Last year, as word of the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread across the United States, Dr. Karim Budhwani realized that the country was not prepared to face this crisis. He joined forces with others to put out briefs identifying critical areas of shortages, especially in the supply chain of personal protective equipment. Realizing that respirator masks that protect healthcare workers from aerosolized viruses were in short supply, Karim helped design, produce, and test the inexpensive PABR (Pierce-Arora-Budhwani Respirator). He used 3-D printed adapters to equip readily available respirators with in-line filters, allowing respirator cartridges to be reused. The design for these adapters was uploaded to the National Institutes of Health 3D Print Exchange website so that users across the globe could access the design free of charge and print the adapters on 3-D printers.
As the summer approached, and school districts debated the possibility of safely re-opening schools in the fall, Karim was driven to find solutions to allow for in-person instruction while reducing the chances of viral transmission. This was important to Karim as he realized the need for access to the classrooms, especially for students from the lower socio-economic strata, who might not have access to computers and bandwidth to attend school virtually. Karim says, “We know that socio-economic disparity widens with lack of access to education, and in-person education is important, especially at the K-5 level.”
Teaming up with a friend and infectious disease expert, Dr. Craig Wilson, they used PVC pipes and shower curtains to design inexpensive desk partitions. These desk partitions are currently being used in several schools in Alabama. The desk partitions encourage collaborative learning amongst students while creating physical barriers to prevent the spread of the virus-containing droplets. The barriers are designed to be used in addition to other forms of protection, such as masks and social distancing, but they help in cases when masks cannot be worn, such as while eating or drinking. Karim says that these partitions are simple to create out of components that are readily available at general merchandise and hardware stores.
Karim is also working with Birmingham City Schools and other charter and private schools to develop best practices to maximize safety in the classroom. His guidance includes increased ventilation, reconfiguration of classroom spaces, wearing face masks, frequent hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, and maximizing the use of outdoor spaces.
Karim garnered the support of his senators, representatives, and even the Alabama Governor, to create a stimulus plan strategy, which he felt would appeal to both political parties. This plan was sent to Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell in Congress, but sadly it has not gained any momentum in Washington D.C.
With a history of creative problem solving as a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur, Karim has had a long history of professional successes. His first start-up was in the information technology industry. Inspired by Mawlana Hazar Imam’s guidance to use his intellect and resources in helping improve the quality of life of individuals around the world, Karim channeled his efforts towards nanotechnology and cancer diagnostics. He is currently a visiting scientist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and his company, CerFlux, has recently been awarded a grant from the National Cancer Institute for its low-cost pancreatic cancer diagnostic technology, through which patients can be matched with optimal therapy.
Karim has served in numerous capacities, including with the Birmingham Jamat and with the Economic Planning Board. He was an integral member of the Ismaili Professional Network (IPN), and during his tenure as IPN Chair, he helped take the organization to 22 different countries.
Reflecting on the current COVID-19 pandemic, Karim says that history has shown us that humans have solved the worst of problems by combining our intellect and our pioneering spirit. His advice: “Calm down and come up with solutions.”