Student RA processing blood samples in lab.
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The Data 4 Action (D4A) project is comprised of dozens of Penn State researchers who are documenting the impacts of COVID-19 in Centre County. While the goal of the project is to assess the biological, psychological, and social functioning of Penn State students and community members, the project is also providing new and impactful opportunities for a growing group of students working as research assistants (RAs).

The students are gaining clinical lab experiences by collecting and processing biological samples for the D4A project. They are developing hands-on skills all while navigating safety measures and COVID-19 guidelines that are essential for conducting research with human subjects during the pandemic.

According to Vivek Kapur, professor of animal science, the RAs in his lab are preparing blood samples for testing to detect the presence of antibodies to COVID-19. “This has allowed them to acquire much needed hands-on biomedical laboratory experience during a time when in-person research opportunities have dwindled, along with helping us keep the D4A project on track.”

Natalie Rydzak, undergraduate student in immunology and infectious disease and RA in Kapur’s lab, said the lab team was very welcoming to her and the other RAs. “We learned so much, including the processes involved in working with biological samples, centrifuging blood samples to extract blood serum, using a bar code system for managing samples, and software for data analysis,” said Rydzak. “So much that we learned in the lab is applicable outside of the lab as well, including the value of teamwork and effective communications with others. It was a great experience, and I can’t wait to go back after this summer.”

Sophie Rodriguez, undergraduate in biomedical engineering, said it was interesting to observe the cyclical nature of student and community serological surveillance in the project, and how it reflected the level of disease exposure in the community and how it spread. “While we were very busy processing blood samples, I was able to learn more about disease dynamics, epidemiology, and immunology fields,” she said. “It was also a very rewarding project to come into because it was so relevant to the situation.”

As biomedical engineering student, Rodriguez hasn’t received as much lab experience as students in other science majors, so she considers the experience as one that will drive her exactly where she wants to go in a future career. “I enjoyed it so much that I am now taking full time position in Dr. Kapur’s lab. For me, the D4A project acted as propulsion into a career I want to pursue.”

Connie Rogers, associate professor of nutritional sciences and associate director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, says her Nutrition and Immunity Lab also changed gears to process biological samples for the D4A project and had a number of RAs assisting in various tasks.

Joseph DeLaurentis, undergraduate student in biobehavioral health, worked as an RA in Rogers’ lab, collecting and centrifuging blood samples to separate the blood cells from the plasma. “I was previously unfamiliar with skills such as running a centrifuge, micro pipetting, and sanitation in a lab, so I learned a lot. I look forward to returning to the lab in the fall.”

He said he also enjoyed being able to work with other people being on campus during the pandemic. “Being able to work as part of a team and learning time management skills will be invaluable in whatever career path I choose. If you are a student in any major, consider working as an RA in a lab, it is a great experience.”

Wei Wei is also an undergraduate student in biobehavioral health who worked as an RA in Roger’s lab. “Each day we collected saliva and blood samples from Penn State’s Clinical Research Center, then processed the blood samples so they would be ready for further testing,” said Wei.

“The methodical way of doing procedures in the lab was something I enjoyed a lot. I also learned that micropippeting blood samples to separate the blood cells from the plasma is an art. If you aren’t careful, you’ll disrupt the blood cells and will need to run the samples through the centrifuge again.”

Wei was able to train another student RA, so she also received some leadership experience. “Knowing that I had a hand in processing samples and that I had to do it right gave me a greater sense of responsibility,” she said. “It was also nice meeting new people and working in this type of environment. It made me realize I’m very interested in lab work and it being a part of my future career.”

D4A project testing is ongoing for community members and students. Results will be summarized and provided to the Penn State and Centre County community, allowing participants to share their experience and inform decision-making as the region moves forward. D4A is an interdisciplinary collaboration among Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and includes faculty members from six Penn State colleges.

News Topics: Data 4 Action, COVID-19