Guest Blog: Quick, We Need a Writer

semi truck and trailer
semi truck and trailer
The National Guard is ready to deploy the Mobile Thermal Utility Sanitizer (MTU Sanitizer) that Sidona DeBrule and Lindsey Wells worked on alongside other University engineers, Credit: Andrew Barnard

In her guest blog, Maria Bergstrom, academic advisor and lecturer in Humanities, shares how the call for a writer is a reflection of the times — and you just never know where your education will take you.

Ready to quickly assemble and test a portable sanitizer for personal protective equipment (PPE) in response to the COVID-19 epidemic? Make sure you have the necessary personnel:

Biomedical engineer? Check.

Mechanical engineer? Check.

Heating experts? Check.

Writers? Quick, we need a writer!

When an engineering team at Michigan Technological University began developing and testing their Mobile Thermal Utility (MTU) Sanitizer for heat-treating PPE, they knew that a good design and effective prototype were only part of the story. Without clear instructions for proper use, their innovative unit would be ineffective or even potentially dangerous. Users must be able to operate the unit correctly to completely eliminate the virus.

“We realized early on that we would need clear instructions on operations and procedures,” said Andrew Barnard, director of the Great Lakes Research Center and coordinator of the MTU Sanitizer project at Michigan Tech. “Having professional technical writers helped us to focus on design and manufacturing while knowing the job was going to get done properly.”

The team went in search of technical writers who could craft well-defined and effective instructions to be shipped with the unit for further testing. They found what they needed right on Michigan Tech’s campus. Lindsey Wells and Sidona DeBrule, both graduates of Michigan Tech’s scientific and technical communication program in the Department of Humanities, answered the call and stepped in within a few hours' notice to help.

Wells and DeBrule started with a tour of the prototype unit and then began working on the operation manual. It was important that the instructions could be followed by hospital staff without a technical background, so they took pictures and kept the instructions in plain language, with a focus on step-by-step illustrations. Barnard’s instructions to them were, “users need to be able to follow this manual and operate the unit without me being there.”

Technical writing often happens in the background of a project and isn’t particularly flashy. The two writers were happy to be able to add their expertise to the team.

“It’s cool to see how we [as technical writers] fit into the big picture of this project and the efforts to respond to the pandemic,” said DeBrule. And Wells added, “I’ve been wanting to do something to contribute to the COVID-19 efforts and it was exciting to be asked to be involved in a way that allows me to use my degree to create change in the world.”

Wells and DeBrule are both employed by the Center for Technology & Training (CTT), a research center housed in Michigan Tech’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. To speed along the effort, Tim Colling, director of the CTT, authorized Wells and DeBrule to work on the project as part of their duties.

The MTU Sanitizer was recently transported to downstate Michigan with the help of the Michigan Army National Guard. The team is in the process of securing FDA emergency use authorization and hope to begin testing with a hospital partner soon.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.