Student researchers use collaboration to better understand COVID-19 

Editor’s Note: This is Part Two in a two-part series. 

Through collaborative efforts between local researchers and health care providers, along with community participation and engagement, progress is being made in gathering data that allows scientists to better understand how COVID-19 and variants might impact public health. 

Louisiana Tech, Grambling State, and LSU Health Shreveport (LSUHS) have teamed with local organizations like the GSU’s Foster Johnson Health Center, TechCare, and The Health Hut to provide the opportunity for high quality testing and viral genome sequencing for minority and marginalized communities. 

The project serves as a significant illustration of teamwork, according to Tech students involved in the research. 

“Personally, I facilitate packaging and collection of specimens between the partners to make sure that data is entered into the platform,” said Biology student Caroline Dupree. “Taking care of our local community ‘family’ to me is what makes helping with the Rockefeller Foundation grant so meaningful. If our work leads to advances in treatment, care, and overall long-term advances to our future generations, then we have to count that as a step in the right direction.” 

Geri Gravois is a Biology major minoring in pre-medical illustration with Tech’s VISTA (Visual Integration of Science Through Art) Center, where faculty from Art, Biology, and Biomedical Engineering work together to offer students a unique opportunity to communicate science through art. 

“I have worked over the summer to create illustrations for our website with the primary goal to reach out to the public and convey approachability and community,” said Gravois, a sophomore from Zachary. “This project hopes to reach as many of the public as possible, encourage them to get tested for COVID-19 if they show symptoms, and consent for the viral genome of their tests to be sent off for sequencing. Knowing viral strains that occur in the population helps us know COVID-19 evolution and spreading patterns.” 

Taking care of the community is as important as building trust with and educating the public on this type of health issue. 

“When explaining the research study with patients, our staff informs them that the research is designed to determine the presence of viruses and the different type of variants within a community population,” said Chelsea Streets, who along with co-worker and fellow Tech graduate Jackie White, supports the project through her work at The Health Hut. “We explain to them that this information will help researchers better understand the virus. All patients have been accepting and willing to help any way that they can because they know that this research will be a big help to combat COVID-19. We feel that the research is moving in the right direction.” 

Another goal for the project is to be a trusted resource in Lincoln Parish, Kim said. 

“I think people who live here and have some kind of ties to Grambling, Louisiana Tech, or LSU Health Shreveport — maybe they are alumni or their kids go here or they know someone who works here — they might trust us more than big federal agencies,” Kim said. “We’re making progress here engaging with people through our partner clinics and working on outreach events.” 

During its Oct. 16 Homecoming Weekend, Grambling held “Health Starts at Home,” an on-campus health fair to share information and raise awareness. 

“Community engagement is crucial, but it’s also the hard part; sequencing the virus in the lab is easier if you ask me,” Kim said. “Jamie (Newman) took the lead on rolling out our website built specifically for our community that is giving us a platform for that engagement.” 

“We have been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of the community to engage and to participate in this initiative,” Newman said.  “In July and early August when there was a fourth surge in Louisiana, we saw that too (in northwest Louisiana) with the cases showing up at the sites we are sampling from. That has dropped recently, and while we hope we don’t see another surge, it does mean there is a diminishing number of samples at this time.” 

The project is hopeful of getting at least 200 samples. It has received “well over 100 samples” so far, Kamil said. In achieving this goal, this team of scientists and clinicians are building a model for how disease monitoring can be done locally and how academic institutions can partner with their communities to ensure representation and improve health outcomes. 

“A key aspect of this work however is to rapidly share the data so that scientists and public health workers all around the world can study how coronavirus is evolving,” Kamil said. “In the near future we hope to add other viruses, like flu and RSV, to the menu of infections we are tracking. 

“Anyone can help by sharing a sample if you happen to test positive for COVID-19, or educating others to do so as well, or ask us how you can get involved in the work, and in teaching others about viruses.” 

If you have recently tested positive for COVID-19 and want to provide a sample for genomic sequencing, or if you are a health care professional or community organizer who is interested in partnering with the project to bring viral genome sequencing to your community, find out how the project can help you here. 

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