COVID-19 - College of Engineering & Natural Sciences


Mechanical engineering research: The science of “smart pipes”

“Know what’s below. Call before you dig.” Most people in Oklahoma can rattle off this familiar refrain, which encourages everyone, before plunging a spade or a backhoe into the dirt, to contact OKIE811 to verify the location of the area’s utilities pipes.

These days, utilities pipes are commonly made of plastics, such as polyethylene, because they are easier to manufacture and install and resist corrosion. Finding them is done using ground-penetrating radar (GPR); however, unlike the case with traditional metal pipes, the signals emitted by plastic pipes can be faint and hard to distinguish.

In search of “smart functionality”

That’s where mechanical engineering doctoral candidate and instructor Laura Waldman enters the picture. A member of TU’s Advanced Composite Materials Lab, Waldman is researching and testing “smart functionality” in polyethylene pipes.

Mechanical engineering student Laura Waldman outdoors standing on a white pipe laid horizontally in a trench dug into the ground“‘Smart pipes’ could report information about location and possible damage to operators during surveys,” said Waldman. “This would reduce the risk of loss of service and, more importantly, accidents during work projects.”

To implement smart functionality in pipes, Waldman is installing antenna structures made from a conductive composite polyethylene. Multifunctional antenna structures created from this material resonate in response to the radar signals, allowing operators to determine the location of pipelines prior to excavation.

“As part of this project,” Waldman explained, “we collaborated with members of TU’s Department of Geosciences to test these antenna structures with commercial GPR equipment. We successfully increased the response signal of the pipes to radar and we are currently working on damage detection studies.”

Continuing to discover — despite the pandemic

This year, of course, COVID-19 has altered just about everyone’s plans, including Waldman’s. One of the major pitfalls has been the loss of access to the off-campus facility where she processes the composite polyethylene. In addition, whereas normally her cross-disciplinary work entails collaborating with faculty and students from other departments, including Chemistry and Biochemistry, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Geosciences, necessary physical distancing measures have meant that many of her experimental projects have been put on hold.

Making the best of the situation, however, Waldman noted that “this summer I am focusing more on simulation and modeling work, which I can do remotely.”

Combine theory and practice while learning from professors who know your name: consider TU’s mechanical engineering graduate programs.

Research reveals improved air ventilation fights COVID-19

Cities and states across the nation are lifting safer-at-home orders, and businesses are taking extra precautions to prepare for the return of customers but cleaning high-contact surfaces and maintaining safe social distance is only the start. Findings by Richard Shaughnessy, director of The University of Tulsa’s Indoor Air Program, show that improving air quality through enhanced ventilation and filtration can decrease the advancement of harmful bacteria and viruses, like COVID-19. “We’re trying to get simple, useful, practical information to the public that they can use now,” he said. 

Richard Shaughnessy

Clean air is key

According to Shaughnessy, the virus can be transmitted through both human contact and aerosol transmission. “This virus can survive on smaller aerosols (less than 5 microns in size) in the air for three to four hours, and on surfaces, depending upon the surface, for two to three days,” Shaughnessy explained. If ever there was a time in history for improved indoor air quality, it would be now,” Shaughnessy stated. 

After being confined at home for weeks, residents are ready to shop, visit salons, see movies and eat at local restaurants. “There is an immediate need to identify what businesses can do to supplement social distancing measures, such as improving indoor air quality,” Shaughnessy explained. “These practices go hand-in-hand with other effective approaches such as the cleaning/disinfecting of high-contact surfaces.” 

When fighting viruses and bacteria, few businesses consider cleaning the air in their buildingsadding supplemental filtration or upgrading the filtration system they already have establishedAll air cleaning requires is making sure that your filters are in place,” Shaughnessy said. “If you have a heating or cooling system, make sure your filters are adequate. Use the highest efficiency filters you can, but remember you only have fresh air filtering through the mechanical system when the system is running.” 

For more than 25 years, Shaughnessy’s research has focused on indoor environmental concerns. In the past decade, he has specifically investigated whether illnesses are more easily transmitted because of inadequate ventilation or air filtration. Shaughnessy and his team have conducted testing in commercial businesses, homes and densely occupied environments such as schools and hospitals. 


