For Sonali George ’21, one of 180 students participating in virtual summer programs at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, the coronavirus pandemic presented an opportunity — a chance to engage in research related to the virus that forced their internships online.
“I was planning to do research on E. coli and plant-based biology,” said George, who is majoring in biology, minoring in chemistry, and also has a background in fine arts. She recalled how Desigan Kumaran, her Biology Department mentor in the Student Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program, “was warning me that the lab was going to smell because of the E. coli, and I was prepared. Then, when they had to make everything online, I was so stressed. I wasn’t planning on doing a virtual internship; I came here for a hands-on experience! But when Dr. Kumaran said we are doing coronavirus research, I was like, ‘Yes, it’s so cutting-edge!’”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring, many high school and college students whose academic year had already been radically transformed also had to rejigger summer plans. Internships they’d expected to be in-person experiences moved to all-virtual formats. Thirty students participating in virtual summer programs at BNL were able to apply their skills and energy to research relating to the
Their projects—ranging from developing information-sharing tools to running computational drug-discovery experiments and devising proposals for predicting pandemic spread, assessing hand sanitizer effectiveness, and more — may help advance understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and speed the discovery of ways to stop it.
George spent the first few weeks of her internship researching the virus’s lifecycle, then created an engaging animated video that explains how the virus replicates after infecting human cells. Drawing on her background in science and art, the video brings the science out of the textbooks.
“There is a lot of general bio you learn in school — you learn about it and move on,” George said. “But being in this internship and having this pandemic gave me a chance to see it actually happening in the world.”
While the video is aimed at high-school and college biology students, Kumaran noted its usefulness for researchers as well. “When we’re working to develop drugs or create other defenses against the virus, we have to understand this basic biology and be able to explain it to others,” he said.