Student Project: Meditation on Vaccination

This blog post was written by, and highlights the Fall 2014 final project of, EMAC undergraduate student Nilufer Arsala. Follow her on Twitter @NiluferArsala. The assignment for which she made the project can be found here.

Young woman wearing a surgical mask with red lights in the shape of an "X."
Photo: EMAC undergrad Nilufer Arsala models her Vaccination Mask

Artist Statement

My final project is mean to be an artistic statement about the most recent anti-vaccination movement. Parents can have many reasons not to vaccinate or to delay vaccinations of their children. Some cite religious reasons and some may be more concerned about the health risks of the vaccines, as opposed to the actual diseases they are meant to protect against. It seems that while the anti vaccination movement had gained some steam, recent  findings about the resurgence of disease and the retraction of a paper linking vaccines to autism by medical journal The Lancet may be slowing the trend down a bit.

This project struck a chord with me because I am a first time mom with a very young son. The first year of his life I too doubted the amount of vaccines and asked the doctor repeatedly how safe they were. I even went as far as to call all of my friends who are doctors and ask their opinions as well.  In my experience there were a couple of things that set my mind at ease in regards to making sure my son received his vaccinations in a timely fashion. The first was that I received vaccines as a child as well and seemed to turn out ok ( I think?) and the second was that these vaccines really can protect him from getting very, very, sick. Of course every parent has the right to choose what is best for their family and this piece is not meant to serve as judgment one way or the other.

The piece itself comes in the shape of a surgical mask. Embedded in the mask are red LED lights that blink in unison and are in the shape of an “X”. The lights paired with the mask are symbolic of trying to stop the transmission of disease.

How to make it!


  • Lilypad Arduino
  • Computer
  • Alligator Clips
  • 10-12 Red LED lights
  • Conductive Thread
  • Regular Threat (white)
  • Needles
  • Surgical Masks (2)
  • Fabric Backing
  • Needles
  • Scissors
  • Electrical Tape
  • Pen/Pencil

Step 1- 

I found it best to decide roughly how I wanted my components to lay on the mask and then figure out the code that goes along with the configuration before getting started. This way you don’t sew everything on and then have to start all over because of any surprises. (I learned this the hard way.) Use the alligator clips to complete your circuit and plug up to the computer. For this project I used a “blink” sketch that I modified to include many different pins as outputs.

sketch in LilyPad Arduino
Photo: Screenshot of a “blink” sketch

Step 2~ Congratulations- you have a code that works! Now its time to configure your Arduino/LEDs where you want them on your mask. To make things easier, go ahead and cut the ear loops off of this layer only– they just get in the way. Use a pen or pencil to first mark the inside of your mask with the pattern of the “X” to serve as a bit of a guide even thought the LEDs will go on the outside. After you have decided which pins you will use, try to position the Arduino so those pins are pretty accessable. I placed my Lilypad at the bottom of the mask and in the middle, facing what would be the lips with the LED lights on the outside of the mask. Start connecting your LED lights to the different pins on the Lilypad using a needle and your conductive thread. (Remember to also keep the negatives of the LED lights easy to access for later.) I found it best to only connect one or two LEDS per pin. After all of your LED positives are connected, connect all of the negatives on the LED lights using conductive thread and secure to the negative on the Lilypad. ***Be careful to avoid your string touching itself and causing a short in the circuit!***

LEDs on a mask
Photo: Placing LEDs on the mask

As you can see some of my thread crossed. The black electrical tape works to keep the wires in place and keep them from touching. It’s not pretty, but it got the job done. Time to upload your code to your Lilypad.

LEDs on a mask
Photo: Uploading the code to the Lilypad

It works! Huzzah!

Step 3~ 

Now that your mask is functioning its time to pretty it up a bit. Get your fabric backing and cut a little bit bigger that the shape of the mask. I folded in the left side and made small stitches with the white thread in the corners and the middle of the side to keep it together and then trimmed the top to fit and repeated that step. I wanted to keep the back of the mask more accessible to be able to turn it on and off or attach a battery.

Step 4~ 

two masks and a circuit
Photo: Placing another layer on the mask

Attach a bright and shiny new mask to the top. I used the same method as before; securing the top corners so they would match up and stitching together then a few stitches down the side, leaving the bottom open. This is to allow the mask to contract and expand easily and also for easy access to components. 

Step 5- 

Hooray, your mask is complete! You did a great job!

Shiny mask
Photo: Lighting the mask






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