Helping hands and 3D printers address PPE shortage

When Sarah Imam, M.D., discovered that the Medical University of South Carolina was within days of running out of personal protective equipment, she made a decision to become part of the solution.  Teaming up with James Bezjian, Ph.D., and Daniel Hawkins, Imam began to manufacture N95 medical masks using 3D printers in The Citadel Makerspace, an innovative lab in the Daniel Library.

Together, the three colleagues have expertise in 3D scanning, 3D printing and medicine. Bezjian is a professor of entrepreneurship and the director of the Innovation Lab in the Baker School of Business. Hawkins is an academic technology librarian who also serves as the faculty advisor for the student Makerspace Club, and Imam is a professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance.  Imam is also responsible for the establishment of The Citadel’s globally recognized healthcare study abroad program that takes place in Lithuania.

“At a time when there were so many people on the front line risking their lives and there was panic about the unknown, it was gratifying to be able to do something to help,” said Imam.

The Citadel team began printing the MUSC-designed masks, which are made out of a firm plastic material, at the end of March and continued through the first week of August.  In the four-month period, and with the help of a couple of cadets and some volunteers, the trio produced 1,000 masks.  The parts for each mask took nine hours to print, but what was really labor intensive, according to Imam, was the assembly, which included putting together a filtration cartridge and attaching a rubber tubing seal and a piece of elastic. And that’s where a team of volunteers from the Rotary Club of Charleston and the Corps of Cadets were able to help out.

“There was a lot of momentum, and it spread like wildfire,” said Imam.  “We had people volunteering to help us from all over.  Even kids were mailing in parts that they manufactured from home on their own 3D printers.”

In addition to the masks made for the Medical University, other communities in Charlotte, Chicago and New York followed The Citadel’s lead and began producing masks for local use. 

Funds raised by The Citadel Foundation in a COVID-19 Relief Fund ( were used to help pay for the materials used in the manufacture of the masks as well as a grant from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.