Lilly’s journey from pre-health to medical lab science and a rewarding career beyond

Shadowing physicians at Dickinson County Hospital was a favorite past-time for Lilly Van Loon ’22. She experienced the hospital: the ER, pediatrics, physical therapy, social work. A career in medicine appealed to Lilly. The pre-health program at Michigan Tech was her choice to begin a journey to medical school. However, she soon realized she did not enjoy the pre-med journey. Maybe it was not the right destination for her.

Image of Michigan Tech Medical Lab Science student Lilly Van Loon
Michigan Tech Medical Lab Science student Lilly Van Loon

But a visit from Karyn Fay, former program director of medical lab science, to her classroom was the redirect she needed. She took the next exit and headed straight to medical lab science (MLS). She loved the analytical nature of MLS. It had process, order and fine detail to master. As she has found, “When you get a sample, you have to problem-solve. You get to help with the diagnosis of the patient. You work independently but you get to collaborate with others.” Lilly enjoyed learning about the different panels, gaining expertise. She knew she was headed in the right direction.

Undergraduate research is a key factor in choosing Michigan Tech

Working in research as an undergraduate was an important factor in selecting Michigan Tech in 2018. She knew she wanted to take part in research. Research came up during an early conversation with an advisor in biological science. Experiential learning from research would increase her knowledge level and round out her resume. She mastered skills like pipetting in the lab. She gained a deeper understanding of different tests and techniques. The repetition gave her confidence. The lab has been an important part of her journey.

Investigating the impact of high salt diets

Lilly’s lab in the Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology department focuses on “The Role of Orexin A in Salt Sensitive Hypertension”. Lilly says “Hypertension is a major risk factor of cardiovascular disease, which is the number one cause of death in the US.  There are many mechanisms that contribute to hypertension, and hyperactivity of orexin signaling is one of them.  Our goal is to see if a high salt diet increases activity of peripheral orexin in Dahl-Salt Sensitive rats. Also, if there is a difference in the expression of orexin between male and female rats. This is super interesting because this condition is so common in the US, and I am excited to understand more about the physiology.”

“Lilly joined our lab in 2020 and learned molecular techniques. She also did animal study including taking care of rats and measuring blood pressure by using a noninvasive tail cuff method. Blood pressure was measured once a week and Lilly seldom missed the measurements,” says Dr. Zhiying (Jenny) Shan, associate professor, kinesiology and integrative physiology. “In our lab we never had blood pressure data of Dahl salt sensitive female rats and Lilly helped us collect this data which fulfills our research. Besides animal work, Lilly dedicated a lot of her time in molecular-based research and worked hard from last summer till now. The PCR and Western blot data that she collected was useful for our future study and will be present in our future publications.”

Image of Western blot analysis of a Dahl-Salt kidney
Western blot analysis of a Dahl-Salt kidney

Lilly sees the benefits of research

Lilly knows the benefits of research for society. She says, “We can identify the limits and strive to learn more…. Without that curiosity and research, our society would remain stagnant and would miss out on a lot of amazing innovations.”

Personally, her research helped her manage time. She loved the research, but it was time consuming. Lilly estimates she committed 10 hours per week as a lab assistant in her sophomore and junior years, and increased it to 15-20 hours per week as a senior. She admits, “You forget this is an extracurricular thing. There’s so much to consider. Balancing research and school work, your mental and physical health, and social life. Thanks to my research I’ve been able to grow my skills in managing time.”

Dr Jenny agrees. “I think Lilly is also a self-disciplined person. Besides research, she has a lot of coursework and a job, but she can handle multiple tasks very well which definitely is due to her discipline and initiative. In addition, Lilly learned things fast, so I really like to work with her, and this is another reason that makes her successful in our lab.”

Lilly receives Undergraduate Research Internship Program grant at Michigan Tech

Receiving an Undergraduate Research Internship Program grant proved exciting. Awards of up to $1,600 are available to all Tech undergraduates interested in engaging in a research experience in a faculty member’s laboratory.  It took a lot of time, sweat and tears to apply for that grant. But it paid off in the end. Her one word to describe the experience: rewarding.

Award recipients are required to present their research at the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. She accomplished this in March on Friday of Preview Day Weekend with her poster “The Role of Orexin A in Salt Sensitive Hypertension”.

