How do soon-to-be college students want to spend their summer vacations? If motivated, working in a lab with state-of-the-art equipment with mentors who want nothing more than to share their knowledge, and in internships offered to students with a curiosity for all things STEM, is perfect.
Alexis DeGraff spent part of her summer analyzing the DNA of infectious diseases to determine if the bacteria is from the community or hospital, all the while looking for trends.
Hospitals have protocols to prevent the infections, but it’s not 100 percent effective, DeGraaff said.
“So we’re looking to see if the standard protocols are doing their job to contain the spread of the pathogens throughout the hospital or is it coming from the community,” the Temple High School graduate said. “It’s been fun and rewarding.”
DeGraaff is part of the Temple Health and Bioscience District Scholars Program for college students. She is a sophomore attending Texas A&M University as a chemical engineer major.
The three other interns who worked in the VA infectious disease lab were part of the Texas Bioscience Summer Intern Program.
“This is kind of different, being placed inside a hospital setting,” DeGraaff said.
Chemical engineering does have a broad field, including in biomedical areas.
“It was rewarding and has given me different ideas from biology on how I might impact the world,” she said.
DeGraaff ultimately wants to use her engineering degree to advance environmental efforts and said she can see using some of the things she learned at the VA in that endeavor.
Rana Radwan is a Harker Heights High School and Texas Bioscience Institute graduate and will be attending Texas A&M University this fall as a biomedical science major.
There’s a new hospital acquired infection, Candida auris, which is circulating globally, Radwan said.
“It’s a fungal yeast and there are many like it in its species, but Candida auris is more resistant to treatment than the others,” she said.
Candida auris is seen mostly in people who are in long term care or are intubated.
“There have been a couple of cases in Texas, but it is more prevalent in the northeast and in major metropolitan areas,” Chetan Jinadatha, infectious disease physician and researcher at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center, said. “It’s a big problem in Europe and South Africa.”
Radwan worked with Piyali Chatterjee and Hosoon Choi, VA research scientists, on how to prevent people from getting infected in the first place by using different disinfectant methods, including ultraviolet light.
The mortality rate of those infected with Candida auris is very high, 30 percent to 60 percent, Chatterjee said.
“Every other patient dies,” Jinadatha said.
The VA is working with different strains of Candida auris it received from the CDC, which are being tested with different methods of disinfection.
Shining UV for 30 minutes on most of the strains resulted in the death of the fungal yeast.
“We used UV light at different time periods to determine which would be the most effective at killing it,” she said. “So far it’s been pretty successful. The project was finished a few weeks ago.”
Whole genome sequencing is being used to find out where different strains deviate.
The internship was a rewarding experience, Radwan said. It offered an opportunity to see how health care can take many different forms, career wise.
Radwan said the summer internship will definitely give her an edge on entering college.
The equipment Radwan became familiar with during the summer research projects is not anything she would just stumble upon at any point in her life.
Jannel Hayden worked on the same project as DeGraaff, but instead of doing data analysis of the DNA, she extracted the DNA.
Hayden is a TBI and Harker Heights High School graduate. She’ll be attending the University of Texas at Austin.
“We got the patient islets and grew them on agar plates (Petri dish),” Radwan said.
After a few additional steps the DNA was extracted. Having good quality DNA is imperative in order to have the best whole genome sequencing, she said.
The DNA tests like “23andMe” look at the parts of the gene that determine ancestry, health and traits. Jinadatha and his researchers are looking at the whole genome for the entire bacteria.
“It’s part of the tool to fight infections in the hospital,” he said.
Having whole genome sequencing of the DNA can determine if an infection from one patient was passed on to another patient, Jinadatha said. A specific bug can be traced back to a source.
Raven Stidom worked with the Disinfection Tracking System, VA patented technology.
Stidom is a graduate of the Texas Bioscience Institute and Harker Heights High School and will be attending Texas State University.
“The tracking system is an item that keeps up with hospital protocol,” Stidom said. “If the protocol calls for the COW, computer on wheels that nurses use, to be wiped down every three hours, the nurse can use the disinfection tracking system to learn when the equipment was last wiped down, instead of keeping track with pen and paper or relying on memory.”
Jinadatha received a National Institutes of Health grant to further build out the tracking system.
“It has a running clock and resets itself each time it is used,” Jinadatha said.
Stidom has been collecting samples to see how the detection system impacts bioburden, the number of bacteria living on a surface, and how compliant staff is with using the item.
“We just finished that study, so we are going to get to analyze the information,” he said.
Stidom said she has wanted to pursue a medical degree for a long time, but as a teen it’s difficult to know all the options.
“This really showed me that I want to go into medicine, but now I know more about what that could look like,” she said. “I want to continue to do research.”
The three TBI graduates want to be doctors and were able to go on rounds with Jinadatha.
“They got to see what real patient care looks like and the satisfaction of helping a patient,” he said.
Hayden said she thought they would be working with insects, not realizing when “bugs” were mentioned it was in reference to pathogens.
“I did enjoy it a lot,” she said.
Radwan became concerned when she learned she would be working with infectious diseases.
“It sounded scary,” she said. “But I learned there are a lot of protocols which make it really safe.”
Dr. Charles Foulks, associate chief of staff for research, said an advantage of working in research at the VA is its many associations with top-tier universities.
Foulks said the sense of family within VA services is part of the culture.
There’s a strong effort to be collaborative, DeGraaff said.
Jinadatha said Choi and Chatterjee spent the most time with the interns.
“I am amazed at how bright these students are,” he said.