Summer interns gain hands-on learning in Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 testing lab

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While the rest of us avoid COVID-19, 20 college students and medical laboratory technicians signed up this summer for a closer look at the many forms of detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus as interns in Virginia Tech’s COVID testing lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

During two five-week, hands-on sessions, the interns worked in the Molecular Diagnostics Lab and took classes led by Carla Finkielstein, the lab’s scientific director and an associate professor at the research institute. Led by Luciana Rosso and the Molecular Diagnostics Lab personnel, students experienced working first-hand with various clinical specimens and detecting multiple variants of the virus.

The Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory is a testing hub for the university and the state. In November, Virginia officials selected the lab to expand virus testing across the commonwealth as one of three OneLab Network Tier 2 laboratories, which meant the lab is called upon to receive samples from any health district in the state if needed. As of early July, the lab had reported results of 130,000 tests.

After passing required health and safety testing, the interns used state-of-the-art lab equipment and instrumentation, including robotic platforms for handling liquids and for high-throughput screening and sequencing. Students learned how to process samples and log, collect, analyze, and report data. They used methodologies to detect SARS-CoV-2 that represent the different commercial approaches currently deployed for detection in the field.

The interns learned the advantages and limitations of the various tests that are currently in the market, as well as to determine their comparable sensitivities and specificities. To enhance effective training and learning, students’ lab experience was personalized and always complemented with lectures and Q&A sessions. Personnel from the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory were present at all stages of training to provide support when needed.

In class, the students learned about the clinical trials that led to the authorization of vaccines, other therapeutic approaches, and about the pipeline of therapeutics development. They also learned about the federal regulatory requirements needed to apply for U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorization for testing SARS-CoV-2, the public health strategies to fight the virus and the problems of implementation, the information the various tests for SARS-CoV-2 provide, and bioinformatic tools for identification of virus variants.

The diverse group of students selected for the internships came from community colleges, Virginia Tech, Radford University, and the University of the District of Columbia.

Participants earned $2,000 for the internships, which were supported by GO Virginia, a state-funded economic development effort to promote collaborations among business, education, and government to diversify regional economies across Virginia.

The interns included, from Virginia Tech, Laura Fortune, Tarek Harba, Henry Kirby, Antonia Mendrinos, Zach Morris, Morteza Mostashari, Connor Murphy, Tori Shimozono, and Elyse Shoppell; from Virginia Western Community College, Dana Adams, Elizabeth Burrell, Abigail Hess, Jesica Martin, Adam Richardson, and Wraylyn Smith; from Radford University Carilion, Mia Cromer and Rabia Ikram; Binuk Samarasinghe from Radford University; Jacilyn Williams from Sterling College; and Novitska Moore from the University of the District of Columbia.

Regional support for the GO Virginia initiative is provided by the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs.


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