Young MSP scientists tackle COVID-19 cures at summer internship in the Nanoengineering and Biodesign lab

All smiles in the lab. Pictured left to right, Caroline Crisafulli (Program Co-Director), Deepta Paramasamy, Lillian Des Rosiers, Chika Nkwocha, Amani Djouadi, and Enrique Ruiz.

Young MSP scientists tackle COVID-19 cures at summer internship in the Nanoengineering and Biodesign lab

By Aaron Marshall

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged last summer, a quartet of budding scientists from the Morrill Scholarship Program [MSP] joined a team of seasoned researchers working on cutting-edge technology to help bring an end to the global crisis.

The four second-year students—Lillian Des Rosiers, Chika Nkwocha, Deepta Paramasamy, and Enrique Ruiz—were part of a new paid internship partnership between MSP and the Nanoengineering and Biodesign Lab at The Ohio State University. At the lab run by Dr. Carlos Castro, the students worked on a pair of projects aimed at developing technologically-driven solutions to the coronavirus crisis.

So what was is it like to be on the frontlines of science as the world suffers from this deadly pandemic? “It's a very interesting feeling. It definitely makes it more applicable to be working on something that is impacting the world in this way in the pandemic,” said Ruiz, a microbiology major. “Science always motivates me, but it motivates you more when you know it's affecting so many people.”

A double major in chemistry and French, Paramasamy said it was “amazing” to be involved in the hunt for a COVID cure, especially for someone like her who hopes to become a Research Scientist. “I've always been the kind of person who sees problems and has to become a part of the effort to solve it,” she said. “To be part of such a life-changing project that has real world applications and real time applications that can change the entire world is so cool.”

The high stakes drama of the pandemic has thrust scientists into the spotlight, highlighting the importance of innovative research, said Chris Lucas, a Research Scientist who worked with the MSP students. “I think the pandemic has honored the scientific endeavor—not only against the coronavirus but also how clinical testing is being conducted and molecules are being manufactured,” he said. “I think it's inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

One project that the students worked on involved a technique known as DNA origami—when long strands of DNA are folded over and over again to construct a variety of tiny three-dimensional structures. Just think of a strand of DNA folding in half like a hinge, said Des Rosiers, the designer of an educational module to explain the DNA origami concept to undergraduates. “You could hide a little drug inside of the hinge, and have it go through the body and go to a cancer cell or a coronavirus infected cell without it being attacked by viruses,” said the environmental engineering major.

In the laboratory, Ruiz's job was to create the single strand of DNA that makes up the scaffolding of the origami structure. “I was building the core of the structure—the scaffold and the staple strands,” Ruiz said. “The scaffold is really the base, and the staple strands are what helps you fold it.”

Along with DNA manipulation, the MSP students worked on a project focused on a biosensor device that could be used someday to detect the presence of the coronavirus. “The idea is we could develop a rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19 that is faster than, and just as accurate as the current clinical diagnostic testing standard,” said Lucas, the Research Scientist.

With an international cast of scientists working in the Nanoengineering and Biodesign Lab, the students had daily interaction with people of different backgrounds and patterns of thinking about the work they were doing. “It was awesome to be in an environment that was so diverse: We had researchers from all around the world working in Dr. Castro's lab,” said Des Rosiers. “You really got to see how a bunch of different disciplines can come together in one space.”

Castro said he's proud that his lab is a place where different perspectives abound. “It's something I'm very proud of in my lab—we have so many experiences with people of different races and cultures,” he said. “I think it's going to be so critical for the world moving forward, the more diverse perspectives the better for our society as we try to address these challenges.”

Along with their work in the lab, the summer internship also gave the students lessons in what happens after medical breakthroughs are made by having them visit Ohio State's tech commercialization center. “We learned a lot about patents and networking—a lot of different things regarding entrepreneurship,” said Ruiz. “It was great to be exposed to things you hadn't thought applied to you because you never know where your research is going to take you.”

As the summer internship program wrapped up, the students gave “impressive” presentations on the “significant and meaningful” amount of research they did, according to Castro, the lab's director. “They were able to communicate the big picture and the importance of what they did, but they also really understood the details of what they had went through and the steps they had taken,” he said.

Plans are already underway to continue the internship partnership next summer—perhaps with as many as eight MSP students in the mix. “We're definitely interested in sustaining and growing the program next year,” Castro said.

Paramasamy said the experience taught her plenty of laboratory skills, but also underscored a deeper truth. “It really emphasizes that research is what drives innovation and changes around the world,” she said.