Sarah Hovsepian

NASA’s Sarah Hovsepian Brings Out-of-This-World Ideas to Help COVID-19 Patients


IRVINE, Calif. — Talking with Sarah Hovsepian can give one whiplash — in the best possible sense of the word. After all, here is a woman whose ideas and scientific learning weave together space design, origami, ants and ventilators.

Hovsepian is a project manager at the National Aerospace and Science Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

She recently made news because her division came up with blueprints for ventilators that could be built quickly and inexpensively for COVID-19 patients.


Titled Project Vital, Hovsepian and her team built the prototype in 37 days, all while working from home. According to the KRQE story, the prototype is made of about 80 parts and was designed to deliver more oxygen at higher pressure, something doctors say is needed for many COVID-19 patients. Testing at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York has so far proven the project a success.

Sarah Hovsepian

In the past month since the group made the news, Hovsepian said that her group’s two designs got the approval of the Food and Drug Administration, one at the end of April and another more recently.

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The next step, she said, is manufacturing them.

Hovsepian said that more than 330 companies had reached out, of which 24 were handpicked to receive licenses to produce and later sell them. One, Yea Engineering, happens to be based in Yerevan.

The California Institute of Technology, which is home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), will be the license holder for the ventilators. They are selling the license for free.

Asked just how she and her team came up with the design, she replied, “I really do love a challenge. I trained as an architect. I never trained in the field of apace, but my philosophy is always to ask questions. When you ask questions in different disciplines, you come up with more interesting solutions.”

Many different people and disciplines were involved in the creation of the design for the new ventilator.

Deflecting credit, Hovsepian praised that everyone working on the team had interesting backgrounds. She said, “The data analyst was from JPL who gathered and presented COVID-19 data/cases from all over the world, which helped us understand just how urgent the situation was. It was a perfect storm and all came together,” she said, adding, “It was a really fun project.”

”Hovsepian said while it has been very hard not to see her colleagues and friends, she has been fascinated by “how much as humans we are able to adapt.”

She said she was grateful that she was in a situation that could help those sick with COVID-19 with ventilators and expressed her hope that a vaccine could be developed.

“Everyone deserves to be living in a dignified space. I am just thankful to support in my little way this vital project. It makes any of the difficulties of challenges feel like nothing,” she added.

The timetable for production is specific to each company based on their supply chain, Hovsepian said. “It should not take more than a couple of months. We purposely picked components that are not” hard to reproduce or find.

The Shape of Things

A great adjective to describe Hovsepian is “interesting.” After all, her NASA design aesthetic has been influenced by fashion, high-heeled shoes, ants and origami.

And the two-pronged principles guiding her are “helping the community” and “looking at things from a different perspective.”

For Hovsepian, nature serves as a great teacher for structures and patterns.

She recalled that as a child, she had been sitting out and looking at “a whole trail of ants” walking to and from their colony, “like a dual-carriage highway. Some were going into the ground and the others were coming out. I was fascinated by that.”

In 2009, she worked at the Ant Lab in the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, studying self-organization and self-replication in ant colonies as well as ant tunnel structures underground.

“I though it was interesting to study at the University of Bristol to see how they create structures below and above ground,” she said. She found that much like environmentally sophisticated architecture, many ant colonies feature a design which keeps them cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter.

Another art form, which one may not connect with NASA, is origami, one she hopes to help with the deployment of a robot for exploring the moon and Mars.

At NASA, Hovsepian is tasked with running technology demos in the robotics field. As she explained, someone comes up with an idea and they want to pitch it to NASA.

“I lead a lot of tech demos, mentor students and interns,” she added.

One of the projects she has worked on is designing a swarm of small robots, the size of a typical shoe box. “We work together in a group and help each other and lean on each other.”

She is also involved with NASA’s Artemis program, initiated in 2017, which seeks to land “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon, specifically at the lunar south pole region, by 2024.

The goal is to deploy a robot or robots from the lander, which will explore and photograph the moon and help draw up a map of the moon. Then, the robot will share that information with other reports so they can create a map of the surface they explored.

She noted, “It’s a lot faster than 1 robot trying to map the same area.”

