For 20 years, the Petit Undergraduate Research Scholars program has helped develop the next generation of leading bio-researchers. Most years, the competitive fellowship program (open to all Atlanta universities) provides an intensive, full-year research experience, emphasizing independent research in labs of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience and other bio-focused labs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Of course, this isn’t most years. The global COVID-19 pandemic is forcing people and their institutions to slow down, or shut down, or reconfigure, as citizens throughout the world are being strongly encouraged (or ordered) to shelter in place and observe social distancing. University instruction will be handled remotely, online, and research at Georgia Tech has ramped down– only approved essential research is being carried out.
All of which means, this year’s cohort of Petit Scholars and mentors are facing the challenges of the current and new reality, and some are doing so at the frontlines of the campaign to fight the rampant virus that is spreading across the planet. They’re meeting with their lab teams over online meeting platforms, doing what they can from home, maintaining momentum. Meanwhile, there is another reason that this year’s group merits a unique place in the program’s history: two Petit Scholars – Krishna Pucha and Kevin Tao – recently were named 2020 Goldwater Scholars.
For Pucha, news of receiving the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship could not have come at a better time.
“It’s nice to have a bit of good news during this [pandemic],” says Pucha, a third-year student at Emory University, where he’s majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and works in the lab of Nick Willett, assistant professor in the Emory University School of Medicine and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “Though I have not been able to work too much on my original project, I was able to find a good stopping point so I can hit the ground running when I'm back in the lab. All the reagents and supplies are ready for me to get some interesting data when the time permits.”
In the meantime, he’s is working on a paper that will be submitted to Osteoarthritis and Cartilage (the journal of the Osteoarthritis Research Society International).
Tao, a third-year student in the Coulter Department, is actively involved in trying to assist in the COVID-19 effort, albeit from the dining room table in his house.
“I’m keeping up with the literature in my field and continuing the design of DNA barcodes to incorporate a logic-gated component into my research and planning the next experiments of the project,” says Tao, who researches in the lab of Gabe Kwong, associate professor in the Coulter Department. “My mentor and I are submitting this project, or mechanism, in the fight against COVID-19. So we will see where that takes us.”
Asheley Chapman, a biochemistry Ph.D. candidate in the lab of M.G. Finn at Georgia Tech, is working on multiple fronts. On one, she is focusing her thesis on antibody development with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and says, “I am now completely entrenched in COVID vaccine development for them. We are hopeful that our work will result in diagnostics, therapeutics, and may also help define the parts of the virus patients are responding to.”
That critical work is going on even as Chapman mentors Petit Scholar Rachel Fitzgerald (third-year chemistry major), from afar. Like almost every student, Fitzgerald was sent home, “back to the suburbs,” she says. “All work on my project has been stopped, but my mentor and I have decided I’ll write a paper summarizing other targeting methods for melanoma. I’m also starting weekly meetings with my mentor and going to virtual group meetings.”
“The only essential personnel that we have are working on a COVID-19 related project,” says Ana Cristian’s mentor, Ph.D. student Kalina Paunovska. “Our work is very reliant on the ability to do experiments, so this shutdown has really hampered the progress that we would be making on any projects.”
Paunovska-Cristian are based in the lab of James Dahlman, assistant professor in the Coulter Department. Without lab access, the duo is doing what all the Petit Scholar teams are doing – proactively adjusting and adapting, coming up with contingency plans. With Pauvnoska’s help, Cristian (a third year BME student) is outlining the experiments she still has left to do in her project, “so that whenever research resumes, we will be ready to go,” Paunovska says.
And that is the recurring theme of Petit Scholar research this semester – do what you can from home so you can rev up to full speed quickly when normalcy, or something like it, returns to the research enterprise.
Berna Aliya, a third-year neuroscience major at Georgia Tech working in the lab of Young Jang, assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences, studies the role of homeostasis on the regeneration of ischemic skeletal muscle. Everything is lab-based, so she is reading research articles related to her work, catching up on her artwork, trying to get away from the computer screen when she can.
Milan Riddick is a third-year student in the lab of Andrés García, Regents’ Professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and executive director of the Petit Institute, is working from her off-campus apartment, from where she is meeting with her mentor, Pranav Kalelkar, via online meeting platform BlueJeans. She’s reading up on biomaterial-based therapies developed as an alternative to antibiotics to treat bacterial lung infections.
“My work specifically is utilizing bacteriophages as an alternative, but my mentor and I both believe it’ll be beneficial to have an understanding of other alternatives, especially when I have to write the final report for the program,” says Riddick, who expresses what many of her fellow Petit Scholars – what much of the world – is going through internally and socially, beyond work and school.
“I’ve been trying to find some form of normalcy with everything going on right now. It’s hard when the future is so uncertain,” she says. “I’ve been trying to find unique ways to interact with my friends. I filmed a Snapchat version of the Great British Baking Show with those I’m social distancing with, and I’ve been doing a Words with Friends tournament with some past BME project teammates.”
Kasey Cervantes, a third-year biology student at Emory, is learning and utilizing neuromorphic computing to create movement in a central pattern generator for robots. He’s spending a lot of his research time on learning how to code in Python (a programming language) and meets with his professor (Arijit Raychowdhury) weekly to discuss weekly plans and objectives.
Unfortunately for Cervantes, though, the robot that runs on his code is in the lab space, “so I am unable to run my code myself and see if it works.” So, Raychowdhury is going to buy a robot and mail it to Cervantes. The project itself has nothing to do with COVID-19, but while at home, Cervantes attended a virtual meeting that included a challenge to create a mathematical model of the coronavirus.
“I aim to utilize the machine learning techniques I learned from my project experience, and translate that to this challenge,” says Cervantes, who also has some helpful and sincere advice for his fellow human beings during unprecedented, difficult times.
“I think the most important part of this [sheltering in place] is staying connected with others because humans are naturally social creatures, and being alone in your apartment may be very difficult,” he says. “But know that everyone around you is also going through what you are experiencing, and I am pretty sure that like you, they also want to talk or communicate. You just need to reach out.”
It’s business, but not as usual, for the Petit Undergraduate Research Scholars during the shelter-in-place age
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience