Graduate Student Researchers Working to Unlock Secrets of SARS-CoV-2

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PhD student researcher Mariah Taylor has had the opportunity to work in the RBL on COVID-19 research.
PhD student researcher Mariah Taylor has had the opportunity to work in the the lab of Colleen Jonsson, PhD, in the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Laboratory on COVID-19 research. “I really think it’s a unique opportunity,” Taylor said.

Graduate research assistant Mariah Taylor has had the chance to be in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic research in a way that few at her level have experienced. A student in the Biomedical Sciences program in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry, Taylor is working in the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) to help increase understanding of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, its development, and its future.

She is a research assistant in the lab of Colleen Jonsson, PhD, Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology and director of the RBL, one of only a dozen federally funded labs in the country authorized to study deadly pathogens. Taylor, who is expected to complete her graduate work in December, and two other graduate students, Evan Williams and Jasper Lee, came to UTHSC with Dr. Jonsson when she joined the faculty in 2017.

Taylor has led an effort to survey for variants of the virus in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, using next-generation sequencing, Dr. Jonsson said. She has looked at these isolates in mouse studies to determine if any of the apparent mutations of the various virus lineages have greater pathogenicity or ability to cause disease. “This study laid the foundation for the screening of samples for variants for the City of Memphis,” Dr. Jonsson said.

Taylor said she started in the laboratory with a thesis research focus on looking at the evolution of different viruses, in particular the Hantavirus. “My real focus was in learning about the adaptation and evolution of that virus and the rodent-host species,” she said. “And so, I was able to translate the models and the designs that we’ve made to work more with SARS-CoV-2. When the virus started spreading and we saw it getting really big, I told Dr. Jonsson that I really wanted to be a part of what she was doing and I wanted to write a paper that focuses on SARS-COV-2. All of this research is not only for my dissertation, but is going to help the greater good and understanding.

Taylor has also helped lead a team to go out to diagnostics laboratories in Memphis to collect nasal pharyngeal swabs that are positive for COVID. “We’re collecting them over the course of a year to see really how to characterize these viruses and understand what the diversity of this virus is,” she said.

Working with Dr. Jonsson in the RBL are PhD student researchers, from left, Briana Spruill-Harrell, Mariah Taylor, and Evan Williams.
Working with Dr. Jonsson in the RBL are PhD student researchers, from left, Briana Spruill-Harrell, Mariah Taylor, and Evan Williams.

Dr. Jonsson said graduate researcher Evan Williams has supported Taylor on these studies, examining genes being expressed by the lung to ask how they may contribute to disease. Briana Spruill-Harrell and Janet Wang, also graduate student researchers, have established the COVID-19 biorepository that has provided samples to establish testing for antibodies to SARS COV-2, Dr. Jonsson said. The biorepository is also being used to screen for SARS CoV-2 variants in Memphis.

“I really think it’s a unique opportunity to understand more about the coronavirus, because it is a novel virus,” Taylor said. “There’s been a lot of suggested theories as to what’s going to happen next. There’s a lot that we don’t know about the virus, but in order to combat it, I think we can take one question at a time, and as researchers, we have the ability to  find out more about it.”

This story was originally published in the Spring 2021 Graduate Health Sciences Magazine.