Beyond the Degree

Fulfilling Work in Covid-19 Research

Brandy Geeck and Rebecca Ursin are two recent alumni from the Georgetown Masters in Biotechnology Program, and they have been hard at work helping to control the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Their efforts are a reflection of the versatile and highly applicable skillset they have acquired while studying in Biotechnology Program.

Brandy Geeck, MS
Masters in Biotechnology Program Alumni (2019)

Brandy is currently working at Gingko Bioworks, a Boston-based biotechnology company, helping vaccine manufacturers improve their production titers. She has also been working on Concentric™, Gingko’s own low-cost COVID-19 test for K-12 students. She has mentioned that as coronavirus cases began to rise in the United States, Gingko pivoted away from some of their non-COVID efforts and government contract work, which increased the company’s ability to coordinate on pandemic-related issues. Brandy is working on the Fermentation Team, which is focusing on production methods for a potential mRNA vaccine, while still continuing with other ongoing essential projects.

Brandy’s current work pertains to a partnership between Gingko Bioworks and Moderna, one of the first companies to garner FDA approval for its mRNA-based vaccine. Brandy is helping this cooperative partnership improve its titers for raw materials used in their vaccine product. This cooperative project is a multidisciplinary effort that draws knowledge from the High Throughput Screening Team in developing the qPCR assay, the Omics Team’s process design improvements, and her own Fermentation Team’s design and production technology. Other members of Brandy’s team are working on the Operation Warp Drive initiative, studying promising therapeutics and important precursor molecules. Gingko Bioworks and the rest of the biotech world have been able to retool with impressive speed when confronted with the pandemic, working nonstop to develop the scientific skills tools necessary to help bring it under control. While the fate of this pandemic is still unknown, it has become clear that Brandy and her coworkers will continue their impressive and dedicated work to help fight SARS-CoV-2.

Rebecca Ursin, MS
Masters in Biotechnology Program Alumni (2016)

Rebecca Ursin’s work is another example of this rapid shift. After graduating from Georgetown, she moved to Sabra Klein’s laboratory at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to pursue her doctoral degree. The laboratory traditionally studies biological sex differences in the immune response to respiratory viruses. Under Dr. Klein’s guidance, Becca’s thesis uses human and mouse models to figure out how viral and host factors affect immune responses to influenza and vaccination. Her work remained essential and when the rest of Maryland shut down, Becca continued to go to work (albeit less frequently) in order to finish some of her experiments. However, the work didn’t end there: similarities between Becca’s original research and what was needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic led to rapid adjustments in her laboratory.

The Klein group quickly built a partnership with other scientists in Bloomberg to test an ELISA protocol’s ability to detect antibodies in human plasma in response to SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Becca used the new ELISA protocol on numerous patient samples, testing them against different antigens and antibody isotopes in a lengthy and painstaking process. An interesting research result shows that the immune systems of young men whom have recovered from severe disease are particularly excellent plasma donors, since they produce more substantial antibody responses to the most common strain of SARS-CoV-2, though further work on this topic is required. As Becca segues back into thesis research in the Klein laboratory, she will continue doing her part to help better understand the mechanisms at play with SARS-CoV-2.

Brandy and Becca are just two of the numerous Georgetown Biotechnology alumni and faculty working in and around the world of COVID-19 research. The pandemic has called for a wide-ranging and sustained effort from scientists around the globe, and it will be human ingenuity and hard work that will guide us out of this calamity.

As of late February 2021, the coronavirus pandemic has shown both promising and concerning trends. One positive trend is the decline in the 7-day average number of cases since January 2021. However, on February 19, 2021, CDC identified three variant strains of the SARS-CoV-2: variants from the UK, South Africa, and Brazil.[1] Their impact on the national incidence rate has yet to be analyzed. Additionally, the number of deaths due to the coronavirus in the U.S. surpassed 500,000 individuals.[2] Thankfully, however, COVID-19 vaccine distributions have begun and as of early March 2021, at the time of this publication, over 2.4 million doses are being delivered per day in the United States and over 400 million doses have been delivered worldwide.[3]With the advent of these vaccines and the dedicated work of scientists like Brandy and Becca, we hope to see the end of the pandemic soon.

Written by: Martin Trouilloud, with updates by Lina Oh

Contributions by: Brandy Geek, MS and Rebecca Ursin, MS

Edits by: Kyle DiVito, PhD