Alexandrian works behind the scenes in the fight against Ebola

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Alexandrian works behind the scenes in the fight against Ebola
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By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

As a child, Alexandrian Wendy Taylor spent her summers counting bees in the Kansas heat and cross-pollinating flowers in the mountains of Colorado. Now she is searching the globe for solutions to better fight Ebola.

“My parents were both in the sciences, so I grew up in a household where science was all around us and we were constantly learning,” Taylor said. Her father was the world’s leading expert on killer bees.

In school, Taylor also had a strong desire to make a positive contribution to society and focused on domestic poverty issues.

“My father always infused in us to make the world a better place,” she reminisced.

Taylor is now director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact at USAID, where she spearheads Grand Challenge for Development, a program seeking innovations to solve global development issues. The current Ebola outbreak, unprecedented in scope, is the program’s latest challenge.

To date, more than 16,000 cases of Ebola have been reported and nearly 7,000 people have succumbed to the disease, according to the World Health Organization. In September, President Obama announced the Grand Challenge to the United Nations.

“If ever there were a public health emergency deserving an urgent, strong and coordinated international response, this is it,” he said.

Taylor’s task with Grand Challenge is to find that better way forward. To do that, the challenge sought ideas through IDEO, an open innovation platform, and a grant competition. Taylor says the global response “blew the roof off.” Some 1,250 ideas were submitted.

“A range of people who regularly follow contributors — NASA engineers and CDC, people from all over the world — were commenting on each other’s ideas,” Taylor said.

Teams of experts are now sifting through those ideas to find the best proposals. Improving personal protective equipment — PPE — is a priority.

“The current situation is not optimal,” she added. “PPEs are the most effective medical response to Ebola.”

The suits currently used are mostly hazmat suits, typically used for chemical spills, which are extremely uncomfortable in tropical environments like West Africa.

PPE fabric is impermeable, preventing harmful agents from coming in, but also preventing air from escaping, meaning workers are drenched in sweat after just a few minutes. Health care workers are limited to a maximum of 45 minutes wearing the suits due to the risk of heat stress.

The goal is to redesign the suits, enabling health care workers work more safely and effectively while spending more time with patients. But there are times when Taylor says she feels like she can’t possibly move fast enough.

“There’s a timeline and I’ve got to compress it,” she said. “That’s too long. We need it sooner.”

There are moments when images of individuals or articles she’s read flood in. She keeps the very real human side of her work close to her heart.

Like Taylor’s parents, she has instilled a deep curiosity for the world in her son, Jackson, through example and opportunity. In October, Taylor brought Jackson along for a two-day workshop in Crystal City.

The workshop was hosted by Grand Challenge and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The idea was to bring a diversity of experience and technical skills to the room, and challenge them to come up with solutions. Experts from PPE manufacturers, the sportswear community, engineers, makers (a new technology-based community of do-it-yourselfers) spent the weekend brainstorming and pitching ideas to each other.

On the second day of the conference, the attendees went to TechShop, a do-it-yourself design and fabrication facility in Crystal City. Jackson was on a team tasked with redesigning the hood of a hazmat suit and was surprised that the adults listened to his ideas with equal interest to others at the table.

“They were all adults and they were listening to me,” he said.

“He’s a smart kid and brought different perspective to his team,” his mother said.

Asked what his favorite part of the workshop, Jackson responded, “Knowing that I am helping with Ebola.”

When Taylor founded a nonprofit early in her career, she began engaging in global biotech health. That experience in an entrepreneurial environment left Taylor in love with innovation.

“You have to understand business and marketplace thinking to do that well,” she says. “For me, I look back and there are all these threads in my life.”

Global health is where Taylor learned to weave all of those together. For the PPEs, Taylor will look for most viable option that can be implemented in a matter of months, not years.

What would Taylor like to see after the redesign of PPEs? A way to quickly and safely diagnose Ebola.

“Right now, we have the ability to diagnose Ebola, but it requires specimens that need to get to a lab sometimes far distances and difficult to travel roads which takes time. A quick 15 minute test could be a game changer, both in an intake and triage setting, as well as for contact tracing in communities.”

She also wants to improve education so people know when to seek care and take proper precautions.

When asked what she’s most proud of, Taylor is quick to reply.

“What I’ve seen inside the government, in terms of the massive response that we’ve had to mount — this outbreak is the biggest the world has ever seen — and what we’re having to do on a global level is really unprecedented,” she said. “What we’re seeing inside the government in terms of having to pull together and working with the whole of government approach, I think has been incredibly inspiring.

“Any barrier that gets in the way, we’re moving it out of the way immediately at a speed that is unprecedented … What I’m seeing is government at its best. What we’re doing is bringing new solutions that can have a big impact on this crisis. We have no other option but to completely stop this disease from spreading and to eliminate it.”

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