HMS Graduate Uses Her Love of Learning and Montessori spirit to fight COVID-19

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Maddie is a Hilltop alumnus currently in the Ph.D. program at the University of Kentucky, studying pharmaceutical development on a full scholarship. She was a Presidential Scholar in the prestigious honors college at the University of Alabama and part of the highly competitive computer-based honors program. Maddie was also on campus this fall serving as one of our judges in the “competition room” at the HMS science fair so many of the older kids will remember her. Here’s her story about how she’s helping during the current crisis:


About a month ago, almost everyone in the college (faculty and students) were told they had to work from home and participate in distance learning. However, my mentor was able to get me declared “essential” along with only a handful of other students and faculty in the UK College of Pharmacy. I had several ongoing projects that I needed to continue working on since they were time-sensitive, but the main reason I was declared essential was so I could work on a project related to screening for COVID-19 antibodies in patients’ blood.  
Individuals who have been infected with COVID-19, regardless of whether they showed symptoms or not, will have developed antibodies in their blood specific to the novel coronavirus. In order to screen patients’ blood samples, we use proteins (called antigens) found on the surface of COVID-19 to signal the presence of these antibodies, which could indicate that the patient is either currently infected with or was previously exposed (and hopefully immune) to COVID-19.


My mentor, Dr. Chang-Guo Zhan, asked me to produce the COVID-19 antigens that we will be used to screen patients’ blood samples. There is one other graduate student who will be using my COVID-19 antigens to run an assay that will indicate whether someone has antibodies against the virus in their blood. We will be partnering with pharmacies across Kentucky to help screen patient samples for antibodies against the novel coronavirus. We could also identify people who are immune to this virus, which could allow them to return back to work or even serve as plasma donors to those who may be at risk for developing complications from infection with COVID-19.


I was hugely honored to be selected as one of the two graduate students getting to work on this COVID-19 project in the UK College of Pharmacy. I have certainly been working hard, but I am loving every minute of it and am so proud to be able to play a part in increasing the number of patients who can get screened for COVID-19.