The origami inspiration will be used for designing the robot so that it will hold folding solar panels that can pop up.

“It is an interesting field. I have always been very, very interested in pop-up structures,” she said. Among the potential benefits of using the structures is to create domiciles that “mitigate homelessness or if there is a natural disaster.”

In her professional field, she is going to try to apply it to a small robot that will “eventually go to the moon.”

Hovsepian takes delight in her job. “I always feel about whatever job I have that as long as I am contributing and am helping, that is where I thrive. I like posing hard questions and finding solutions to those questions,” she added.

“I am interested in the future of space architecture. We are looking at habitats for human survival on the moon or Mars,” she said.

Another field fascinating her is our disposable culture. “Everything we create, we throw away,” after it’s use is done. “There is so much that you can’t recycle. We are looking at the future of the lifecycle of product recycling so that we don’t produce so much waste,” she said.

Footwear designed by Hovsepian at MIT, with a 3-D printed heel …

MIT Shoes

Hovsepian has both a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s in architecture and is currently working on getting her architecture license.

In 2010, Hovsepian received her bachelor’s degree in architecture in a five-year program at California Polytechnic University of Pomona. During those years, she studied at the University of Applied Sciences, in Biberach, Germany and worked at several architecture firms, including Frank Gehry’s office as project consultant at Gehry Technologies, and KTGY Inc.

Next, Hovsepian obtained her master’s degree in 2012, in the Design and Computation Group, Department of Architecture, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, she worked on projects at the university’s fabled Media Lab, and also at the Center for Bits & Atoms (CBA) under Neil Gershenfeld. At CBA, she worked on a lightweight, high strength composite aircraft wing structure, using advanced manufacturing technologies for reconfigurable, repairable composite assemblies derived from lattice foam structures found in nature.

and the electronics and pressure sensors designed to be worn inside the shoe

By her admission, she has always been fascinated by footwear.

One of the courses she was taking at MIT was called “How to Make (Almost) Anything,” and being a fan of footwear, she decided to focus on making a pair of 14-inch-high shoes that light up and take pictures and give the user feed back on the environment.

“At MIT, everyday after school, to blow off steam, I would walk over to a street near Harvard Square,” she recalled. By a happy coincidence she saw a shoe repair place, which by another coincidence, turned out to be owned by an Armenian man. “I told him what I was doing and asked him if I could come to his shop twice a week and help” in return for pointers.

He agreed and that is just what they did for a few months. “He would help me and I would help him,” she recalled.

While she learned the basics of footwear construction, she taught him to use a three-dimensional printer to produce parts for his clients’ shoes, such as custom heels. “He had never used any of them and so we were feeding off each other,” she said.

As for the Media Lab, she said, “It was so exciting. I compared it to going to Disney Land when I was a kid. It was an incredibly creative involvement with ultra creative people coming together to solve problems. It is really an incredible place to be. A lot of people are trying to come up with helpful solutions and innovations for the sake of itself,” Hovsepian said. Those solutions, however, “must have a significant impact to better people’s lives. I was humbled by the opportunity to be there.”

California Girl

Hovsepian was born and raised in California to Armenian parents. She attended the St. Gregory Alfred & Marguerite Hovsepian School in Pasadena in grades K-4 and the Armenian Mesrobian School in Pico Rivera grades 4-8.

“I was very, very involved in the Armenian community and still have a lot of friends in the community. We keep in touch,” she said.

“Without the education and opportunities and the values, I don’t think I would be the same person,” Hovsepian said of her Armenian education. “It was a very important part.”

She has two young half sisters (10 and 15), with whom she is very close.

Her Armenia-born mother, Soseek Der Tavityan, she noted, is her greatest inspiration. “She is responsible for why I went to Armenian school. And she said the sky is the limit. I attribute all this [creativity and courage] to her,” she said.

Hovsepian said she wants to inspire people to help others, to ask questions, to always look at problems from various perspectives and empathize. “There can be no greater joy than to help your fellow humans,” she added.

Asked what message she has for readers, after a second’s thought, she said, “Truly nothing is impossible. Really dream big.”

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