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Senior biology major puts skills to work in coronavirus battle

April 20, 2020

NIU senior Anthony Acevedo hasn’t graduated yet, but he’s already working on the frontlines in the fight to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, the senior biological sciences major from Glendale Heights started a temporary, full-time job as a laboratory technician with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Division of Laboratories.

While his first two weeks have consisted of intense training, the NIU honors student expects to soon begin conducting tests for the COVID-19 virus on samples taken from nasal swabs.

Anthony Acevedo working in the NIU laboratory of Ted Burgess.

“I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to apply my skills and serve the community during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Acevedo says. “I’ve always had a great interest in molecular biology, though I’ve never worked with viruses before.”

The job will put his highly technical skills to work. The 23-year-old transfer student gained valuable experience working in the laboratory of his advisor and honors mentor, Ted Burgess, who serves as the undergraduate program advisor in the NIU Department of Biological Sciences.

Burgess’s research group focuses on chemical-control challenges in insects. Acevedo has been a key contributor, helping with experimental design, organizing and executing experiments and recording data. He also will be a co-author on an upcoming research publication.

“A central theme of the lab is to get undergraduates involved in the entire scientific process, from conceptualizing the project all the way through publishing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal,” Burgess says. “I want students to leave the lab with skills that make them competitive in the job market or in acquiring coveted graduate positions.”

Before the pandemic disrupted normal routines, Acevedo had been spending most of his time in the lab. The switch to remote learning—and the fact that he didn’t have to commute each day an hour to and from campus—freed up his schedule.

So, Acevedo says, he decided to pursue an IDPH internship. But he ended up applying for and getting a position as a contractual clinical laboratory technician. The contract runs for 75 days but could be renewed.

Acevedo, who hopes to return to NIU next fall to begin graduate studies, says his professors have been flexible, given his new job.

“They’re working with me and see I’m working on the frontlines, so they’ve been very accommodating,” he says.

The Burgess lab helped prepare Acevedo for his current work, which uses Quantitative PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), a method to measure gene expression. It is currently the most definitive method to measure presence of viral genetic material in a sample, Burgess says

“This is a very complex laboratory procedure, and you have to be extremely disciplined and well-trained to make them work,” Burgess says. “One little error can mess up hours of work.”

He says Acevedo is up to the task, however.

“Anthony has a tenacious work ethic and picks up new skills very quickly,” Burgess says. “He is a true student of science who is always trying to improve himself.”

At his new job, Acevedo says, testing is done in a biosafety level 3 laboratory, appropriate for work involving microbes that can cause potentially life-threatening diseases, and technicians must wear proper personal protective equipment.

“I have to be careful handling the samples, but a lot of precaution is taken,” Acevedo says. “The protection goes both ways. You protect yourself and also protect the samples from carryover contamination, because you don’t’ want false results.”

He adds that he’s grateful for the hands-on experiences and mentoring provided by Burgess and others in the biological sciences department, including instructor Clare Kron and postdoctoral researcher Neetika Khurana.

“Most of the techniques I know,” he says, “I’ve learned from working in NIU research labs.”