Four graduate researchers awarded for efforts to combat pandemic
April 08, 2021 - by Sarah Igram
After a year of studying COVID-19 in real time, four Iowa State University graduate students have been awarded for their efforts to combat the pandemic through research.
Iowa State announced COVID-19 Exceptional Effort Awards last fall to recognize the campus community’s innovative work to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. After 647 nominations, the students awarded in the Graduate Student Research Impact Award category are: Ryan Andrews, Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology; Amanda Bries, recent Ph.D. graduate in food science and human nutrition; Emma Helm, recent Ph.D. graduate and postdoctoral scholar in animal science; and Urminder Singh, Ph.D. candidate in genetics, development, and cell biology. All four received $500 stipends in their paychecks.
After attending a department seminar in January 2020, Andrews began looking into coronavirus genomes. When the genome for the novel coronavirus became known, he started to analyze its ability to form structures. Alongside his lab, he shifted to studying COVID-19 full time when it became clear how serious the pandemic was.
“The SARS-CoV-2 genome is made up of a long string of tiny molecules called nucleotides. These nucleotides can ‘fold’ into specific structures that we can actually target with drugs. My research with [assistant professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology] Walter Moss has focused on finding and annotating these structures,” Andrews said. “Back in April, we found over 500 structures and our collaborator, Prof. Matt Disney at the Scripps Research Institute, was able to successfully target one of them with a small drug molecule, potentially paving the way for a therapeutic.”
Singh, whose doctoral dissertation focus is human diseases such as cancer, became interested in studying COVID-19 last year. His work since the pandemic began has been to identify the role of orphan genes in combatting the virus. Orphan genes is the term for genes that have emerged recently in evolution.
“My research takes a data-driven computational approach to identify novel orphan genes and examine their roles in healthy and diseased humans,” he said. “I have developed computational pipelines that efficiently sorts through hundreds of terabytes of data to find these novel genes.”
In collaboration with the COVID-19 International Research Team, Singh and his Ph.D. advisor, professor Eve Wurtele, have worked to identify population-specific orphan genes, with the goal of improving precision medicine for populations more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Genetic, socioeconomic, and environmental factors that each human is exposed to influence the course of every disease. We can look at genetic factors that influence COVID severity,” he said. “[In our research,] we highlight that genomic studies should be more equitable in representation of minority populations. We also propose that genetic studies record proxies for one’s socioeconomic status, such as income, level of education, employment, and zip-code, for researchers so that these could be accounted for in the models.”
Meanwhile, Helm began to study the impact of the pandemic on the swine industry early last year alongside her principal investigator, animal science professor Nicholas Gabler. When they started to hear that Midwestern meat packing plants may shut down, they decided to research ways to slow pigs’ growth until they could be sent to slaughter. They were able to test diets with pigs at Iowa State, and producers and nutritionists then adopted the diets.
“Back in February, March, and April, there were a lot of packing plants that shut down or had limited capacity. When that happened, the number of pigs that could go through the packing plant every day greatly diminished,” she said. “My PI and I worked on a couple of studies where we found diets that could slow the growth of pigs or prevent the pigs from growing while still giving them the feed, so they were eating, we weren’t restricting feed from them, they had as much as they wanted to eat, but it was slowing their growth while still providing them with satiety.”
For each student, the pandemic posed unique difficulties. Andrews and Singh both found it challenging to stay up to date with the latest findings, with new sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes being reported each day and more than 100,000 papers published about COVID-19.
“Understanding how our results fit together with other findings is essential,” Singh said.
Helm found a nice break from the monotony of quarantine when she was able to go to a farm and feed pigs every day. However, she also struggled to line up schedules among her research team while still adhering to social distancing protocol.
To stay focused and motivated, the students kept regular routines, kept in touch and discussed their research with fellow members of their labs, and took time to prioritize their mental health. And in the end, they each have found it very rewarding to see their research have an immediate impact.
“The rapid adoption by the swine industry was something I thought was really neat, because you could actually see the work fulfilling a need,” Helm said.
Andrews added, “When I saw that our research was being used by labs across the world to help understand this virus, it was rewarding to know we were having a real impact. It really is a worldwide collaborative research project, and I’m happy to be playing a part.”
Although Singh recognizes how much the pandemic reshaped the world in such a short time, he has also felt inspired by the number of research and innovations he has witnessed.
“To quote Albert Einstein, ‘In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,’” he said.