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UW Students, Professor Help with Wyoming COVID-19 Testing

March 26, 2020
group of people wearing lab cover ups
UW scientists helping conduct COVID-19 testing at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory in Cheyenne include, from left: recent microbiology graduate Taylor (Cortez) Fearing, international trainee Matios Lakew, undergraduate Samyr Wissar, graduate student Chris Anderson, Associate Professor Dr. Brant Schumaker, undergraduate Meagan Soehn and undergraduate Kelsie Bowcutt. (Jim Mildenberger Photo)

Not many college students can say they spent spring break on the front lines of the pandemic battle, but four University of Wyoming students and two recent graduates can.

They, along with Dr. Brant Schumaker, a veterinary epidemiologist and UW associate professor, answered the call to help the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory in Cheyenne with novel coronavirus COVID-19 testing.

Microbiology senior Meagan Soehn, of Casper, conducts undergraduate research in Schumaker’s laboratory in the Department of Veterinary Sciences at UW and already had experience with the type of extractions needed in the state lab.

“I had a bonus week of spring break, so I felt like I should help out during this crazy time,” she says.

That meant spending her spring break working long hours at the state lab.

“The experience has been great,” Soehn says. “It really helps to show things I learned in my classes, especially as a microbiology student. We talk about outbreaks in infectious diseases but, to be able to see all this up close, is something you can’t get in the classroom.”

It also gives her a sense of purpose during these stressful days: “It’s nice to help out. It feels important and worthwhile,” she says.

With UW courses going online Monday after the extended spring break, Soehn believes she’ll have the flexibility in her schedule to continue helping.

Schumaker is one of two epidemiologists at UW. His co-workers and team at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory have a long-standing relationship with the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory.

“Most of the team have been trained to deal with sample processing and RNA extraction, which is the method by which we’re trying to detect the coronavirus,” Schumaker says. “I am serving in a logistic support role managing sample triage so that high-priority samples are getting to the front of the line. We’re getting the samples in and results out.”

As of the evening of March 25, the lab had tested 758 samples, with many more coming in.

“So, the testing is ramping up for sure,” he says. “For each positive test result, we’ll have more demand for more tests as well.”

Wyoming Public Health Laboratory Director Cari Roark Sloma credits the team from UW for helping the lab respond to the unprecedented demand.

“The help we've been receiving from our colleagues at the state veterinary lab has been critical for the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory to help us maintain and expand testing for COVID-19,” Sloma says.

When spring break ends, Schumaker will have less time to give to the effort, but he plans to continue to help as much as possible.

“At the state vet lab, we’re all trained to respond to emergencies in infectious disease,” Schumaker says. “I felt very strongly that, if there was an opportunity to help in any way, it was important for me to be involved if I could make a difference. If we can find new cases and get other people tested more efficiently, we might have an effect on stemming the tide of this pandemic.”

The UW students helping with the effort, listed here by hometown, include:

Becker, Minn. -- Chris Anderson, graduate student, animal and veterinary sciences.

Casper -- Meagan Soehn, undergraduate student, microbiology.

Cheyenne -- Kelsie Bowcutt, undergraduate student, molecular biology.

Laramie -- Samyr Wissar, undergraduate student, molecular biology.

Recent UW graduates helping with the effort, both from Cheyenne, are Taylor (Cortez) Fearing, microbiology; and Chayse Rowley, microbiology/family and consumer sciences.

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