VCU graduate students use bioinformatics to help in the fight against COVID-19

Compiling and analyzing state data plays a major role in testing and the vaccination process.

A person in a laboratory holding a swab and a glass tube.
Students and recent graduates from across VCU are helping us better understand SARS-CoV2 and COVID-19. Among them is a trio from the VCU Life Sciences bioinformatics program. (Getty Images)

VCU Life Sciences students Yaa Adarkwa Darko, Thomas Stack and Shelby Bennett have dedicated their work this past year to helping understand and curtail COVID-19. All three were in the school’s bioinformatics program when they began their projects.

“This opportunity came up for all three because of the pandemic,” said Allison Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity and program director for the master’s in bioinformatics. “Our students are well-suited for this type of work.”

The work they are doing is unusual, she said. 

“I think this work has an urgency for the students they wouldn’t normally have. The work they are doing this year is unusually urgent because of the pandemic,” Johnson said.

Darko works as a medical technologist for GENETWORx, a research laboratory and health management service company specializing in diagnostic and antibody testing for COVID-19 as well as other lab services and pharmacogenomics. Darko and her team have developed a 48-hour nasopharyngeal COVID-19 test with a 99% accuracy rating. 

She is thankful for the real-world experience. 

“In bioinformatics you have the biology side where you learn about real-time PCR testing. That makes me understand what goes into testing, the different types and sections of testing and dealing with data analysis. I am applying what I have learned from class into my work and what I have learned from work into my class,” said Darko, who graduated from VCU with a bachelor’s degree in forensic science and will complete her master’s in bioinformatics in 2022. 

She said she is making a difference in the world doing this type of work.

“It’s a contribution to society’s wellness. This makes me excited for the future,” said Darko, a Ghana native who plans to return to her home and work in the bioinformatics field. “This is my first lab job, and it’s given me confidence to apply myself to other jobs in the future.” 

Stack, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology from VCU, will graduate from the master’s program in August. In the past few months, he has been working as a data analyst with the Virginia Department of Health analyzing vaccination rates. He is looking at both the demand and the hesitancy for vaccines statewide.

“I’m looking at what areas have a higher demand,” said the Prince William County native. “We look at what areas are vaccinating more people and what areas need to vaccinate more people.” 

During his time with the health department, Stack worked with vaccinespotter.org, an online tool to locate COVID-19 vaccine appointment openings, to access its data and see where pharmacy appointments were being scheduled. 

“The work has been pretty cool so far. Working with such a large project statewide with so many different angles is interesting and fun,” he said. 

The project has given him deeper insight into the public health aspect of medicine. 

“It was different than working with one person or in a clinic. It has given me that big-picture approach,” said Stack, who volunteers as an EMT and will be starting medical school this summer at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia. “I am interested in maybe doing something public health related after medical school.”

Bennett, who graduated from the master’s program this May, did work related to SARS-CoV2 sequence data during her project. She has been working as a full-time contractor with the bioinformatics team at the state Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services. 

“We have been looking at genetic variants, or strains of the virus that differ from the original sequence,” Bennett said. “It has been an incredibly eye-opening experience and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed.”

When she was in high school, she dreamed of working in public health. “During my undergraduate studies, my passion switched to evolutionary biology. I now have the best of both worlds. Thanks to being part of the bioinformatics graduate program at VCU, I have learned the skills to combine both of these interests and to work in a field that I enjoy.”

Bioinformatics is a field full of job opportunities for students, Johnson said. 

“They can make an important impact on human health, but that hasn’t been as urgent as it has this year,” Johnson said. “The field of bioinformatics is rapidly extending to clinical work. People can make a real contribution to health care. Most schools are training physicians in this area. It’s developing, and I think it has huge potential.” 

Employers who work with VCU bioinformatics graduate students tell Johnson the “students are well-trained as problem solvers,” she said. “You can’t teach students every computational approach or tool, but if you can teach them to be problem solvers, they can do their job.”

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