KSU alums help create COVID-19 tests

KENNESAW, Ga. (Jun 17, 2020) — Working long days and sometimes overnight shifts, three Kennesaw State alums—all of whom received their inspiration and training in the lab of associate professor of biology Scott J. Nowak — have a critical task during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rebekah Henneborn and Mary Katherine Grimes graduated in May with degrees in biology. Kristina Palermino-Rowland earned a bachelor’s in biology in 2016 and a master’s in integrative biology two years later. The three recently started working at Ipsum Diagnostics in Sandy Springs, an anatomical and clinical pathology laboratory that has an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to produce tests for the novel coronavirus.

The emergency use authorization expanded Ipsum’s testing capacity from 1,000 to 4,000 tests a day, with a turnaround of 24 hours. That meant the lab’s staff expanded as well.

Enter the KSU trio. Grimes and Henneborn hired in early April while Palermino-Rowland worked in academia and at another lab before joining the team at Ipsum.

Ipsum Diagnostics co-founder Lauren Bricks said the three have brought strong work ethics and deep knowledge to the lab, and touted their efforts as critical to Ipsum’s success in coronavirus testing

“Kristina, our molecular supervisor, has worked on important projects to improve efficiency and capacity by implementing automation and technologies to centralize the COVID-19 workflow. Mary Katherine and Rebekah have consistently demonstrated the ability to adapt, which is paramount to overcoming the challenges of COVID-19 testing,” Bricks said.

Mary Katherine Grimes
Mary Katherine Grimes

“Currently, there are roughly 160 laboratories performing COVID-19 testing and only 12 have been granted FDA authorization. Ipsum is proud to be in this distinct group. We have remarkable employees, and are so grateful to have Kristina, Mary Katherine and Rebekah on our team.”

Grimes said she was excited to get a job so soon after finishing her studies, especially one that engaged her best-learned skills.

“I feel especially fortunate for the opportunity to work in my field during a time when work for many people is unpredictable,” she said. “However, I never would have imagined that my graduation day would be spent in a COVID-19 diagnostic lab. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, I am grateful for the opportunity Ipsum Diagnostics has given me.”

Henneborn credited her Scholars in STEM (S-STEM) advisor, associate professor of biology Jennifer Louten, for directing her to Nowak’s lab, where she gained not only the work experience that makes her a valuable member of the Ipsum team but the confidence to pursue a career in science. Henneborn also said Louten inspired a critical change in academic direction.

Rebekah Henneborn
Rebekah Henneborn

“She helped me realize that if I put in the work that my future in science could be fulfilling,” said Henneborn, who benefited from a National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics grant for technical school transfer students. “She pushed me to think bigger and broaden my goals. I started out majoring in biochemistry but found cellular and molecular biology was a better fit, so I changed majors.”

Palermino-Rowland also came through the S-STEM program after having earned an associate degree. She continued in KSU’s Master of Science in Integrated Biology program, all the while working in Nowak’s lab. She credited her experiences with helping her to become a top-notch scientist and leader; Bricks credited Palermino-Rowland with scaling up testing by working with laboratory leadership and other technologists to validate new equipment, automate and centralize the workflow, and help develop solutions for the numerous obstacles caused by the pandemic.  

“First and foremost, the projects that I took on during my master’s degree helped me become a well-rounded scientist,” she said. “Science isn’t always perfect. It takes strong critical thinking skills to determine where something went wrong in the testing process and how to overcome the problem. The structure of the MSIB program also provided me with the skills necessary to effectively communicate with all members within an organization to reach a common goal.”

All three say they plan to stay in science in one form or another. Grimes has set a path to medical school, while Henneborn sees a master’s and a doctorate in her future. Palermino-Rowland hopes to move into management at a lab.

For his part, Nowak is not surprised by their success.

“Kristina, Mary Katherine and Rebekah have all been absolute rock stars in my laboratory, and I couldn’t be prouder of their current work,” he said. “They’re really excelling in a critical field.”

– David Shelles

Submitted photos

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