Almost two years ago, Maddy Harding ’22 found both a way back to Kalamazoo and an inside perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic.
After being sent home with the rest of the Kalamazoo College campus in spring 2020—home for Harding being a tiny town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado—she returned to Kalamazoo about five months later, in July 2020.
“I didn’t really have a plan, but I wanted to be back in Kalamazoo,” Harding said. “I had a roommate, so we found an apartment and looked for jobs.”
Harding quickly found a position with Genemarkers, a genetic research lab in Kalamazoo that had pivoted in the spring from its previous focus on personalized medicine and product development to COVID testing.
A biology major with a psychology minor and neuroscience concentration, Harding would attend virtual classes during the day before going into the lab to prepare COVID test samples for PCR testing.
“I would go to work at 4 p.m. and stay until we finished, which some nights was 10 or 11 p.m.,” Harding said. “The facilities test all day and then they send all their samples in and they want results the next day. All the samples come in between 4 and 6 p.m., cooler after cooler after cooler. We were at one point in the winter receiving 3,000-4,000 samples a day. There would be coolers stacked to the ceiling full of patient samples.”
The lab worked to maintain a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time on all samples.
“We were just trying to get through as many samples as possible in a short time while also being accurate and careful,” Harding said. “We were in full PPE [personal protective equipment]—scrubs, gown, shield, mask, two pairs of gloves. There were definitely stressful situations and a bit of fear, especially at the beginning, because that was before vaccines and I was touching COVID every single day. My coworkers are great, though, and I felt like I was making an impact on a lot of people. I’m glad I was able to help in some way.”
Even as K returned to in-person classes and the schedule grew more challenging, the job offered Harding inside information on the state of the pandemic. Harding found it interesting to see how the number of samples and positivity rates fluctuated and to understand the PCR testing process.
“My friends would always ask me for more details about what was actually going on,” Harding said. “I could tell them what pharmacies to go to at the peak times when our lab had one of the shortest turn-around times.”
At times, Genemarkers has provided COVID testing for various pharmacies, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and colleges, including K.
“That was tough at times,” Harding said. “The samples come with requisition forms that have the name and all the information for the patient. I would see people I sit next to in class, see their names on a COVID test. I don’t ever see the results with the name, and of course with HIPAA privacy laws I couldn’t say anything. Even though it’s all confidential, it was an interesting dynamic to navigate.”
As the rate of testing has slowed, Harding has transitioned into a research-and-development role with Genemarkers, testing the efficacy and safety of various skin care products.
Working at Genemarkers has taught Harding important lessons about working in a team, problem solving and working under pressure.
The job has also boosted Harding’s lab skills, which helped when working on her Senior Integrated Project, researching the neuroprotective effect of a drug targeting serotonin receptors in C. elegans, a type of roundworm.
“We looked to see if the drug has neuroprotective effects and it did, so that was exciting,” Harding said. “We did have some significant results. Neurodegenerative diseases are a big problem. There are a lot of different types and one of the problems in treating them is that they all have different mechanisms of action of neuronal death. A lot of treatments look at each one specifically. This research looked at them more collectively to see if there was more of a common process of cell death that is occurring in all of the different diseases.”
Although much more research is needed, Harding’s work could eventually contribute to a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.
The Genemarkers position has also had connections to Harding’s coursework at K. At the height of COVID testing, she had to keep a dream journal for a dreams and consciousness class and discovered that about half her dreams were stress dreams about working in the lab.
“Right now, I’m in a genetics class and I’m learning all the little details I was missing for understanding the actual science I was doing,” Harding said. “Yes, I know I’m isolating RNA and then amplifying that using PCR, but what does that actually mean on the microscopic level? I’m learning that now in class so it’s cool to more fully understand the work I’ve been doing for so long. That’s a fascinating intersection between school and work.”
Harding is currently applying for medical school and hoping to start that in fall 2023.
“I just accepted a job for a research technician position for next year, for my gap year, and I think the Genemarkers experience made me a competitive applicant because I’ve worked there for so long and have learned a variety of useful skills,” Harding said.
The job, at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, involves research on mitochondrial function. After graduation, Harding will move to Chicago for the job. Many of Harding’s K experiences will apply to the lab tech work.
For example, she will be working with rodents, which she has done via psychology research during her time at K. Harding helped run a taste aversion learning trial which has possible implications for cancer patients who often develop aversions to certain foods during chemotherapy treatments.
In addition, Harding took a topics class for seniors on neurodegenerative disorders in the fall that operated like a journal club.
“We read different papers every single week and presented the findings of the scientific literature to the class,” Harding said. “I got exposed to a lot of cutting-edge techniques that are being used and now I’ll be using them next year.”
Harding learned about the lab tech opportunity through a professor’s connection to a K alumnus who works in the lab.
“It will be cool to talk to him about K,” Harding said. “It’s always fun to meet K alumni outside of K in a different context. You share this niche experience because it is such a small school and has so many traditions.”