Amidst the global chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic this summer, I was fortunate to be able to participate in the Honors Summer Research program through my work in Dr. John Schieffelin’s lab on Tulane’s downtown campus. Dr. Schieffelin’s lab group focuses on the pathophysiology and epidemiology of viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola Virus Disease and Lassa Fever. Our lab collaborates with a cohort of Ebola and Lassa Fever survivors and household contacts from Sierra Leone. Analysis of the disease sequelae and serology of these survivors and contacts sheds light on the patterns and long-term progression of these viruses. For example, the lab investigates the prevalence of antibodies in survivors versus contacts, as well as the symptoms experienced by survivors of these viruses.
Despite being a part of this lab since the beginning of my sophomore year, I was unsure about my plans for the summer or how to more fully immerse myself into hands-on laboratory work. In the spring, I decided to take the “Quest for Answers” Honors Colloquium course that focused on the process of writing a research grant, specifically for the Honors Summer Research Program. As I learned more in this course about the importance of research within a broader academic sphere, I became increasingly excited about my own opportunities to conduct research on a topic that I am passionate about. I decided to apply for the summer research grant, and while home in California for quarantine I was notified of my acceptance. While I was grateful to receive this piece of exciting news, I was immediately concerned about how I would be able to complete my project physically in the lab. However, after extensive communication between myself, the Honors Program, and my lab, we determined that as an infectious disease laboratory, my lab was equipped with proper PPE and distancing precautions to ensure my safety. In late June, I returned to New Orleans and began my six week summer research project.
While in the lab, my research/tasks/team focused on testing the blood serum of Lassa Fever survivors and contacts for Immunoglobulin-G antibody, which is an indicator of a previous infection of the virus. In conjunction with the hands-on testing done in the lab, I used this project as an opportunity to familiarize myself with coding practices in analyzing my data. While working in the lab, everybody made sure to wear their masks and maintained six feet of distance whenever logistically possible. Further, standard PPE precautions for an infectious disease lab such as wearing gloves and working in the fume hood remained in effect.
Even though my particular research was not directly COVID related, working in an infectious disease lab during a global pandemic was a truly inspiring experience. Tulane physicians and researchers are collaborating in innovative ways and applying their own expertise towards furthering research on COVID-19 in order to test possible therapeutic and preventative treatments. Each day when I went into the lab to work on my project, I learned new things about studies happening in real-time with true potential to impact this pandemic. Being immersed in a setting of research during a time where science and public health is progressing so rapidly has inspired me to continue to pursue research in the future. As an aspiring physician, I believe that research is integral to the progression of science and medicine. In my future career, I hope to conduct clinical research in maternal health in addition to practicing medicine as an OBGYN, because I believe research and medicine complement each other to provide a holistic body of knowledge.
Maddy Drogy is a junior Honors student majoring in public health.