Students Step Up to Help COVID-19 Testing Companies

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has galvanized the engineering and scientific community into an all-hands on deck mentality. And students from the Cockrell School of Engineering and across the university are stepping up to help testing companies in the Austin area.

Graduate students from Jennifer Maynard’s lab are working part-time at companies producing and analyzing coronavirus tests, in addition to their current research projects in Maynard’s lab, where they focus on infectious disease protein therapies and vaccines.

For the students, it’s an opportunity to use their skills to make an immediate impact. And the companies need all the help they can get as they rapidly ratchet up production to fill demand for millions of coronavirus tests locally and around the country.

“This is a chance to directly apply my skill set in the fight against an urgent and global crisis — an opportunity that bench researchers don’t often get,” said Katia George, a first-year graduate student in the College of Natural Sciences’ Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology.

George is working on filling and packaging tests as well as some quality control analysis. Annalee Nguyen, a senior scientist in Maynard’s lab, helped connect interested students with companies in need of people. The jobs require some level of training in molecular biology and/or chemistry to know how to adequately handle test samples and work the machinery that analyzes them.

“We have so many highly trained people that want to help out however they can,” said Maynard, a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering.

Chemical engineering doctoral student Andrea DiVenere is working weekends at the same company as George to fill test kits with reagents, making sure each one gets the right amount.

In Maynard’s lab, DiVenere works on projects like a new whooping cough vaccine. For her, working on these COVID-19 tests is an extension of what she wants to do in her career and lets her put her skills to immediate use.

“It is an unsettling time with a lot of uncertainty but being able to focus on the things within our control and using this extra time and our skills to help others really helps get through this,” DiVenere said.

Rebecca Wilen, a first-year chemical engineering graduate student, is working at another company as an aliquot specialist, helping handle test specimens and preparing them to be run in the machines that perform the tests. Wilen and several students from UT molecular biosciences had the skills necessary and decided to step up.

Like her fellow student-staffers, Wilen mentioned the unsettling nature of this time around the world as her motivation. She noted most of the lab’s experience lies in early-stage drug development, but their skills transfer well to providing some immediate help.

“My main motive for going into protein engineering and immunology was to be able to do something that will eventually make a difference in people’s lives,” Wilen said. “When this opportunity arose, I knew it was one way I could help contribute to that effort immediately.”

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