Alumnus Earns 'Mask Nerd' Fame
Aaron Collins has spent countless hours of his own time testing mask efficacy during the pandemic.
Early in the pandemic, Aaron
Collins stared in frustration at a
pile of face masks on his counter.
N95 masks, the gold standard
of personal protection, were nearly
impossible to buy. The rest—cloth masks,
surgical masks, Korean KF94 masks—were a big unknown. The government
also offered no guidance early on to help
users select the right one.
His wife suggested, “Why don’t you
Why not? Collins (B.M.E. ’07, M.S.M.E.
’10) has degrees in mechanical engineering from the U of M, with a background
in aerosol science. He pulled out testing
equipment from his basement, set up a
lab in his bathroom, and began testing
masks. He recorded the procedures
and posted videos to YouTube for his
friends and other engineering nerds. If a
thousand people watched, he thought,
“I’d be floored.” Soon thousands, and
then hundreds of thousands of other
confused people tuned in and began to
clamor for more information.
Thus began the unlikely odyssey of
the Mask Nerd (on Twitter: @masknerd).
Collins became a national authority on the
efficacy of masks. He popped up in stories
for The New York Times, Washington Post,
and Scientific American. He appeared on
CBS News and CNN with Sanjay Gupta.
His testing has been noted by nationally
known experts in aerosol science.
“I didn’t see anyone else doing it, so I was going to be stupid and do it
myself,” says Collins. “Almost everyone
goes into engineering to solve
problems and help people. This really
embodied everything I loved about
Doing this voluntarily with no pay,
Collins also has a day job at Seagate, a
digital storage manufacturer.
Collins learned the cloth and surgical
masks people use are leaky and only
modestly effective. High-filtration
masks now available filter out well over
95 percent of aerosols (such as viruses)
in the air. Masks also help protect others
Collins also found that good masks
withstand considerable abuse. One line
in his mask-test spreadsheet summarizes the test of a mask with “4 months
in car + Random Use.” Despite the wear,
the mask blocked nearly 95 percent of aerosols. Says Collins, “Those kinds of
questions are the things that people
are really interested in.”
At this stage of the pandemic, people should be wearing“high-filtration”
masks that block at least 94 percent of
aerosols, he adds. He says the best earloop masks are Korean-made KF94s
and Chinese KN95s (though fakes still
infiltrate the market). U.S.–made N95s
are a step up, with headbands that pull
the mask tighter for a better seal. One
of Collins’s favorites is the 3M-made
9205+. It fits a wide range of faces, is
easy to breathe through, and removes,
according to his test, more than 99
percent of aerosols—all for roughly $2.
Collins has been disappointed
by the Centers for Disease Control
response to Covid and mask-wearing.
“They really failed at communicating
how this disease spreads, the mechanisms, and acknowledging the precautionary measures that engineers use
on a daily basis,” he says.
Only early this year—two years into
the epidemic and nearly two months
after the appearance of omicron—did
the CDC begin urging Americans to
upgrade to high-filtration masks. By
comparison, he notes that South Korea
supplied high-quality KF94 masks
to every citizen by spring 2020. “It is
frustrating to see how much better we
could have done,” says Collins.
Collins says he owes a huge debt to
the U of M Mechanical Engineering
Department scientists and engineers
that have “a positive impact far
beyond what they know. That’s why
we need universities. They’re powerful
tools for good.”
Greg Breining is a Twin Cities writer.