Image of Michigan Tech students presenting research poster
Lilly Van Loon (left) presents “The Role of Orexin A in Salt Sensitive Hypertension” at The Pavlis Honors College’s 2022 Undergraduate Research Symposium, along with Sophia Bancker (right).

Lilly finds community at Michigan Tech

Lilly found the MLS program to be a tight-knit community where students helped each other. The student chapter of the Society of Medical Lab Scientists (SMLS) was a big part of the community. Lilly was responsible for public relations for SMLS. “SMLS has given me so much. I met some of my best friends through it. They will be in my life forever. You do study groups. It’s a great opportunity as an underclassman. You get advice from upperclassmen. As an upperclassman I get to return the favor. They are a great support system. We help each other with registration and studying, getting over the stress of school. We do the blood drive too.”

In looking back at her time at Michigan Tech, she says “This is a place I think you can thrive. I see all my friends, even from different majors, and many are thriving. I don’t think everyone can make it here, but big props to you if you can make it here.” She loves the community at Michigan Tech. “Everyone here welcomes you with open arms. Everyone is so open and friendly, especially in this major. People I met here in my first week are still some of my best friends.”

What’s next?

For Lilly college was always on the radar. She looked forward to exploring interests in science and preparing for that career in medicine. And now she is closer to the destination, with a practicum at Marshfield Clinic this summer as her next stop. Lilly beams when discussion turns to Marshfield Clinic. “There will be cool tests. Because Marshfield Clinic is so well known and brings in patients from all over, there will be things you don’t see every day. I will have three months in the classroom and then 6 months in the lab. Students that have gone through there have done well on their BOC (certification exams) and I am lucky to be one of those people to be a part of it. They have a 100% passing rate for their students.”

Image of Lily smiling with two thumbs up
Two-thumbs up from Lilly on this test result!

Of course, having great students like Lilly in their practicum keeps that passing rate high. Claire Danielson, medical laboratory science program director and academic advisor says “Lilly is a joy to have in the classroom and lights any room she enters! Her positive attitude and strong laboratory skills are going to make her an excellent Medical Laboratory Scientist. We have no doubt that Lilly will make us proud during her practicum at Marshfield Clinic!”

Once she is BOC certificated Lilly will continue her career as a medical lab scientist. She hopes to find a specialization and become a lead technician. Beyond that, she does not rule out returning to school for a masters. Pathology school to become a pathology assistant or entering public health are other options. Lots of exciting stops ahead on Lilly’s journey!

Human biology students win top awards at Michigan Tech

It is rare that a student in one department wins major end-of-year awards at Michigan Tech. So imagine how excited we were to have two! Congratulations to our outstanding award-winners in the biological sciences department who are also part of our pre-health program. 

Christian Johnson wins the Provost’s Award for Scholarship

First to Christian Johnson, winner of the Provost’s Award for Scholarship. The Provost’s Award for Scholarship is given “to a senior who best represents student scholarship at Michigan Tech. This outstanding student is considered excellent, not only by academic standards, but also for participation in research, scholarship activity, levels of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and communication skills.”

Image of Christian Johnson, the Provost's Award for Scholarship winner
Christian Johnson, the Provost’s Award for Scholarship winner

“I am thrilled to see that Christian was selected for the Provost Award for Scholarship.  I have had the honor to work with Christian over the past 3 years as his Pre-Med Advisor,” says Nicole Seigneurie, director of pre-health professions and instructor of biological sciences. “I can’t say enough how outstanding a student Christian is. He has always impressed me with his passion, commitment to community service, work ethic, and servant leadership. On top of that, he is a very kind and compassionate individual who I know is destined for great things. This award was well-deserved!” 

Stephanie Carpenter, assistant professor of creative writing describes Christian as “an inventive, dynamic writer and an engaged, generous participant in discussions of published and student works” who is “a stand-out in our department and at Michigan Tech.” Christian added the English major, a move that he feels will help him to be a more empathetic physician and to develop the critical thinking and writing skills he will need to be successful in medical school.

