Wind 'Em Up

A chance meeting on campus led Emma McAllister ’20 to a job outfitting ventilators in the midst of COVID-19

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began its domination of the global news cycle in February, the virus has served as a framework around which to discuss a host of other topics. One of the most notable: the shortcomings of the American health care system, specifically the limited number of ventilators. In March, the American Hospital Association estimated that up to 960,000 Americans could become sick enough to require ventilation—but the United States only had about 200,000 machines.

Ventilators have become the last-resort treatment for the most critically ill COVID-19 patients. Also known as breathing machines, ventilators consist of a series of valves and pumps which create circuits that blow air into and pull air out of the lungs. Those valves are controlled by a device called a voice coil actuator—a copper coil with magnets contained inside a metal housing—that opens and closes the valves. And some of those actuators are made in a small, unassuming home business half a mile from the Puget Sound campus with help from international political economy student Emma McAllister ’20. 

Emma McAllister ’20
Emma McAllister ’20 stands in front of spools of copper wire waiting to be coiled at Polytech Coil Winding in Tacoma, Wash.

For the past four years, McAllister has been working at Polytech Coil Winding, a 35-year-old family business that designs and builds copper coils for use in a wide variety of products from robotics and defense industry technology to medical ventilators. So, when businesses began shutting down in early spring on the heels of the pandemic, Polytech became an essential business and McAllister became an essential worker. With new social distancing and safety rules in place, she continued the work she was doing with research scientists creating coils for the elbow joints of a robotic arm, and began assisting Polytech’s owners—Des and Jennifer Policani—with ventilator coils.

“The winding process is really complicated,” McAllister says of creating ventilator coils. The coils consist of multiple layers, all of which have to be lined up just right, and while a computer handles the actual winding, the copper wire needs to be guided into place by hand with just the right amount of force. “It’s a finicky process that I’ve pretty much gotten the hang of,” she says.

In fact, nearly all of her time at Polytech has seen her learning new things on-the-fly. McAllister came into the job by chance after meeting Des on campus while he was walking his dog. “I was in Orientation freshman year and was coming out of Schneebeck. I see this professor-like man walking across campus, and he had a Schnauzer,” she recalls. “I introduced myself and said ‘If you ever need help with anything, dog walking or dog sitting, I’m happy to do it.’” She became the Policani’s dog walker and then was invited to become an intern at Polytech.

“I had a little experience with robotics, but pretty much knew nothing,” McAllister says, explaining that she was initially a STEM major at Puget Sound but shifted to international political economy during her sophomore year. “I started cutting wires, stripping wires, soldering, and built up knowledge and skills from there.”

Emma McAllister ’20 at Polytech
Since graduating in May, Emma McAllister ’20 has been working full time at Polytech, winding and soldering wire coils for use in a variety of products, including ventilators.

Throughout her time at Polytech, she averaged 15–20 hours per week. However, since completing her senior thesis in May—which focused on the role of non-governmental interventions in combatting human trafficking in Nepal—and graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she has been working full time at Polytech winding and soldering coils.

“She’s just a classic, ideal liberal arts student,” international political economy (IPE) professor Brad Dillman says of McAllister. “I’ve been struck by how much she takes advantage of different things around her. She’s very interested in IPE and environmental justice issues. Beyond that, she’s a really good artist and does a lot of drawing and watercolors, and I can see that showing up in her work with Polytech. Having a skill like that is a great complement to the more abstract international social science.”

Before the pandemic, McAllister planned to apply to jobs in the nonprofit or education sector, but now she is planning to stay at Polytech. The company has been more than a job, she says, it’s given her a family.

“They [Jennifer and Des] took me out for my birthday freshman year when I didn’t know anyone else,” she says. “They’ve invited me to family gatherings and have been so kind to me. They and their work are incredible.”


By Anneli Haralson
Photos by Jasmine Keele, courtesy of Emma McAllister ’20
Published July 12, 2020