Making Masks from Candy Machines: How a 200-Student University Captured the World's Attention

When COVID-19 hit, the university found itself acting as translator and "adopted family" for its largely international community, and battling to recruit students from around the globe without the use of travel or events. 

Situated in the Ryukyu Islands to the east of Japan, a 2.5 hour flight from Tokyo, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology has only 219 students and a world-class reputation for cross-disciplinary research spanning physics, neuroscience, computational science, chemistry, and biology. When the coronavirus hit in January 2020, the university found itself acting as translator and "adopted family" for its largely international student and staff bodies, and battling to attract and recruit students from around the globe without the use of travel or events. 

"We're the only institution in Japan that conducts research and education only in English," Chris Wu, a web developer at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) told Pantheon's recent WebOps Summit. "We didn't close down the school; the biggest change due to COVID-19 is that our members can't fly internationally to leave the island or leave Japan, and new members can't come into the university, either. It's completely interrupted recruiting our students and employees."

What did they do? The web team at OIST (with fewer than 10 people) created an internal communications network to provide staff and students real time updates on COVID-19. And the university escalated its research efforts, publishing a paper on making N95 masks from cotton- candy machines that generated a 650x spike in website traffic and captured the world's attention.  

“Our members could not fly to leave the island or leave Japan" 

  • Chris Wu, on the impact of COVID-19 at OIST

With 82% of students and 40% of a 989-person staff hailing from overseas, much of the university's population was uncertain of when and how they might travel home when the Coronavirus first swept Japan. To aid their students and staff, OIST, which is funded by the Japanese government, quickly implemented an internal communication network, digitally providing staff and students breaking news about the virus and updates on travel restrictions. 

"Our students and employees don't speak Japanese, they can't listen to or read the  Okinawa news," Chris said. "We had to give them news about COVID-19, updates on travel and immigration, and information for staying safe through the changing situation. Because they live in Japan, we had to be their family."

The university also turned its attention outward — how could it contribute to the world's fight against coronavirus with a novel solution it was uniquely positioned to create? These efforts would help bolster recruitment and help maintain OIST's position as a leader in cross-disciplinary research, even through such uncertainty.  

“One of our goals is to contribute to the Japanese and Okinawa societies," Chris said. "During this time, we are not able to organize any events as usual, so our researchers and community started to do many, many projects regarding COVID-19."

Going Viral with Essential Research 

“When we were busy taking care of our people, Pantheon was already taking care of us.”

  • Chris, referring to Pantheon’s ability to scale up — to meet unexpected surges in web traffic

One project in particular caught the world's attention: Professor Mahesh Bandi, who runs the Nonlinear and Non-equilibrium Physics Unit at OIST, discovered how to use a cotton candy machine and a regular car battery to create the material needed to replicate N95 masks. 

How? Typically, caramelized sugar flows through a spinning drum in a cotton candy machine to make the revered sweet. In this case, Professor Bandi modified the machine with a car battery and ran powdered polypropylene polymer through it, instead of sugar. When the machine started to spin, it produced electrocharged fabrics. And from there, the masks were created. 

The paper went viral: “There was one very interesting study, a professor who wrote an article about using candy machines to create N95-equivalent masks. That one had a large spike in our traffic, but we didn't know it at first. And the site did not crash at all," Chris said. “Only when Pantheon told us there was a huge spike — more than 20x traffic on a single website — did we realize."

"So, when we were busy taking care of our people, Pantheon was already taking care of us,” Chris stated, referring to Pantheon’s ability to meet surges in web traffic without crashing the site in the process. 

Moving Fast, Creating Impact, Staying Secure

This balance of site-sustaining credibility and productivity (i.e. the ability to quickly spin-up features and functionalities) is WebOps at work. The team at OIST uses a continuous integration style of development, which is very different to the traditional waterfall approach of website management. 

The team at OIST relies on Pantheon's WebOps platform, using tools like MultiDev and Managed Updates, to update the university's websites according to the needs of students and staff at any given moment. And, when the virus first hit in January, this allowed them to keep the community at OIST safe and informed. 

'We have to quickly respond to users’ requests for features, and it's important to make sure our deployment is stable," Chris said. "With Pantheon, we can focus on users' needs and developing features, which was the main pain point we had prior. Implementing a continuous integration style of development on Pantheon means every deployment is stable and risk free."

To hear more from Chris and the team at OIST, watch the higher education panel at Pantheon's WebOps Summit, or download the case study directly. 

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