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Alumni Spotlight: Petra Urbanová

Photo credit: Masaryk University

This week we share the achievements of one of our alumni, Petra Urbanová whose long-term research in the field of anthropology has become applicable to save one of the most vulnerable populations at-risk of COVID-19, immunocompromised children. Read on to learn more about how Petra expanded on her experience as a Fulbright Scholar at North Carolina State University in 2013/2014 to contribute her skills in craniofacial morphology to a database that now is used to accurately fit children’s protective facial masks.

Some fields of science are directly connected to our current, pressing global challenge of stopping the spread of COVID-19, such as virology, epidemiology, and most fields of medicine. In other fields, we have heard about the successes of some who have creatively stepped in and started developing aids and tools to help those fighting the coronavirus on the front lines. The technical universities in the Czech Republic and many companies that use 3D printers have helped from the very beginning of the pandemic. With almost no reserves, first, home-made masks and shields, and later, semi-facial masks with professional filters have been printed and printer programs have been distributed for free throughout the country.

In other fields, you have to use a lot of creativity to find ways in which your expertise can be of use during the current pandemic. What help can anthropologists offer? Petra Urbanová, the head of the Institute of Anthropology at Masaryk University has been able to offer her areas of interest: shape analysis, geometric morphometrics, photographic image analysis, biostatistics, 3D technology and non-invasive imaging techniques.

As a Fulbright Scholar at North Carolina State University in 2013/2014, Petra analyzed craniofacial morphology in forensic anthropology. Upon returning home, at the Institute of Anthropology, she worked on forensic 3D facial identification software, cooperated with colleagues from forensic pathology, became a Forensic Expert and Coordinator with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and contributed to a large collection of 3D images of human faces, with children's faces forming about one third of the database. The collection of children's face models has already been used for years by medical doctors for planning surgeries related to the growth and development of children.

Now, the database has found a new use. The Czech Technical University, whose efforts since the start of the pandemic were aimed at protecting front-line workers, was asked to design protective masks for children who have multiple diseases and are at the highest risk of catching the virus, if not properly protected. The original, adult masks did not work as the face dimensions did not fit. Petra Urbanová led a team of experts to use the database for the calculation of virtual models of children's faces at different ages for the Czech Technical University to then develop special masks for child patients.

Photo credit : Czech Technical University

Based on the 3D virtual models, new face masks for various age groups are gradually developed, printed on 3D printers, and immediately tested by children. The newly designed children’s masks fit well, as their shapes are calibrated using the virtual models for each age category. Thanks to Petra Urbanová and her long standing work on the database, the most vulnerable children in the Czech Republic and countries around the world are able to stay safe and healthy from COVID-19.