Foundational Research: Our (Ig) Nobel Prize

In all the hubbub over the Nobel Prizes this week, we don’t want to overlook the prestigious scientific prize that University of Chicago researchers recently received. To celebrate this momentous occasion, here’s a guest post from John Easton, Medical Center director of communications.Every year around this time a memo goes out defining the precise role for each member of the communications team if a University researcher should win a Nobel Prize. But this year, some unanticipated laureates caught the team with their pants down.

Well, not actually pants, and not quite Nobel. The University boasts ties to more than 80 winners of the big one. But on Oct. 1, 2009, three employees won an Ig Nobel Prize for multifunctional underwear.

Back in 2005, a few incidents, plus many rumors, triggered widespread fear in the United States that terrorists could set off a radioactive material-dispersal device–AKA a “dirty bomb.” Elena Bodnar and Raphael Lee from the university’s electrical trauma program were already working on a World Health Organization (WHO) project to study the Soviets’ public health response to similar challenges after the Chernobyl disaster. The 600,000 workers who cleaned up after that event had no more radiation-linked disease, according to WHO data, than unexposed controls.

Why? Because they limited their exposures and wore masks to prevent inhaling radioactive particulates — standard practice. A well-designed mask that filters out aerosol particulates, in the right place at the right time, could save many lives.

Such a mask could have many applications. Nuclear accidents and dirty bombs are, fortunately, uncommon; lung damage from smoke inhalation in building or house fires is a major public health problem. But who plans for a house fire, much less a dirty bomb, or carries a mask at all times?


Enter a “garment device convertible to one or more facemasks wherein the garment device has a plurality of detachable cup sections,” patented by Bodnar, Lee, and Lee’s project assistant, Sandra Marijan. Patents have their own patois, but we’ll call number 7,255,627 the BraMask. “In one embodiment,” notes the patent, “the garment device is a bra or a brassiere garment… When both of the fasteners are released, the garment device converts into two facemasks, each facemask including a cup and the straps.”

The team partnered with Avocet Polymer Technologies, Inc., to prosecute the patent, refine the filtration material and design, and develop BraMask samples. The filters add only 25 cents to the cost. The device could potentially protect two people against smoke inhalation, a dirty bomb, and some forms of aerosolized biological or chemical warfare. Lee took patent, plan and prototype to an underwear maker.

As bras go, it was a tough sell. Maybe fire safety is hard to reconcile with lace. Maybe women would rather not cradle their glands in “a plurality of detachable cup sections” associated, however loosely, with bioterror. A mask that served as a shoulder insert for men’s suits and sport coats was similarly neglected. But the Ig Nobel committee immediately fastened on the BraMask’s brilliance, awarding it their top 2009 prize for public health.

In an acceptance speech, Bodnar proclaimed that “It only takes 25 seconds for any woman to use.” “Five seconds to convert and wear her own mask, and 20 seconds to wonder who the lucky man is to wear the second mask.”

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