Constant ventilation to remove human aerosols

If you’re relying on your heating and cooling systemyou turn it on, and it moderates as a function of temperature. You want to put that fan on, so it runs 24/7. Otherwise, the system may run only 18% of the day and you’re getting little filtration during that time,” he said. 

The virus also can be harbored on particles that fall out of the air onto floor surfaces, and Shaughnessy explained that if someone is shedding the virus, tens of thousands of particles from skin can dissipate to the floor. As people step across the floor, the particles are resuspended back into the air where they may be breathed in. 

“People do not have to buy gallons of bleach to chlorinate everywhere, which can be extremely hazardous to their health,” Shaughnessy said. “The thing to remember when cleaning surfaces is the virus is very susceptible to common disinfectants, soap and water. This thing isn’t that hard to inactivate and to kill.” 

Facts based on science and research

Shaughnessy has shared his expertise across the country and internationally on studies related to COVID-19. More recently, he has provided webinars for more than 2400 researchers and practitioners from state and federal agencies in 40 different countries. He has spoken with media about mitigation and best practices in order to lessen the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“Now is not the time to let down our guard. There is no overnight cure or fix for this virus, just common sense,” Shaughnessy said. “These issues I am bringing up are based on science and research we’ve been doing for years. Let’s accept the virus for what it is and let’s take steps to make it safer — not only to protect workers but also to protect customers.”

Students and faculty conduct COVID-19 research during pandemic 

Students and faculty in The University of Tulsa’s College of Engineering and Natural Sciences are doing their part to combat COVID-19 by calling upon the skills and innovative ideas they practice in daily life. The world is struggling to control the pandemic, but the TU community’s resilience shines through when members band together to support health care workers. 

COVID-19 Research

Chapman Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Robert Sheaff and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Syed Hussaini are working on two COVID-19 projects.  

  1. Development of a novel test for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 virus. This project will provide a faster and more economical method for the detection of the virus. It is based on a standard biological readout system, which will be modified chemically to provide an assay in which light emission will be used to detect the presence of the virus.
  2. Evaluation of chloroquine’s biological effects on human cells. The second project will evaluate the effect of chloroquine and its synthetic analogs on human cells. The aim is to contribute to the biochemical understanding of how chloroquine works as a treatment for COVID-19 and to find chemical analogs of chloroquine with increased efficacy and reduced side effects. 

Surgical mask straps 

covid-19 researchMechanical engineering student Tom Rendon has been printing surgical mask straps to give to people who wear the masks for lengthy periods of time, as well as hospital workers in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The straps keep the elastic off the ears and allow the user to adjust the tension of the elastic. He added a little local branding to them as a way of encouraging and supporting local communities. 

Currently, Rendon has printed around 200 of the straps and hopes to give away more in the future. Each strap takes around 30-40 minutes to print. 

PPE Donations

covid-19 researchThe Department of Chemistry gathered the following personal protective equipment (PPE) items to donate to Ascension St. John Medical Center in March: 

  • 8 50-packs of surgical face masks  
  • 54 cases of Fisher Scientific nitrile exam gloves  
  • 5 boxes of safety goggles (36 count in each box)  

The TU Hurricane Health Clinic gave 23 boxes of nitrile gloves, disposable gowns, hand sanitizer and face masks to Saint Francis Health System; and TU’s School of Nursing in the Oxley College of Health Sciences delivered the following PPE to Hillcrest Medical Center: 

  • 70 disposable isolation gowns  
  • 4 full boxes and 2 partial boxes of surgical masks  
  • 9 N-95 masks  
  • 15 face shield masks  
  • 1,150 pairs of nitrile exam gloves  
  • 500 pairs of stretch vinyl gloves  

The Russell School of Chemical Engineering and TU’s athletic training program also donated gloves to Saint Francis. 

Face shields

COVID-19 researchMechanical engineering senior Jacob Martinez partnered with Tulsa’s medical community to help make face shields for local hospital workers. Using a laser cutter in Stephenson Hall’s Projects Lab, he cut the plastic pieces that attach to the clear shield, which were then packed in kits and sent to hospitals. The latest batch was sent to Saint Francis Health System. 

