A SUNY grant supports Oswego faculty and students studying how to more accurately detect COVID-19 and mutating strains of the virus. Moreover, they will use what they learn to inform and train researchers across SUNY and elsewhere.

"We are currently working on developing better techniques to detect COVID-19 since it's a burning topic right now," said junior biochemistry major Vikrant Jandev.

Chemistry faculty member Julia Koeppe and some of her students previously worked in COVID-research, including at a boot camp last summer at Rutgers University. The opportunity to give students a role in such important research provided both learning experiences and value to greater society.

"We were teaching students about the evolution of the virus by this sequence alignment and then looking at the structure of a particular protein from the virus and how mutations in that protein might affect structure and function," Koeppe explained of the ongoing work in the college's Shineman Center laboratories.

"What I'm looking for right now are multiple mutations and the primers that we are using," said junior biochemistry major Angela Wu. "Towards the end, we could maybe check to see how the natural mutations might affect primer binding."

"We're going to implement it in our lab and you end up teaching lab techniques so that everybody can implement it and use the technique and have better detection of the virus," Jandev said. That includes the students helping teach their fellow students, and the team developing a process and users' manual they are making available to other SUNY schools and interested researchers.

SUNY support

In December, Chancellor Jim Malatras announced awards from the SUNY Prepare Innovation and Internship Program, which supported 12 teams of SUNY students and faculty across seven campuses with up to $10,000 in seed funding to conduct further research on their proposals. The program is designed to provide real life, hands-on applied learning experiences for students, which involves them in the creation of pandemic-related solutions.

The COVID-19 challenge "provides a real-life testing lab for our aspiring student researchers and entrepreneurs who are driven to create innovative solutions," Malatras said. "And, who better to work with than other esteemed faculty, whose collective work from multiple disciplines will give our students the benefit of their experience, expertise, and collaboration. SUNY has been at the forefront during this health crisis, producing PPE, developing ventilators, creating effective COVID testing and more, and with this seed funding, we are offering additional resources for these student-faculty teams to build on their work.”

"The SUNY grant will support the important work of Oswego Professors Bendinskas and Koeppe in recognizing the continuous mutation of the COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 virus and the need for our detection methods of the virus to evolve," President Deborah F. Stanley noted. 

"The grant will also provide the opportunity for two undergraduate students to engage in innovative research, highlighting the continuing efforts by SUNY Oswego to provide high impact learning experiences and faculty mentoring to our students," Stanley added. "Professors Bendinskas and Koeppe have significant experience working with students in this way and we look forward to seeing this study progress." 

Learning laboratory

"The primary objective is to get students to know how we can do it," said chemistry professor Kestas Bendinskas. "And in our laboratories, we can do both. We can do antibody tests by analyzers, but we also have an instrument that allows us primary detection or the virus and technique is called RTPCR. So we have that instrument as well and the Molecular Monitoring Biochemistry Center in Shineman."

"COVID too is recent news," Wu noted. "There hasn't really been like a clear direction we could go down. So I'm also learning on my feet."

"We are evolving the techniques so that we can have a better detection and better reliable results," Jandev said.

Wu called Bendiskas and Koeppe "great professors" who have helped the student researchers learn and grow inside and outside the classroom.

"They are really good at teaching," Wu said. "Biochemistry itself is a really interesting course. And as a whole, the major itself is also pretty cool."