And Travis Wakeham, lecturer and undergraduate academic advisor in biological sciences adds, “It has been an absolute pleasure watching Christian grow into an empathetic leader through his involvement in a wide variety of activities. Few students can balance conducting research in cardiovascular physiology, pursuing various artistic endeavors (including actively working on two novels), assisting people through a crisis as a volunteer at Dial Help, while finding time to play through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign between all of his schoolwork. He truly represents some of the best scholarship at Michigan Tech.
Pursuing a double major in English and human biology with a pre-health professions minor, Christian’s diverse passions and accomplishments led to his selection as the Departmental Scholar for both Humanities and the Pavlis Honors College. We thank Christian for his scholarship and academic accomplishments, as well as his tireless commitment in serving the Michigan Tech community.

Bella Menzel-Smith wins William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award

And congratulations to Bella Menzel-Smith for winning the 2022 William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award! The William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award is “presented to a student who demonstrates community service with lasting and meaningful impact during their time at Michigan Tech, regardless of background or area of study.”

Image of Bella Menzel-Smith William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award winner at Michigan Tech
Bella Menzel-Smith, the William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award winner

Dr. David and Marie Blum initiated this endowment in memory of Marie’s parents, Josephine and William Balconi. David and Marie remember Marie’s parents as “kind, gracious, warm, and always helpful. They were always involved in helping others.” Marie’s parents lived in the Houghton area.

“I was so honored to be able to nominate Bella for the Willman and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award,” says Nicole. “Bella embodies everything this award stands for. She has a real passion for helping others through service and she’s left such an incredible impact on both the Tech and Houghton community. I am excited to see where the future takes her as she embarks on her next chapter, Physician Assistant School. I am confident Bella will continue to have a positive impact on her future patients and the communities that she will serve in the future.” 

Travis adds, “Bella energizes any room that she walks into with her positive attitude and dedication to serve others. She has made a tremendous impact within our community through her initiatives, including creating a pre-health mentoring program to connect new students with upperclassmen. Her work has helped empower others and bettered their well-being. I have no doubt that she will excel in the Physician Assistant program at Marquette University next and continue to serve others as a healthcare professional.”Bella is a pre-physician assistant student who is majoring in human biology. You can read more about her pathway to Physician Assistant School. We thank Bella for her tireless commitment to community service and passion for helping underserved communities.

The impact of high levels of research on an undergraduate student at Michigan Tech

Research helps Sophia Bancker complete her goals

Sophia Bancker wanted lab experience. Along with her medical laboratory science (MLS) major and minors in international Spanish and public health, it was an important step on the journey to graduate school. So when Dr. Zhiying (Jenny) Shan asked for undergraduate students to do research and Sophia saw a fit with her schedule, she did not hesitate to raise her hand. This is not surprising for this ambitious Minnesotan who by her own admission does not like to sit still.

Image of Michigan Tech students presenting research poster
Sophia Bancker(right) presents “The Role of Orexin A in Salt Sensitive Hypertension” at The Pavlis Honors College’s 2022 Undergraduate Research Symposium, along with Lilly Van Loon (left).

Research Focus: Understanding the Impact of a High Salt Diet

She works with Dr. Shan and PhD student Xinqian (Sherry) Chen to better understand the impact of high salt diets on hypertension. “What interests me the most about my research is learning what different indicators of hypertension look like and how we test the different body organs to look for identification of Orexin A,” Sophia says. In the lab, she observes the adrenal glands, kidneys, heart, pancreas, and livers, isolates the RNA, and then runs diagnostic tests like PCR and western blot to see if Orexin is present or not, and at what level.

She sees first-hand how high salt diets affect the body and brain. Her work in the lab supports understanding of how the presence of Orexin A is related to high salt diets. She looks at impacts by gender too. Thanks to Sophia’s contributions, we know adrenal gland orexin receptors may be involved in salt-sensitive hypertension. More in vitro research will be done this summer.

The Benefits of Sophia’s Lab Experience at Michigan Tech

Sophia enjoys the lab experience too, particularly in Dr. Shan’s lab, where it is unique that all the faculty and students are women. She finds it to be a comforting environment, where it is safe to ask questions. “I had been kind of shy, so asking questions here was easy. Knowing how much innovation there is and research that has been and still needs to be done is exciting. And I got to be part of that process. I got to jump right in, working in the lab in the spring of 2020, my second semester of freshman year, starting the research right away. I did not have to wash lab dishes for anyone other than myself!” she says.

