‘What my whole graduate career has amounted to’: University of Alaska students help research the virus

Dr. Eric Bortz overlooking graduate student, Ralph Dagdag as they do research on the coronavirus.
Dr. Eric Bortz overlooking graduate student, Ralph Dagdag as they do research on the coronavirus.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Feb. 27, 2021 at 8:13 PM AKST
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Tucked away in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Sciences building at the University of Alaska Anchorage, undergrad and graduate students alike have been putting in countless hours researching the coronavirus in the Bortz Virology Lab.

Now, with more variants appearing in the state, those long nights in the lab likely won’t end soon.

Dr. Eric Bortz is an associate professor of virology at UAA. He’s been studying viruses for decades now. He said this is the second pandemic he’s been a part of; swine flu was the first.

Last January, before the pandemic arrived in Alaska, Bortz said his lab got their hands on the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 virus and immediately got to work developing sequencing and analysis assays to learn more about it.

“By the time the virus actually came to Alaska in March, my laboratory as well as our collaborators at University of Alaska Fairbanks and in Alaska State Virology Lab, which is DHSS, we were able to build protocols to be able to sequence the virus and trace genetic variants of the virus as it was introduced in Alaska,” Bortz said.

From the lab, the information generated at UAA didn’t stop when it got to the state health department. Bortz said the UA system is connected to a worldwide network of scientists, all of which use the same techniques for study and share their data. He said there’s nearly 300,000 sequences stored in the database they help contribute to.

Bortz said he gets a lot of help from the graduate students who have helped drive the research forward with their innovations. He said some of the undergrad students even help.

“They’re doing it weekly, working on developing the assays, improving them, reporting and analyzing the data,” he said. “We also have our faculty at UAA and UAF, as well as myself where we’ll spend many many hours into the night on a computer analyzing sequence data.”

It’s students like William George and Ralf Dagdag that now find themselves sending data around the world. At only 27 and 26, they were both unexpectedly putting all the knowledge they learned up to this point in school in a very real world situation.

“When the pandemic hit, Eric pitched this idea and I was like, ‘yeah, let me hop in on that,’” Dagdag said. “Because it allowed me to kind of shift my mind frame into something new and exciting, but also get some immediate results in order to just really help people out.”

Leading up to the pandemic, they were already researching on things that would help in the fight against the pandemic. For example, George was looking into coronaviruses that exist in bats in Alaska.

“So I was like, ‘I have these protocols in place already, why don’t we just take them and apply it to see if we could get some preliminary data?’” George said.

To avoid any confusion, he said people do not need to worry about getting bit by a bat here and getting COVID-19.

He said some attempts with his protocols worked with COVID-19 samples and some didn’t, but it gave them a good place to start. Research like that and other efforts of the grad students keep pushing the envelope of what the world knows about the virus further.

Now with more variants being discovered in Alaska, Bortz said it’s “back to the drawing board” in finding new ways to track and learn about the variants like B.1.1.7 from the U.K. and now P.1 from Brazil.

While they are alongside top health officials fighting the pandemic, they are still students and will graduate soon and move on. However, Bortz said funding from the state and federal level will allow them to continue research until the pandemic is over.

“Our number is up as far as virologists.” Bortz said. “This is total war against this virus, so we can’t rest until society gets to a better place.”

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