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Mentored research prepares student to help with COVID-19 testing

Working in Dr. Paul Frandsen's lab allowed Andrew Sheffield to develop the cross-disciplinary skills needed to contribute during a world-wide pandemic.

Sitting on a stool in Dr. Paul Frandsen’s lab, BYU College of Life Sciences student Andrew Sheffield 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 4:00 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 give him 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 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. In particular, they are looking at the survival and repopulation of stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies. 

The megafire 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. By amplifying the DNA, Sheffield is able to match up the DNA to a reference database of gene sequences and can then estimate the quantity of a particular organism within a given area. 

The cross-disciplinary skills obtained through the mentored research in Dr. Frandsen’s lab set the stage for Sheffield to assist with COVID-19 testing. While simultaneously working at Timpanogos Regional Hospital, Sheffield learned that the hospital needed more people to run tests. Interestingly, his work collecting various insects in a stream, extracting DNA, and working a PCR machine have helped qualify 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 minuscule samples with a PCR machine to determine test results. Instead of collecting insect DNA from streams and rivers, Sheffield transitioned to collecting DNA of a different type of “bug” from nasopharyngeal swabs of individuals tested for COVID-19. 

Sheffield has seen first-hand the time and effort contributed by others to fight the virus. He is inspired by the way that everyone has rallied together towards a common goal: “Everyone has this mentality of ‘we are going to do everything we can to fight this disease.’” 

Nate Black, communications director for Timpanogos Regional Hospital, agrees: “Having test results provides people a sense of hope and security, and can allow people to get back to their lives with caution.” 

With unprecedented economic and social impacts, Black hopes that testing can help track and contain the spread of the virus as well as help members of the community plan for the future. 

Sheffield appreciates the value mentored research added to his education as it provided 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. 

“I would never have thought that working in the lab at BYU would give me the opportunity to run lab tests for COVID-19,” Sheffield says. “It really helps me to see that education doesn’t just end with finals week. In fact, the things you learn can really impact and prepare you for the rest of your life.” 

Of his faculty mentor, Sheffield said Frandsen is a “big bug guy” who really cares about his students: “He’s helped me to think critically and learn in a way I don’t think I could have done without him.”

Although Dr. Frandsen does not expect his students to work until 4 a.m. in the morning, Sheffield’s commitment and work ethic are great assets to the lab. “Students don’t often realize how much work is involved with research,” Frandsen says. “Andrew, like most students, was surprised with the steep learning curve and tedium of the process, but a quality he has that’s hard to teach is curiosity. He always has a drive to learn and really thinks about the research questions we are asking.” 

Sheffield advises other students who are interested in mentored research to find out what they are passionate about and talk to professors who share the interest. “If you like bugs, and your professor likes bugs, you’re going to get along,” he said. “Many professors need students to help with research, so there are alot of opportunities available if you are seeking them.” 

Sheffield is grateful for his mentored research, classroom education, and work experience, which have all provided 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.”