Sophia gets deep into the science, including the methodology and findings. “I’ve been able to read scientific articles and present them. It was really hard the first time I did it, but it keeps getting easier. I am gaining more confidence in my public speaking skills through it.” But that’s not all. “And I am getting a lot of practice with pipetting, more than I ever would have otherwise.”

Her contributions have not gone unnoticed. Sherry Chan observes, “Sophia is a self-disciplined and self-motivated individual. She attended the lab meetings, as many as she could, and presented in the journal club. She likes to learn everything from the lab and enjoys the lab work even though it is not related to her project. In addition, any lab work that I gave to her she would finish at her earliest convenience. As a researcher, one of the most important capabilities is to test the scientific hypothesis as soon as possible without procrastinating, and Sophia has this precious ability.”

Dr. Shan adds, “Sophia is a hard-working student with strong curiosity. She is eager to learn new techniques. She has a very busy schedule, but she has been trying her best to attend lab meetings, lab Journal clubs and do presentations in the journal club. Her hard-working and curious nature enables her to learn a lot and make great progress quickly.”

Learning about high-salt diets is eye-opening. But Sophia admits understanding what the day-to-day in a research lab looks like, the importance of asking questions and learning by doing, and how to read and present information from scientific journals has been the most gratifying component of her research.

The influence on her future has been as great as the impact of a high salt diet on your heart and kidney. “My experience changed my career choice. I had thought of medical school, but as I studied for MCAT and thought about the sacrifice (many years of medical school), I decided it wasn’t for me. I have decided to apply to PA (Physician’s Assistant) school instead.” Working as a PA is much more appealing to Sophia as knows she will “be more hands-on with people, connecting with them, and still provide the medical care they need. There’s also more work-life balance.” And she will get to do it sooner.

Her academic advisor Claire Danielson believes Sophia is well prepared for PA school. “Sophia is an extremely driven student in the medical laboratory science (MLS) program. She works hard to achieve her goal of going to PA school. Her valiant effort in our program and in undergraduate research does not go unnoticed. Sophia is an excellent role model for students in the MLS program. We wholeheartedly support her future goals and successes.” 

Another outcome of her research is that she was named first-place winner in The Pavlis Honors College’s 2022 Undergraduate Research Symposium for her work on “The Role of Orexin A in Salt Sensitive Hypertension.” Sophia shares, “it meant a lot to be rewarded for the effort and time doing the research, as well as preparing for the presentation. I took a lot of pride in the fact that I was able to readily relay all that I had learned! Public speaking  has not always been one of my finest skills.”

Image of Michigan Tech student Sophia Bancker enjoying the Keweenaw outdoors
When she’s not in the lab, Sophia enjoys the spectacular views of the Keweenaw.

Sophia’s Advice for Undergraduate Students Wanting to do Research

Michigan Tech is a STEM school with many labs for undergraduate students to do research. So the idea of a first- or second-year student doing research is not unusual here. Sophia’s advice for students looking to get involved in research at Michigan Tech is simple. “Talk to a professor. If you have an interest in a specific area and they cannot accommodate you in their lab, they likely know someone else who may need you in their lab.”

Sophia’s advice does not end there. She encourages students starting out at Michigan Tech to “join a fun club. Even just one. I really enjoyed the ski club. My friends and I started the pickleball club, too. There are about ten of us and we are looking to expand.” 

This summer, Sophia will study abroad in Ecuador and Peru with MedLife.  Working in South America at a mobile clinic focusing on treating Covid-19 and improving general hygiene. She looks forward to a hands-on experience in general medicine and public health, areas she thinks she will be working in many years down the road.

As Sophia looks back on her college experience, she reflects “I wish I did not put so much pressure on myself. Every exam did not have to be an ‘A’. A ‘B’ on your transcript is not the end of the world.” This leads us to conclude pressure and high salt diets are not good; terrific research experiences equals great!

Sarah LewAllen, MLS Clinical Practicum Spotlight

Sarah sitting in hospital laboratory.
Sarah LewAllen recently completed her clinical practicum at Beaumont Health – Royal Oak.

