Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Person of the Week

Amy Cornell: Discovering More Through Science

1

In different capacities and for various scientific research projects, Amy Cornell worked at Stanford University, Yale University, and the NASA Ames Research Center. She now teaches science at The Country School in Madison but took a leave of absence to work for Homodeus on a new and better COVID-19 test expected to be available to the public after FDA approval. Photo courtesy of Amy Cornell

In different capacities and for various scientific research projects, Amy Cornell worked at Stanford University, Yale University, and the NASA Ames Research Center. She now teaches science at The Country School in Madison but took a leave of absence to work for Homodeus on a new and better COVID-19 test expected to be available to the public after FDA approval. (Photo courtesy of Amy Cornell )

The long lines for COVID-19 testing will soon be a thing of the past. So will the anxious wait times for results.

In fact, following FDA approval, hospitals, schools, and nursing homes may be able to use an accurate, affordable, and simple COVID-19 test as early as September. Soon after, the test, called COVID Detect, may also be made available to the public; it’s a test that can be administered at home with accurate and fast results, cutting wait times from days or hours to mere minutes.

It’s a promising development in the fight against COVID-19 and Amy Cornell is in the thick of it in her work with a company called Homodeus.

“[The] Homodeus test comes out, FDA-approved for the market, in September as a point-of-care test for hospitals, schools, [and others]. The at-home version will come out soon after, following FDA approval for at-home tests,” Amy explains.

“Testing is one of many tools we need, critical to getting back to work and school, and getting back to normal,” she adds.

Amy is a scientist by training and profession, but also works as a science, robotics, and STEAM teacher for grades 5 through 8 at The Country School (TCS) in Madison. She is married to Peter, an architect at Centerbrook Architects, and mother to their two young children, Will and Lily. She grew up in Madison and now lives in Killingworth with her family.

She took a leave of absence from TCS to work with fellow scientists and researchers for Homodeus, a company founded by Guilford resident Jonathan Rothberg. An entrepreneur and biologist, Rothberg is best known for his contributions to next-generation DNA sequencing. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by former President Barack Obama.

Homodeus falls under the umbrella of 4Catalyzer, a family of seven medical device and biotechnology companies with a staff of more than 300 scientists and engineers. Its stated mission is “to empower individuals to have greater ownership of their health with rapid, low-cost home and point-of-care diagnostics.”

“I volunteered for Jonathan’s company for a few months, while teaching at TCS remotely. Then I was hired full time, but I still do course programming work at TCS during my personal time,” Amy says.

“I’m specifically working on developing and scaling up a COVID molecular diagnostic test so we can get back to work and school,” she adds.

Amy works at Homodeus as the lateral flow assay lead.

She explains, “A lateral flow assay… is a simple, inexpensive, and fast, paper-based diagnostic that does not require expensive equipment for the detection of a target analyte, for example COVID. The most common lateral flow tests used today are pregnancy tests, which detect elevated levels of HCG protein.”

In other words, like a pregnancy test, COVID Detect gives individuals a convenient, fast, easy, and accurate way to detect if they are infected with the coronavirus without the need for a laboratory. The new test will allow hospitals and nursing homes to safely and quickly test the most vulnerable, give businesses and offices a way to accurately test employees and resume operations, enable schools to detect anyone infected to ensure the safety of staff and the student body, and inform individuals about their own health before engaging in their normal activities, such as visiting with elderly family members or inviting friends and loved ones for events and special occasions.

For more information about COVID Detect and Homodeus, visit homodeusinc.com.

Sharing the Fascination for Science

In different capacities and for various scientific research projects, Amy worked at Stanford University, Yale University, and the NASA Ames Research Center. She also completed her PhD in cell and molecular biology from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

So, to say that her credentials are impressive is an understatement.

It’s also little wonder that she was tapped to help develop an easier and more efficient way to test for COVID-19.

At Yale from 2006 to 2008, she worked to discover small molecule inhibitors for cancer proteins.

“Small molecule inhibitors are advantageous as drugs because they can be designed as targeted therapies due to their ability to easily enter cells affecting the molecular machinery inside the cell to potentially target a cancer cell. I studied small molecule inhibitors that specially targeted brain cancers, such as glioblastoma,” Amy says.

Previous to that, she was also a research fellow in the Electrical Engineering Department at Stanford University from 2004 to 2006.

In addition, from 2003 to 2005, she was a research fellow in the bioengineering branch at NASA Ames Research Center in California. The bioengineering branch is involved with developing the next generation of life support systems to allow humans to live in and explore space for longer periods of time with minimal resupply costs.

“At NASA Ames, Moffett Field, California, I studied bacteria that live in extreme environments, technically called archaea. Archaea are considered the earliest form of life on earth…I specifically studied the proteins and cellular machinery of a specific archaeal organism that happily lives in the acidic hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Understanding the biology of these organisms is key to NASA’s roadmap for space exploration,” she explains.

For Amy, the interest in science came early in life.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world and the invisible molecular machinery that controls it,” Amy explains.

But even with her impressive credentials, she comes across as down-to-earth and unpretentious, and she values the art of communication as much as she does science and technology.

In a blog she wrote for TCS, she recalls her days as a PhD student, “The prospect of talking about my years and years of scientific research on stage, in front of more than three people, reliably caused that all-too-familiar gut-punch feeling of existential dread, anxiety, and profuse sweating that no antiperspirant could cure.”

She continues to say, “Most scientists would agree: The point of doing science is to be able to communicate the science to others. Learning to communicate clearly in science is challenging but essential. Being able to articulate, project confidence, and thoughtfully field questions about science, takes time to nurture and develop in young people.”

As a science teacher, she seeks to impart the skill of effective communication to her students at TCS. It’s a skill that she sees as essential for scientists and students of science to be able to share their knowledge.

She also advocates getting women and girls to embrace science more. Noticing that there continues to be disparate levels of engagement between girls and boys toward technology and computer science at the school, she decided to try to change that.

“Those who are not enamored by technology for technology’s sake may be more interested in using the technology if they encounter it in the context of a discipline that interests them. It is possible to adapt existing robotics activities to make robotics more appealing, specifically to girls, by incorporating storytelling. At TCS, I started an all-girls after-school robotics course for 4th and 5th graders,” she says.

“Can robots help get more girls into computer science and technology? By widening the scope of robotics beyond robotic competitions and challenges, there is a possibility to engage a larger and more diverse audience of learners,” she adds.

At the school, her efforts proved effective with the increase of interest in robotics among the girl students.

“During our TCS all-girls robotics course, we targeted the girls’ interests, and each robot was designed, built, and programmed for the purpose of a narrative. Combining the narrative with robotics proved to be an effective strategy with our TCS girls, resulting in greater interest, motivation, and engagement that we hope will continue,” she recalls.

Of course, Amy herself is living proof of how women can embrace science and succeed professionally in the field.

She is immersed in the fight against a pandemic that has nearly crippled all facets of daily living and she sees the battle being won—through science.

Asked what she thinks of science and the challenges brought on by COVID-19, she turns to the wisdom of a female scientist she admires, and quotes Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

To nominate a Person of the Week, email m.caulfield@shorepublishing.com.


Maria Caulfield is the Associate Editor for Zip06. Email Maria at m.caulfield@shorepublishing.com.

Reader Comments