Heroes waiting to be discovered

By Vipin P. Gupta and Kenneth R. Miller

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Finding a way out of a pandemic

Vipin Gupta
Vipin P. Gupta is part of two nascent anti-viral cells at Sandia. To his sheltered-in-place, 80-year-old tiger mother’s delight, he is finally putting his applied physics doctorate from Imperial College London to use on something that is almost akin to being a physician. (Photo courtesy of Vipin Gupta)

Since the beginnings of Sandia National Laboratories, Sandians have made the unthinkable not only thinkable, but also plannable and doable. Over time, we’ve tempered ourselves, studying and devising an assortment of ways to deter, defend against and blunt all manner of threats.

Now, we are living in a situation that some of our fellow Sandians have imagined, pondered, anticipated and tackled –– a pandemic.

In response to the spread of COVID-19, Sandians have dispersed and recongregated into three interconnected camps: those who are determined to carry on with the work they were tasked to do before the pandemic hit; those who are doggedly mustering and redirecting their skills, abilities and energies to bring this crisis to an end; and those who are in fight-or-flight mode because this virus is pushing them to their personal limits.

From these three camps (which some of us migrate in and out of on a daily, hourly or even minute-by-minute basis), we make our individual and collective attempts to hold it together and do our work.

While much about this situation is beyond our control, we are anything but helpless. Each of us has specialized powers and influence that can be brought to bear on the big and small parts of this gnarly problem.

Since before the beginnings of this outbreak, people worldwide have been purchasing a Sandia-developed decontaminant from several commercial suppliers, and using Sandia’s non-toxic, non-corrosive chemistry to kill and wipe away all trace of this new virus in hospital rooms, on ships, in subway cars, in offices and factories and emergency vehicles.

With the chance to make another significant contribution, we are starting to see the formation, multiplication and spread of anti-viral cells inside our labs and across Sandia’s national network of facilities. Some of these efforts include:

  • Posting activity on wiki sites where rookies, veterans and even non-technical Sandians are cross-fertilizing and actively exchanging good, bad and ugly ideas without fear of embarrassment or ostracism.
  • Responses to our leaders’ calls for research and development ideas and projects.
  • Special leadership assignments and rapid formation of response teams.
  • Identification and recruitment of active and retired Sandians with proven track records in invention and technology adoption outside Sandia.
  • Brainstorming on multiple concepts: how advanced manufacturing and rapid prototyping could be used to produce low-cost autonomous ventilators; how sunlight could be used to disinfect facemasks; how robots could be used to reduce loneliness as well as viral exposure; how materials could be made to put anti-viral protective coatings on door knobs, gloves and countertops and more.
  • Consideration of new ways to do, group, fund and track applied R&D.
  • Continuation of crucial Sandia national security work, protecting our R&D flanks as more are affected by and take on the pandemic.
  • Resurrection of ideas and timeless wisdom in lab and personal archives from Sandians who are no longer with us (like Ken R. Miller’s drawings that pertain to today’s pandemic).
Ken R. Miller
Kenneth R. Miller (1939-2019) was an artist in Sandia’s advanced concepts group. He was a quiet listener who expressed futuristic ideas in the form of drawings. His 82-year-old wife is sheltered in place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where her two daughters call her every day. (Photo courtesy of Vipin Gupta

From all of these Sandia groups and activities, there are heroes waiting to be discovered. These words were inspired by Jamshid Gharajedaghi’s book, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity. This brilliant Iranian American came to Sandia 20 years ago and taught us how to overcome crises like the one we’re in. He is now reportedly 80 years old and sheltering in place in Berkeley, California.

Let’s learn from this virus, find these would-be heroes wherever they are in our labs, communities, country or world, and help them make their silver bullet and duct tape solutions go anti-viral.

In the end, that may be the only way we’re going to dispel our mass fears, rebuild our upended lives and reflect on exactly what we were so worried about before this crisis began.