Where are you currently completing your practicum?

I completed my practicum at Beaumont Health – Royal Oak. I am currently certified through ASCP and working full time at Beaumont Health – Farmington Hills as a generalist.

What is your favorite aspect of your practicum?

The opportunity to work with experienced technologists was my favorite part of my practicum. Each tech had stories of interesting cases they’ve worked on and shared valuable tips and tricks that I currently use out on the bench. Getting to see how the theory covered in our classes applies out on the bench was also really rewarding!

Why did you choose a career in Medical Lab Science?

A career in MLS offers a broad spectrum of possibilities, even outside of healthcare. The versatility of the degree was a huge reason why I chose to major in medical lab science. I’ve always loved human physiology, so MLS was the perfect hands-on career to apply that knowledge in the healthcare setting with less patient contact.

Share something interesting with us about your practicum!

I got to observe and assist with a few bone marrow aspirations, both adult and pediatric! It was so fascinating seeing that procedure done firsthand. There aren’t many opportunities to work directly with the physicians and nurses, so it was a very cool experience.

What is something you think others should know about MLS?

Because medical lab scientists are behind the scenes, many people are unaware of the critical role we play in patient care. It is up to the lab to ensure the results we release to the physicians are accurate, so attention to detail, communication, and solid problem solving skills are essential. There’s a huge shortage of certified technologists, so this career is always in demand!

What advice would you give to students entering their practicum?

Study during your practicum like you did during your undergraduate courses. It’s so important to stay on top of the material you’ll need to know for the BOC exam. It will make reviewing for it much easier and less stressful when it comes time to take it! Also, never be afraid to ask questions. I learned so much from the technologists I worked with, in both bench skills and career advice. They are a huge asset to you!

Rashi Yadav, Biological Sciences Graduate Student Spotlight

Rashi Yadav is a final year PhD candidate in Department of Biological Sciences working on L2-based virus-like particles (VLPs) against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and also, production of thermostable VLP platform. In addition to research, she has taught Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Environmental Microbiology and General Biology as a Graduate Teaching Assistant.

Rashi presenting

HPVs are associated with 90% of cervical cancer and 25% of oral cancer. Infected individuals clear the infection within two years, however persistent infection can lead to cancer and genital warts. Fortunately, there are two L1- based prophylactic vaccine against HPVs that offers protection against 7 cancer causing HPV types (high-risk HPVs) and 2 low risk HPV types that can cause cutaneous and genital warts. However, there are 19 cancer causing HPV types and current vaccine offer limited cross protection. The outer shell (capsid) of HPV is made of two proteins- major capsid protein (L1) that is not conserved and minor capsid protein (L2), on the contrary, is conserved among different types of HPVs. Rashi’s research is focused on assessing the ability of L2-based VLPs against different types of high-risk and low-risk HPV types. Overall, L2-based VLPs can protect against 12 oncogenic HPV types causing cervical and oral cancer in addition to protection against HPV 5 that causes Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis. Rashi’s second project is on development of novel thermostable VLP platform that can be exploited to expose antigens on the surface against cancer or virus as vaccine.

Rashi working in the Covid-19 diagnostic lab.

Rashi won the first prize in 3 Minute Thesis organized by Health Research Slam where students from various departments participated and was awarded a check of $300. The topic of her presentation was “”Oral immunization with bacteriophage MS2-L2 VLPs protects against oral infection with multiple HPV types associated with head and neck cancers ”

Rashi is also working in MTU Covid-19 diagnostic lab. She is one of the few students who joined the lab and helped set up the lab including training and supervising students in RNA extraction of samples. She also prepares viral transport media which is exported to number of health facilities around the city to obtain samples for testing.

Student artist Mara Hackman (MLS) – Outdoor Sculpture 2020

Student artist Mara Hackman sitting around her outdoor sculpture "Space"

This summer, Lisa Gordillo (VPA) is teaching Michigan Tech’s first fully-online sculpture class. Students focus on making works or art outside, and use the landscape around them as their studio. Because we’re several months into “social distancing” and many folks are longing for connection, Gordillo worked to make a class that creates connections with community (even at a distance). Student sculptors consider art, ecology, and social connection as they make new works of art this summer. 

