Students jump out of a van dressed in white lab coats, gloves, masks, and goggles, wielding a long parascoping pole that has a little 15 ml bottle attached at the end. They open the utility hole covers, dip the dangles in to scoop up some of the water, then store the filled tubes on ice while transporting them back to the lab. Making thirteen stops three times a week and testing a whole lot of wastewater, these students track the COVID-19 cases on BYU campus and in Utah County.
When officials declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March, the state of Utah approached College of Life Sciences professor Zach Aanderud to start a project testing wastewater for the SARS COV-2 gene. The project started as a way to identify hotspots and track the virus more accurately than just from self-reporting test sites, where community members may have test fatigue or be asymptomatic. With this secondary method of measurement, the numbers lined up clearly.
Zach Aanderud and his team of twelve undergraduate students, ranging in majors from microbiology to economics, found that the virus sheds in feces five to seven days before an outbreak starts. “We were able to detect the initial spike that occurred when students returned to campus,” Aanderud says. “We saw it around September 7, before all the counts started to go up.” When the researchers detect a spike in cases, they warn those connected to that plumbing line to be cautious or get tested.
Microbiology student Jonathon Daniels (’20) is one of the collectors using the dangle to collect wastewater. While working on this project alongside Aanderud and other students, Daniels has come to appreciate the scientific method behind the work. “There are really good ways to track disease. And it’s not just by going in and getting a Q-tip down your throat,” Daniels says. “This system that we’re setting up now could be used for any number of viral infections.”
Researchers run the numbers and compile them to present to state and BYU officials. They have found that this method of testing accurately and thoroughly measures the virus.
Wastewater testing process
The entire process is safe—researchers wear personal protective gear and bleach materials after each use. The test tubes are also immediately incubated for twenty-four hours once they arrive at the lab, deactivating the virus.
Once the incubation is complete, the test tubes pass into the next phase. Ally Barnett (’22), an economics major, extracts the RNA from the water using an RNA filter. She uses an acidifier to make the RNA stickier, preventing it from filtering out with the rest of the water. In between each step, the tubes are placed in the freezer to prevent further viral shedding.
Kevin Torgerson (’20) is one of the recent project participants. He extracts the RNA—the virus’s genome—from Barnett’s work and runs it through a qRT-PCR machine. While working with wastewater sounds rather unappealing, it’s not that bad. “It’s pure molecular biology lab work,” Torgerson explains. “People usually have that kind of reaction, and it’s not what they think. I think it’s a super powerful tool; they can use it to test for opioids or prescription drugs, and they can test for different viruses.”
Mentored research experience
Aanderud has mentored each of the students throughout the project, giving them hands-on, in-field experience beyond the classroom. For Torgerson, who is currently applying to graduate programs, this has given him ample opportunity to prepare for the research-focused learning in graduate school.
“Getting an opportunity to publish papers on the data that you help collect and analyze, along with coordinating and collaborating with people at [nearby universities, provides] really good opportunities for undergrads to get involved in things that graduate students would be doing,” Torgerson says.
Barnett connected with Aanderud when taking his intro to environmental biology class for non-majors. Now she’s finding ways to pair her biology experience with her long-term goals in economics. “I’m really interested in behavior and how we can influence behavior,” Barnett says. “That’s why I really want to be able to connect my science research that I’ve done here with economics and the economic impact. When we have this information, it can help to influence people’s behavior.”
Torgerson adds, “I really feel like this project has helped cement the skills that I’ll need to be successful in the future.”
Aanderud encourages all students at BYU to find ways to get involved, even outside of their comfort zone: “I think it could change your whole trajectory of what you want to do. . . . When they’re undergrads and they come in, everybody thinks their options are limited. I think by getting involved in a lab and having the support that BYU gives opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.”