A Stowe High graduate has helped produce millions of swabs used to test for COVID-19, and it all started with a 3D printer in the high school.
Annika Norden graduated from Stowe High in 2015 and earned an engineering degree last year from the University of Michigan.
Now, amid this pandemic, she played an instrumental role in designing a 3D-printed swab used for COVID-19 testing, and one million of those swabs can be printed every week.
While the company she works for, nTopology, is based in Brooklyn, her roots are in Stowe, and that’s where she first worked with 3D printing.
“To see it go through that test and having those successes, it’s really incredible,” Norden said. “I never imagined having an impact like this.”
Learning to build
“A cool story behind this is how I got involved in engineering,” Norden said. As a senior at Stowe High, she took an independent-study class with science teacher Tim Ziegler.
“Now that I’m able to have an impact in a crazy time of need,” Norden said, “I think it really shows how powerful that was.”
Together, she and Ziegler came up with a project, building a model car that ran on a renewable-energy source.
Norden decided to build one that ran on compressed air, inspired by a vehicle Peugeot was working on back then.
“She was a natural engineer. She took the lead. I hardly had to do anything at all,” Ziegler said.
And that’s where the 3D printer came in. Norden started using the machine to create parts for the prototype, seeing what worked and what didn’t.
“It was kind of funny,” Norden recalled. “He’d be holding a chemistry class with freshmen or sophomores, and I’d be in the back playing with a loud air compressor.”
She built an engine connected to a turbine and the whole thing was connected to a 1-liter bottle full of pressurized air. And it worked, eventually making it across the classroom on one charge.
Norden says that, while what she built was far from a practical prototype, the project opened her mind to what a 3D printer could do.
“I would printing off silly things my friends would find online. But even then, you’re learning,” she said.
“I basically had a personal 3D printer. Because of that, I was able to learn about 3D printing and rapid prototyping,” Norden said. “It’s this fun full-circle thing.”
“Annika was incredibly precise and also creative. Those two things work well together,” Ziegler said. “It doesn’t surprise me that Annika would be doing something like that, and was able to pull it off.”
When Norden graduated from Stowe High, she went to the University of Michigan, inspired to become an engineer.
“It ended up being really hard and not fun at times,” she said. “The times where it’s very hands-on, that’s where I am happiest and learning the most and producing the most. Having that independent study (with Ziegler), it really enabled that kind of passion.”
She graduated in 2019 and started working for nTopology that December.
Printing for good
When the pandemic hit, Norden wanted to use her skills to help, but didn’t know how at first. Then the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School called for a 3D-printed design for nasal swabs used for COVID-19 testing.
Norden and her department head got to work.
The project was a massive collaboration of companies across the world. They had to design a mesh — a blueprint for 3D printing — that would pass FDA testing.
“All these companies that were usually competitors were coming together,” Norden said. “By working off of the findings from others, we were able to build our model off of that.”
Norden started with open-source meshes, and with her boss refined the design and handed it over to Origin, an nTopology client that now produces the swabs. Origin produces 3D-printed goods at a massive scale. A single printer can make 1,500 swabs every eight hours, and the company is working to produce more than one million swabs a week.
“There were probably eight or ten meshes submitted and only three of them, ours being one, passed testing,” Norden said. “It feels really incredible. It’s almost unfathomable that there will be millions of these being printed.”
She said she chose to be an engineer to have a positive impact on the world, and she’s inspired by the young people who are coming up now.
“That year the school got a 3D printer, they were pretty much brand-new,” she said, but now they’re more accessible. “When I found out all these kids are getting 3D printers for Christmas, that makes me so excited.”
Norden is living in Taos, N.M., with her parents right now, working remotely and waiting for the epidemic to blow over, she said. She’s still keeping an eye on Stowe, where her passion for engineering began. She mentioned the people coming together, painting inspirational signs and placing them around town, helping people stay fed and sewing masks.
“I’m really grateful I was able to have this impact, but I’m equally as inspired by all the other people helping and coming together as a community,” she said.