One student artist in the class is Mara Hackman, an undergraduate student in Medical Laboratory Science. Hackman’s first sculpture, titled “Line,” was created with a “wave of trash and flowers”. Her sculpture follows the path of a stream near her home. To make this sculpture, Hackman walked her favorite nature trail and gathered the trash she found along the way. She gathered flowers from the trail and her garden, and combined them into this wave to “signify life and repair.” She hopes people will look at this piece and think about both the beauty of nature and the destruction humans can cause.

Student artist Mara Hackman outdoor sculpture "Line"

The second scupture is titled “Space,” as described by Hackman, “I started off by blowing up 240 balloons and started by tying (them) together. You think 240 balloons is a lot, and they almost completely filled up my grandma’s living room – but once I took them all outside in the field, the balloons looked small. The field was very spacious. I did different things with the balloons, pilled them up and made a line, and randomly had them spread out around the field.

I took inspiration from Tierra (2013) by artist Regina JoseGalindo. In Tierra, (the artist stood) in a field as a bulldozer dug out around here leaving less and less space. Having balloons staked around me, made me feel claustrophobic and I felt all this pressure around me. That is where I came up with the idea that all these balloons and their different colors represented the different pressures of my life … which is represented by the balloons surrounding (my sister) Kylee and only leaving her boots left.”

View more on the Outdoor Sculpture 2020 Online Gallery.

Students Earn Honorable Mention in 2020 Virtual Michigan Physiological Society Annual Conference

The first ever Michigan Physiological Society Virtual Conference just wrapped up! It was a great collection of speakers with impressive work. Several of our students and faculty participated, including two students from Dr. John J. Durocher’s research group that earned awards for their presentations!

Thomas Basala (Undergraduate Student, Biological Sciences) earned an honorable mention for his presentation: “Applied Human Physiology Fitness Trail Project: Benefits for Local Residents and Undergraduate Students.”

Aditi Vyas (PhD Student, Biological Sciences) also earned an honorable mention for her presentation: “Effects of 8-Week Active Mindfulness and Stress Management on Anxiety and Mental Health During the Covid-19 Pandemic.”

Congratulations, Thomas and Aditi!

Zoom meeting screenshot of participants.

Thomas Basala research poster

Aditi Vyas research poster

In the News

Ebenezer Tumban portriat
Ebenezer Tumban

Ebenezer Tumban (BioSci) was quoted in the story “MTU virologist discusses virus differences,” in the Daily Mining Gazette:

MTU virologist discusses virus differences

Joshua Vissers, Associate Editor, Daily Mining Gazette, March 27, 2020

HOUGHTON — Influenza and coronaviruses both travel between the infected wrapped in a stolen bit of the previous host cell’s outer, lipid-based layer called an envelope. That layer protects the viruses from harsh environments, and works as a kind of disguise to help them inject themselves into the next cell. The difference that makes an outbreak of coronavirus so much more dangerous is the difference in that envelope.

“Normally, envelope viruses are not stable in the environment,” Ebenezer Tumban said.

Tumban is a molecular virologist and vaccinologist at Michigan Technological University. He’s been studying viruses in an effort to learn how to vaccinate against them.

Envelopes dry out and deteriorate fairly quickly outside the body, and the virus inside is rendered helpless to infect another cell, he said.

This image shows the lipid envelope of coronavirus, taken from an infected cell, and the crown-like proteins added by the virus that are its namesake.
Provided image This image shows the lipid envelope of coronavirus, taken from an infected cell, and the crown-like proteins added by the virus that are its namesake.

However, coronaviruses have hollow proteins embedded in their envelope. Scientists thought this structure looked like a crown, and so called it corona (Latin for crown).

“The crown basically makes them more stable compared to the regular flu,” Tumban said.

This extra stability allows it to last longer in the air and on surfaces compared to influenza viruses. So a coronavirus-infected person coughing in an area can infect people passing though that area for much longer than someone with influenza.

Despite having symptoms quite similar to a flu, fighting a coronavirus is more difficult for the body than fighting a flu virus for a few reasons. 

“There’s a lot of things, some of it has to do with the virus and some of it has to do with us,” Tumban said.

A more stable envelope means the virus can exist in more parts of the human body. The flu virus is typically destroyed by fluid in the gastrointestinal tract, but COVID-19’s corona protects them from that, according to Tumban.

