Sitting on a stool in Dr. Paul Frandsen’s lab, BYU College of Life Sciences student Andrew Sheffield (’22) filtered countless jars of environmental DNA. He, along with the rest of the research team, had already been out in the hot sun trudging through muddy water with nets and jars to collect DNA from various invertebrates. As night fell and the automatic lights in the building turned off, Sheffield realized that it was 4 a.m. Although at times he sacrificed sleep in the name of science, he had no idea that his hours of work and eye for detail would provide him with the skills to contribute to his community and make a difference during a world-wide pandemic.
Sheffield is part of a mentored research group that allows him to delve deeper into the fascinating world of genetics, genomics, and wildlife conservation under Dr. Frandsen’s mentorship. The BYU research group is working on the “megafire project,” monitoring how plant and animal wildlife have repopulated mountains in the aftermath of the 2018 Pole Creek megafires. The project involves the use of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine to amplify DNA samples collected from bodies of water affected by the fires. Because the quantity of collected DNA is too small to accurately study, the PCR machine replicates the sample over and over again until it is large enough to examine.
The skills obtained through the mentored research in Dr. Frandsen’s lab set the stage for Sheffield to assist with COVID-19 testing. While working at the hospital, Sheffield learned there was a need for more people to administer tests. Interestingly, his work collecting various insects in a stream, extracting DNA, and working a PCR machine to analyze results qualified him to run COVID-19 tests which require a similar process and analysis. His extensive experience extracting and filtering DNA evolved into breaking down viral RNA and amplifying samples with a PCR machine to determine COVID test results. Instead of collecting insect DNA from streams and rivers, Sheffield transitioned to collecting RNA from nasopharyngeal swabs of individuals tested for COVID-19.
Sheffield values what mentored research adds to his education as it provides him with hands-on experience, the chance to work with an esteemed scientist seeking answers to fascinating questions, and the skills to engage in the fight against the virus. In addition to his mentored research, Sheffield’s life science courses and work experience provided him with significant opportunities to learn: “Learning is the process of understanding, and when we can understand more about the world around us, it equips us to be a more proactive member of the community.”