PhD Student Profile: Chiamaka Obianyor Helping Develop COVID Tests

Graduate student Chiamaka Obianyor has lent her skills in recent months to improving COVID-19 testing technology as part of two teams at Georgia Tech.

“It’s great to be able to help,” says Obianyor, a PhD candidate in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “My expertise in molecular biology and nucleic acids has proven useful at this time.”

As a member of the interdisciplinary Georgia Tech Test Kit Support Group, Obianyor helped develop components for test kits that use a reaction called the reverse transcription quantitative-polymerase chain reaction’ (RT-qPCR).

This reaction is used to identify the presence of small amounts of viral RNA in samples from a patient by taking that RNA and converting it to DNA. The DNA is then amplified by the chain reaction and tagged with fluorescent probes, making it easy to spot.

Obianyor’s specific role in the project involved the quality control of enzymes, making sure they were free of contaminants that could lead to false negative test results.

The Georgia Tech Test Kit Support Group hasn’t tested patients directly. Instead, they have worked to equip other labs that are specialized in working with human samples. Their efforts have led to the delivery of the ingredients for hundreds of test kits a day.

“Research scientists, grad students, technicians, and postdocs in biochemistry labs at Georgia Tech have worked around the clock,” says Jennifer Glass, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and one of the project’s co-principal investigators. “They are the real heroes here.”

Now done with her role in that project, Obianyor continues to work with the Georgia Tech Research Institute on developing a different type of point-of-care kit that could deliver results in less than 30 minutes using Loop Mediated Isothernal Amplification (LAMP) assays.

“Tests performed through the standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) method will likely remain the Gold Standard for virus detection, but these tests can take one to three days for results,” Obianyor explains. “The LAMP assay is quick and can be done at the point of sample collection. It doesn’t require special instruments. But that also makes determining the stability of the LAMP assay reagents very important. We’re working to determine the range of conditions under which the assay reagents are stable so that we will be able to mass produce test kits and then ship them directly to the people that will use them.” 

Origins of Life Research

Obianyor, who is co-advised by Professor Martha Grover in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Professor Nicholas Hud in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is a member of the Center for Chemical Evolution, which studies the origins of life.

Grover explains that Obianyor has “taken on the grand challenge of uncovering the origin of nucleic acid replication, at the transition from chemistry to biology on the prebiotic Earth about four billion years ago. Her work addresses the chicken-and-egg problem arising from the central dogma of biology: How did nucleic acid polymers and information storage arise without the enzyme machinery of coded proteins?”

Obianyor recently published the paper, “Comparison of multiple factors that impact the efficiency of non-enzymatic DNA ligation: Key parameters for maximizing ligation rates and yields with carbodiimide activation,” in ChemBioChem. The study focused on the non-enzymatic ligation of nucleic acids.

In late 2019, she described (see video) this research in Georgia Tech’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition, placing as a finalist. The competition helps graduate students hone their communication skills by challenging them to share their research in three minutes in a way anyone could understand.

Mentorship and Outreach

For the Center for Chemical Evolution, Obianyor leads outreach efforts for its student committee, teaching school kids about science and performing demonstrations.

For the last several years, she has also served as a graduate mentor for the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering’s Exxon Success Program, supporting undergraduate students from underrepresented groups.

During her second year of her graduate studies, she also served as a leadership coach through Georgia Tech’s LEAD program, helping undergraduates develop their personal leadership styles.

“That was one of the best things I’ve done,” Obianyor says. “I couldn’t have done it at any other time during my graduate studies other than my second year, but it was great.”

She focused on her own leadership develop as an undergraduate student at Texas Tech University, where she held positions including serving as President for its student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

A native of Lagos, Nigeria, Obianyor began her freshman year at Texas Tech after one year at the University of Lagos, where she completed a preparatory foundation program.

She attributes her commitment to service to her supportive family. “My Dad is a medical doctor, and my Mom is a lawyer, and they always pushed me to be very inquisitive and do things that would be useful for society.”

As far as her career goals, Obianyor is considering opportunities in both industry and academia.

In summer 2020, she participated in the highly selective Dow BEST Symposium, which is designed to inform members of underrepresented groups about the wide range of careers in industrial research. In the fall, she will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s ChemE Rising Stars program, which will provide guidance on pursuing a career as a professor.

“I haven’t decided if I want to be a professor or go into industry, but I’m exploring both options,” she says.

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