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Uncommon Interview with Elena Bodnar

The MAROON caught up with U of C researcher Elena Bodnar to talk about Chernobyl, her “Convertible Bra-Mask,” which unhinges to form two gas masks that can slip over the mouth and nose, and her Ig Nobel Prize.

Photo: Maroon Staff/The Chicago Maroon
Elena Bodnar holds aloft the halves of her bra gas mask at the Ig Noble Prize Ceremony at Harvard University's Sanders Theater on October 2.

Strapless bras, convertible bras, sports bras, nursing bras, padded bras; the possibilities already seemed endless. But Elena Bodnar, director of the newly-formed Trauma Risk Management Research Institute at the U of C, invented a bra more high-tech, more convertible, hey, maybe even sexier, than anything Victoria’s Secret has ever walked down its runways. The Maroon reached her by e-mail to talk about Chernobyl, her “Convertible Bra-Mask,” which unhinges to form two gas masks that can slip over the mouth and nose, and her Ig Nobel Prize.

Chicago Maroon: How did you come up with the idea for the bra-mask?

Elena Bodnar: I was inspired to create a bra-mask by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. I was a young medical university graduate when Chernobyl hit the Ukraine in 1986. I volunteered to assist in the evacuation of children and relocation of families from the contaminated zone. Large amounts of Iodine-131 [a radioactive element] were released from the damaged reactor.

The general population was heavily impacted due to absence of personal protective devices. Face masks were not available. Unpreparedness for such an event at the governmental level was so obvious that it was impossible not to think about individual protection. That’s when and why my idea was initially born. Unfortunately it was not implemented until after 9/11, when the actual patent was developed at the University of Chicago in 2004. 

CM: But is it practical?

EB: The convertible bra mask is a simple, economical, and always readily available personal protective device that can provide a person with enough time to escape from a life-threatening environment.

By using a bra mask, a person can reduce the health consequences of inhaling harmful airborne particles, such as those released by natural disasters (like the dust storm in Australia two weeks ago) and human-made disasters, like a fire, explosion, terrorist radiological (dirty bomb), or biological attack.

Because the bra-mask remains firmly fixed on the face, it also frees a survivor’s hands, enabling the wearer to remove objects on the way out, hold rails while climbing stairs, and keep balance while running.

CM: Is there any particular reason why the bra-mask is pink with black lace?

EB: Of course not; a bra mask of any color, design, style, cup size, or any other preference can be manufactured with little additional cost. The important additional function [the safety masks] does not interfere with the primary purpose of the bra, to support the breasts, and its aesthetics.

CM: How did you feel winning an Ig Nobel prize, Harvard’s parody of the Nobel Prize awarded to seemingly silly?

EB: I believe that humor, if properly used, can be a strong communication tool. Besides being one of the most memorable moments of my life, the Ig Nobel nomination in Harvard helped me to deliver an important message of safety to the public.

CM: What were the ceremonies like?

EB: Just imagine being surrounded by 10 Nobel laureates who appreciate what you did. Both the Nobel and Ig Nobel laureates I had a chance to meet happened to be the most intelligent people and with a great sense of humor. 

CM: Do you have any future plans for the bra-mask?

EB: Media exposure and strong feedback following the nomination confirmed that the demand for the product is high. Therefore, I am going to aggressively pursue commercialization.