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How a Biology and Music Major Ended Up Running COVID Antibody Tests in St. Louis

Nov 19, 2020 |

After two internships fell through this summer, fourth-year University of Virginia student Jonathan Danis found himself running COVID-19 antibody tests at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“I felt extremely lucky,” Danis said. “As a biology major, it was just really fascinating to be in a situation where I am doing my own research, reading articles and learning about virology and immunology firsthand.”

Danis, an avid musician who is in several rock bands and has an album out, eventually hopes to combine his interests in medicine and music and pursue music therapy.

Before the pandemic hit, he had received a grant for a cardiology research internship in Dusseldorf, Germany. He was very excited about it, but quickly realized that COVID-19 would delay that particular opportunity. Undaunted, he found another summer internship, this time doing research on music and cognition in a Vanderbilt University lab. Soon, though, that internship was also canceled.

That’s when Danis’ grandfather, who lives in St. Louis, talked to his neighbor, immunologist Daved Freemont. Freemont needed more lab technicians to help him run COVID-19 antibody tests, in hopes of tracking the prevalence of the virus in the St. Louis area.

In Freemont’s lab, Danis’ primary task was to run tests, called ELISA tests, that identify the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in blood samples. Testing one plate – a piece of lab equipment with 96 test tubes – takes about nine hours. Sometimes, Danis would test as many as 40 plates simultaneously, often working well into the night.

The process involved adding a specific protein to the samples that can bind to COVID-19 antibodies, and then using various solutions to rinse away other materials, eventually leaving only the antibodies bound to the protein. At one point in the process, if antibodies are present, the sample will turn a fluorescent blue and then, after the addition of sulfuric acid, a bright yellow.  

“You can start to see it, visually, which is pretty cool,” Danis said. “The more blue a sample turns, the more yellow it will be after adding the acid. The more yellow it is, the more positive it is – meaning that there are more antibodies present.”

“It was just really fascinating to be in a situation where I am doing my own research, reading articles and learning about virology and immunology firsthand.”

Danis ran tests for several different experiments within Freemont’s lab, including one testing for antibodies in mice that had received a trial vaccine dose, one testing random samples from the St. Louis area to try to identify the true infection rate in the city, and even a quick test of his own sample (he did not have any antibodies).

Though he is back at UVA now, Danis is still working with a doctoral student on a soon-to-be published research paper about the experiments testing for virus prevalence in St. Louis – information that he hopes will be valuable in the continued fight against COVID-19.

“It can be an informative aid in understanding the course of the pandemic, in the city and nationally,” he said.

Working on the paper has also given Danis valuable and unusual experience in research and publication, especially for an undergraduate.

“At the beginning of the summer, I was conflicted about if I wanted to apply to medical school, and I think this experience has swayed me more to the research side of medicine, perhaps pursing a Ph.D. in a similar field,” he said.

Right now, Danis plans on finishing up his fourth year and then heading to Germany where, he hopes, he will get to the complete the research internship he had originally secured for last summer. Then, he will pursue a master’s degree in music at Berkelee College of Music in Boston..

“I’m doing that for my own personal love of music,” he said. “Then, I hope to look into a field like music therapy, combining my two passions.”