Collegiate cyber squad to compete at NCCDC

The COVID-19 pandemic undeniably changed the spring semester, but TU’s collegiate cyber students and faculty continue to actively and creatively look for ways to make the best of the situation. Many of the spring events and competitions continued as planned, just in a new, digital-only format.

TU to compete at NCCDC after winning SWCCDC regional

The Southwest Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (SWCCDC) at TU, was originally scheduled for March and temporarily postponed due to COVID-19. But after a few adjustments, faculty and students rallied to attend the event in a virtual realm; university-level students competed Saturday, April 11. The TU team won first place and will compete in the National CCDC virtual event May 22-23.

Meet the TU 2020 CCDC team and see their personalized trading cards

CCDC teams exercise both technical and business skills while focusing on the operational aspects of managing and protecting an existing simulated corporate network infrastructure. A traditional CCDC regional and national competition is an intense in-person team experience. The team works hard on coordinating activities and communication in a fast-paced environment of relentless network-based attacks while responding to continual business tasks. TU’s team is led by faculty adviser Sal Aurigemma, Edward E. and Helen T. Bartlett Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems.

“Moving the competition completely online keeps the same demanding expectations while removing the ability to share vital non-verbal communication cues that all great teams build by working together over time,” Aurigemma explained. “Communicating will be more difficult, and more important than ever. Team captain Hannah Robbins has done a truly phenomenal job leading the team through all the required technical training throughout the year. The dedication, flexibility, and professionalism of TU’s CCDC team is something I am truly proud to be a part of.”

Robbins worked with the team to test multiple collaboration platforms, adjusting and fine-tuning the communication protocols that the team relies on to function.

“Not being face to face in the same room competing is a new experience for us this year, but the changes the competition has made to adapt to the circumstances have kept the difficulty consistent,” Robbins said.

The group reviewed its past performances at competitions and other virtual events to determine what worked and what didn’t. “The pandemic has given us a chance to step back and really examine our strategies, and we’ve made some changes that will give us a new perspective on our plan of attack from the start of the competition.”

Capture the Flag for TPS

In other cyber competitions, computer science student Tabor Kvasnicka is a perfect example of how innovative ideas can help move a plan forward. TU hosts an online Capture the Flag event every November and in the middle of COVID-19 social distancing measures, Kvasnicka decided to offer that same opportunity to students in the Tulsa Public School system.

Kvasnicka describes the event as a “Jeopardy!-style version of Capture the Flag, where teams solve cybersecurity challenges to reach a string of text called a ‘flag,’ which awards them points.”

But capturing these cyber flags is not easy, and the teams must be well-versed in a variety of topics such as PWN, reverse engineering, cryptography, web and other emerging areas of computer science. The event is tentatively scheduled to start on April 13, and the end date is yet to be determined.


Another great way the TU community is demonstrating its resilience to proceed with regularly scheduled events is the computer simulation and gaming program’s Computer Simulation and Gaming Conference (CSGC). Originally planned before the pandemic arrived for the weekend of April 17-18, CSGC was quickly transitioned to a virtual competition by Chapman Instructor in Computer Science Akram Taghavi-Burris and her students; all speakers presented online to a worldwide audience of all ages.


Shifting the delivery required a lot of flexibility, Taghavi-Burris said: “Our CSGC 2020 event volunteers, speakers, exhibitors and sponsors were quick to respond and encourage the move to a virtual event. While this is a new platform for CSGC, an online conference does have its advantages. We saw an increase of out-of-state attendees, and even those from other countries. Again, our student volunteers have been tremendous and even worked out what tools would be best to stream and keep in touch with our attendees. We’ve even set up a CSGC Discord server on their recommendation and it’s been a great way to communicate with everyone involved.”

While there’s no denying that the semester has been disrupted by COVID-19, the global health crisis has also illuminated the heart, drive, and passion of TU students and faculty. Their ability to revise plans and adapt to constant change ensures the show goes on.