By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
This spring, University of Washington (UW) neuroscience graduate student Su-Yee Lee put her fruit fly research on hold to help with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee grew up in California’s Bay Area and started gaining interest in the brain and behavior in high school.
“I was really interested in investigative journalism, and I think that becoming a scientist melds information gathering and finding out more about a problem or question,” she said.
Having always been fascinated by the diversity of life on Earth, her curiosity led her to study biology with a neuroscience focus. Lee graduated from University of California San Diego in 2015.
Throughout her time in college, Lee always worked in biology and neuroscience labs, which led her to the PhD program for neuroscience. She started the UW program in 2017 and chose the school because she was interested in the faculty and research offerings.
Lee studies how neurons communicate with each other, muscles coordinating movement, motor systems and circuits. She probes different modular systems. For example, adrenaline or caffeine, she manipulates those systems to see what roles they play in altering behaviors such as walking.
“Fruit flies have great genetic tools to manipulate groups of neurons and see how that changes communications between neurons, and how that alters different behaviors,” she said.
She aspires to be a professor and run a neuroscience research lab.
The opportunity to support the COVID-19 testing came when she received an email from the UW Virology department in UW Medicine’s Department of Laboratory Medicine, seeking volunteers to help out in the testing center.
They needed people with lab experience who have run a Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) —a common technique that biomedical researchers have used before which was the basis of the COVID-19 test.
Lee’s adviser was supportive of those in her lab who wanted to help, so she raised her hand, along with a few others in her lab and the UW School of Medicine.
She initially worked as a volunteer, but as things changed rapidly, the lab eventually secured funding and were able to pay them hourly. Lee helped out for two months and as her own research ramped back up, it became harder for her to balance both.
“It was a bit hard to balance my research and working there. Most of the challenges came from the uncertainty of COVID-19 and what the future would look like. Being able to work at the testing center, I was tangibly able to help out with the situation, and it helped me to not think about what was going on in the world. I think of it as a really positive thing for me,” she said.
How did testing work?
“A large percentage of the COVID-19 samples would be delivered to the lab testing center at the UW Medical Center, and we would intake those samples, enter information into the database, and then prepare them (package, freeze, or spin them down if its blood) to be sent out to another site in Eastlake where they’re tested for COVID-19,” she explained.
Lee and other researchers always wore personal protective equipment when processing samples. They processed 1,000 to 2,500 samples per day. There is a publicly available online dashboard that shows the overall daily testing volumes for COVID-19 performed at the lab.
They kept things organized for the patient and there were different tiers of sample importance, depending on location of origin and what occupation (essential worker, nursing home worker, etc.). Samples often came from locations far away from Seattle such as out of state, and those would be prioritized last.
While the experience of testing COVID-19 samples has made Lee think more about translational science, research that directly contributes to human health and medicine, she’s still focused on neuroscience.
“Once people started looking for cures and vaccines, I saw quite a lot of creative efforts from other researchers at the School of Medicine. People were coming together and using their expertise and learnings to find a cure. I found that no matter what background you have, a cure and vaccine can come from anywhere,” she said.
Lee used to work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, where Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine. That has always been an inspiration for her.
“I see how much impact it’s had on the world. It really reinvigorates my work and bolsters my excitement to be a scientist at a time like this,” she said.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.