Close-up of Covid-19 virus

Biology Students Research COVID-19

Professor Emeritus of Biology Judith Owen led a team of 10 biology students in research on COVID-19 vaccines for five weeks over this past summer.

A team of 10 Haverford biology students spent the summer learning about immunology and COVID-19. 

“In any non-COVID summer, students in the department as well as pre-majors, take advantage of all kinds of opportunities,  both on- and off-campus, to pursue research projects,” said Professor Emeritus of Biology Judith Owen. “However, this summer, most, if not all such internships were canceled.”

In order to give students the opportunity to continue to do valuable work despite these cancellations, biology faculty members gathered teams of students to work on different research projects for five weeks during the summer.

Owen, whose focus is immunology, led a team that, in lessons taken from the headlines, learned about COVID-19 and potential vaccines.

Students focused on different potential vaccines for the first three weeks. Biology major Garrett Melby ‘21 researched plasmid-based DNA vaccines.

“This technique introduces DNA that prompts the body to create antigens that are then recognized by the immune system,” said Melby. “I found that plasmid-based DNA vaccines will probably not be the method used to vaccinate against COVID-19, as there are still some unknown risks associated with introducing foreign plasmid DNA to host cells.”

As they looked into the vaccines, they also had to learn about immune responses, how vaccines work in the body, and aspects like financing, clinical trials, and how vaccines are rolled out.

During the last two weeks of the program, students could research any aspects of COVID-19 that they were interested in. They chose a variety of topics including a comparative analysis of different countries’ responses and the mental health ramifications of quarantines.

Amra Zegeye ‘22 looked into responses to COVID-19 in Ethiopia. On the medical side, she explored how hospitals low on ventilators and other equipment are using an herb that has been used by traditional healers to treat the virus.

“Ethiopia is also currently going through presidential elections and a lot of tribalism,” said Zegeye. “A popular singer had just been assassinated right around the time they were trying to put the country on lockdown. They changed cell phone tones and advertisements to be about PPE and maintaining distance and keeping safe, but now that they took off the internet all those safety precautions have been taken down and people are protesting in the streets because the singer was an activist for one of the regions.”

Students found the work valuable for their future academic and career plans, which include medical school and careers in global health.

“I really applaud the efforts of my colleagues to create these team opportunities for our students,
said Owen. “The students were wonderful to work with and I thoroughly enjoyed the process.”