IOWA CITY, Iowa — When the pandemic forced research labs to shutter across campus this spring, University of Iowa graduate students Timothy Skog of Worthington — along with Emily Steinbach, Ryan Callahan and Murphy Keller — sought to help address the crisis by volunteering with the University of Iowa’s State Hygienic Lab.
Representing a variety of programs, these students played crucial roles in the initial setup of the lab and validation of testing methods.
As COVID-19 shuttered smaller, more focused research labs across campus, the students responded to requests of help from the University of Iowa's State Hygienic Lab (SHL) and assisted with ramped-up research testing.
Steinbach was one of the first to volunteer on SHL’s original validation team, which sought to confirm the accuracy and reliability of the lab’s testing methods for COVID-19. Validation was necessary before the lab could begin processing coronavirus tests for patients, with the SHL team using samples from both the CDC and Test Iowa for cross-analysis.
“Validations for tests are things we do all the time in radiation oncology and periodical radiation biology,” Steinbach said. “Most of the time we are focused on cancer and being able to track tumor growth or changes in kidney function, so it was a similar task in that we were just looking for a different kind of clinical marker with COVID.”
Steinbach is primarily involved with the processing aspect of the process. Among other things, she has helped set up the system for keeping track of patient samples and prepared samples for subsequent testing in the extraction stage.
Callahan, a master’s student in microbiology, began volunteering as a member of the validation team at the same time and was involved in the extraction stage. He was charged with extracting RNA from patient samples, which is the genetic material of COVID-19.
Callahan felt compelled to help during the pandemic and similarly felt volunteering with SHL testing was the best way to use his skills. It has also allowed him to apply the research skills he has learned through his scholarship to a clinical setting.
Procedures like RNA extraction or PCR (polymerase chain reaction) are commonly used in Callahan’s microbiology program. Beyond honing his scientific skills, he has gained more experience, works in a diverse lab and connects with people from a variety of backgrounds.
The expertise of staff at the lab varies widely, as do the studies of the graduate students volunteering. Skog, a PhD candidate in neuroscience, rounded out the group of graduate students volunteering on the original validation team. Like his peers, Skog wanted to help in some way during the pandemic and felt his research background made him well suited to volunteer with COVID-19 testing.
“When I have the experience that’s needed and there’s definitely a demand for it, I thought I should help out any way I could,” Skog said. “Even if I’m just pipetting all day, it’s still helping out all these people affected by the pandemic who want to know if they have it or not. It’s contributing to the public health of the country and keeping the virus at bay.”
Skog’s volunteer work with SHL has been in the PCR stage. This involves isolating a certain segment of RNA, replicating it, and expanding. If the segment amplifies, that indicates it is a positive test for COVID-19 RNA; if it does not amplify, the sample tests negative. The validation team was developing a probe for COVID-19 in this stage and this assay was one of the things Skog focused on.
Although scientific assays typically take months to validate, the team set out to complete this one in just a couple weeks. This meant he and the other graduate students put in quite a few hours at the lab — even some 18-hour shifts.
“We ended up committing a lot of hours,” Skog. said “Then when we had pared down and stepped back again once things got rolling, we noticed how exhausted we were. But, during the time, I don’t think we really noticed that we were running on adrenaline for those two weeks.”
While Skog’s volunteer work connects with certain aspects of his neuroscience program, he sees it as providing more general experience in setting up a research lab and validating tests to be accurate and reliable. It has also made him reconsider the public health sector as a potential career path to pursue when he completes his PhD program.
As the students continue their work at the state lab, they reflect on how valuable the experience has been for them. They are grateful for the warm welcome and support they received from the staff. Even SHL Director Michael Pentella checked up on them regularly.
“Testing is obviously important and it’s something we direly need, so to actually get to play a part in that has been great,” Callahan said. “Especially being in an academic setting where you’re doing more fundamental research, getting the opportunity to do something in a more clinical and diagnostic setting has been exciting.”