The virus also seems to be able to suppress immune system response in some people.

“People that were infected with coronavirus had a low level of lymphocytes,” he said.

This suggests that the coronavirus is also infecting those types of cells, which are part of the body’s defense system. The influenza virus doesn’t do that. 

Tumban said there’s also evidence that the virus can trigger a reaction in the body similar to an allergic reaction.

“My body might overreact and produce a lot of cytokines,” he said.

These cytokines can trigger sepsis and organ failure in severe cases.

And medical professionals have fewer tools to fight coronavirus, too.

“We don’t have a vaccine for corona, we have a vaccine for influenza,” Tumban said.

Influenza vaccines have been in use for a long time, training our immune systems in how to make antibodies that fight that particular virus and creating a group immunity that protects even those without the vaccine. While the flu virus does mutate regularly, it’s rarely enough to render a vaccine entirely ineffective.

“Vaccinations from the past might help to make the disease less severe compared to coronavirus which is new,” Tumban said. “You don’t have a single antibody against it in your body.”

People hospitalized with the flu can receive certain treatments like Tamiflu, but Tumban said with coronavirus, doctors right now mostly give “supportive care” – using tools like ventilators to support the patient’s body while it fights or endures the infection on its own.

These factors together create a much more deadly virus than the flu.

“The mortality rate is about 10 times that of influenza,” Tumban said on Tuesday.

Tumban’s calculations, based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, show that a high estimate of influenza’s mortality this year is about 0.1% in the United States, but coronavirus is showing to be about 1.27%. 

Worldwide, the mortality rate for coronavirus is about 4.3% according to Tumban.

The increased mortality and lack of treatment and defense are what is leading countries and organizations around the world to implement social distancing and quarantine measures as healthcare providers ramp up capacity and researches search for vaccines.

However, while coronavirus can be far more infectious and harmful than the influenza virus, many of the same precautions work to prevent infection. The No. 1 recommendation, hand washing and sanitizing, destroys the all-important envelope protecting the virus, rendering it virtually harmless.

“There’s no way they can cause the disease,” Tumban said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to more accurately portray Dr. Tumban’s work. While he has worked directly with Zika, dengue, HPV and other viruses, he has not worked directly with coronaviruses.

New Funding

Bruce Lee (BioMed) is the principal investigator on a project that has received a $434,993 research and development grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The project is entitled, “Multifunctional Nanocomposite Bioadhesive for Diabetic Wound Repair.” Xiaoqing Tang (BioSci) and Rupak Rajachar (BioMed) are Co-PI’s on this potential three-year project.

*****

Ebenezer Tumban (BioSci) is the principal investigator on a project that has received a $435,591 research and development grant from the National Institutes of Health. The project is entitled, “Development of a Novel and Broadly Applicable Thermostable Bacteriophage VLPs Platforms for Vaccine Design, Drug Delivery, and Imaging.”

This is a potential three-year project.

Distinguished Teaching Award Finalists Announced

The William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning seeks input for its annual Distinguished Teaching Awards, which recognize outstanding contributions to the instructional mission of the University. Based on more than 50,000 student ratings of instruction responses, ten finalists have been identified for the two 2020 awards. The selection committee is soliciting comments from students, staff, faculty and alumni to aid in deliberation.

This year’s finalists in each of two categories are:

Assistant Professor/Lecturer/Professor of Practice Category

  • Nancy Barr (MEEM)
  • Mike Hyslop (CFRES)
  • Heather Knewtson (COB)
  • Sheila Milligan (COB)
  • Ulrich Schmelze (COB)

Associate Professor/Professor Category

  • Melissa Baird (SS)
  • Mike Christianson (VPA)
  • John Durocher (BioSci)
  • Julie King (ChE)
  • Amy Marcarelli (BioSci)

Comments on the nominees are due by Friday, April 3 and can be completed online. The process for determining the two Distinguished Teaching Award recipients from each list of finalists also involves the additional surveying of their spring classes. A selection committee makes the final determination of the award recipients in early May with the 2020 Distinguished Teaching Awards formally announced in late May.

For more information, contact Margaret Landsparger at 7-1001.