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Student volunteers, prepares vials for COVID-19 tests

5/7/2020

Debra Levey Larson

Left to right: SIUC graduate student Nita Shillova, U of I AE undergrad Zana Essmyer, and immunologist Vjollca Konjufca prepare vials with viral transport media for COVID-19 tests.
Left to right: SIUC graduate student Nita Shillova, U of I AE undergrad Zana Essmyer, and immunologist Vjollca Konjufca prepare vials with viral transport media for COVID-19 tests.
It took about six hours for Zana Essmyer and graduate student Nita Shillova to fill 1,000 vials with viral transport media or VTM which is the essential medium to store samples taken from people for Corona virus testing. As a junior at the University of Illinois majoring in aerospace engineering, Essmyer has been working remotely since spring break when all classes moved to online delivery to help reduce the spread of the pandemic. In addition to taking five classes this semester, she makes time to volunteer in the Department of Microbiology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, preparing the tubes for Corona virus tests.

“The news is on almost 24/7 at my house, so I’ve seen a lot about how the virus has affected people's lives--families who have loved ones who have contracted the Coronavirus,” Essmyer said. “It's been really hard to watch because although I personally haven't been affected by it, I know so many other people are suffering. If a lot of people are infected all at once and overwhelm the hospitals, a lot of people will die who wouldn't have died if they had access to full medical care. I'm hoping that the work that I'm doing will help get people tested, help them stay home if they're sick, and hopefully, flatten the curve so we have a lower infection rates.”

Essmyer has volunteered in the SIUC labs for several years—the past two in an immunology laboratory run by immunologist Vjollca Konjufca, who ordinarily, studies diseases such as chlamydia and salmonella. When Scott Hamilton-Brehm, SIUC microbiology professor and head of the grassroots program to formulate and aliquot VTM, needed help from other laboratories, Konjufca stepped up and combined forces.

Essmyer said collectively, the two microbiology laboratories and volunteers, they’ve assembled over 40,000 VTM vials since late April 2020, which have been shipped to Springfield for distribution.

“We can only do about 10,000 per week,” Essmyer said. “We weren’t prepared for this.  It’s not in a factory setting. We have to do all of the labeling and packaging and racking by hand, although improvements to this process are being made daily.”

Essmyer explained the process. Adhering to industrial standards of quality control and reporting, a batch or lot is formulated and sterilized by filtration. These batches are then processed in a biosafety cabinet and aliquot, or precisely distributed, into sterile tubes. At all times, volunteers wear lab coats, facemasks (N-95 respirators when available), gloves, and all surfaces are cleaned repeated with 70 percent ethanol. Initially aliquots were made by using a pipette, like a long syringe, transferring three milliliters of VTM into each tube—1,000 tubes for each batch. The purpose of the VTM is to preserve a sample taken from person, which may contain the Corona virus, long enough to that it can be tested at a sanctioned Illinois Department of Public Health testing facility.

All volunteers are screened and monitored to reduce the risk of bringing the Corona virus into the laboratories. Essmyer wears an N-95 respirator whenever she leaves her house.

She said it’s a labor-intensive process. “When the program first started, we had to hand write the date and the batch number on labels and then stick one on each tube and package them. It limited how much we could do. But working in the lab is really fun and I think it's a great cause. I’m glad that I can do something to help out. I want to go into medicine, medical school after aerospace, so this I right up my alley.”

Essmyer said she has wanted to be a doctor ever since she was little. She tells a short story about how she decided as a senior in high school to switch to aerospace engineering.

“I wanted to be a neurosurgeon for years and years,” she said. “My dad has a hand tremor and my hand tremor started developing when I was in high school. And I got really frustrated that couldn’t do neurosurgery, so I went into aerospace instead.”

One of the five classes Essmyer is taking is Human Spaceflight, which is closely tied to what she’d like to do after graduating from Illinois.

“I am very interested in human physiology in space. That's what I want to do career wise. I’d love to be a flight surgeon either for the Air Force or for NASA. They establish the protocol for astronauts and pilots and do research before and after spaceflights to learn what effect it has on the body.

“I’d really like to do my M.D. and Ph.D. at the same time—with my Ph.D. focus in neuroscience. I'm really interested in doing studies into the effects of space and flight on the brain, because there's a lot that we don't know about that.”

This summer, Essmyer will move from being a volunteer to a paid position. She was hired to work on the VTM program in the SIUC Department of Microbiology.