When she arrived on campus in the fall of 2017, Teece struggled at first. High school had been “a breeze,” but she felt overwhelmed in college. “Where are all these C’s coming from?” she wondered.
Following an internship at Bausch + Lomb during her sophomore year, she gained confidence and her grades improved.
This past summer, countless internships and summer jobs dissolved beneath the weight of a global pandemic, including Teece’s. However, she is now working 16 hours a week for Ayer, Mass.-based Orion Industries, performing quality control.
“I am so happy to be on a regular schedule and to be working,” she says. “And it is exciting to be a senior despite … everything.”
And with the help of her employer, she is back in action making PPE, this time aimed at shielding workers on a different front line: teachers. With coordination help from Barry and Chen, she is delivering to some New Hampshire schools face shields that use less material and are made faster and less expensively than the group did before.
When Orion’s production ends at 3:30 p.m., Teece uses the available waterjet technology machines to make the PPE. Orion also gives her the materials, which would have otherwise been thrown out.
Saving material from the scrapheap is “thrilling,” Teece says.
She would like to work “at the intersection of materials and 3D printing in some capacity.” Ultimately, she hopes to help the plastics industry become as environmentally responsible as possible. Such responsibility is something that the materials industry has been “realizing over time,” notes Hansen.
“Plastics can be really good, but they have been misused for a long time,” Teece says. “Environmental toxicity is a really big topic today. It is important for people to know and care about safety and the environment.”
Such concerns start from the ground up, Teece says. “It is how you plan from the beginning that has an impact,” she says.