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Biochemistry majors get hands-on research experience studying SARS-CoV-2

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Posted on Friday, October 9, 2020

Two Westminster College biochemistry majors had a unique experiential learning opportunity this summer as members of a highly selective undergraduate research team studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Senior Morgan Shine of Greenville, Pa., and junior Nicole Mackenstein of Ellwood City, Pa., both participated in a remote 10-week National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in Duquesne University’s chemistry department where they modeled the surface and potential surface reactions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, otherwise known as the coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19.

Researching a virus that has dominated the global public’s daily conversation for months was an exciting opportunity for the students, but both women undertook their responsibilities like they would any other assignment.

“I’m really passionate about research, so I approached the SARS-CoV-2 research the same way I would approach any project,” said Shine. “My usual research at Westminster focuses on histone mRNA degradation, which is a fundamental cellular process that is not directly connected to a disease. Although I approached the SARS-CoV-2 research the same way as my histone mRNA project, it was interesting to consider the broader implications of studying the virus responsible for the current pandemic.”

Mackenstein agreed.

“It helped me realize how important not only the research I was working on was, but how important research is in general,” said Mackenstein, who also has a minor in data science. “But I treated it like any other project. I just focused on my work and what was asked of me.”

While COVID restrictions prevented Shine and Mackenstein from conducting their research on Duquesne’s campus, the nature of their project—using computational chemistry, specifically molecular dynamic simulations, to study the effects of mutations on the secondary structure of conserved regions in the SARS-CoV-2 virus—still allowed them to get hands-on, real world experience through remote research.

“I was able to learn so many new skills and I was given the opportunity to work on something so important,” Mackenstein said. “The support and guidance by my faculty mentor, Dr. Patrick Lackey, allowed me to be able to grow more confident in my place on the team. He helped me understand that research is fundamentally about learning, and if we had all the answers, there would be no need for research.”

Shine said she also was gratefully for the opportunity to build on her strengths and learn a new set of research skills, especially at a time when most summer research programs were canceled due to the pandemic.

Both women—and one other undergraduate team member from Duquesne—held daily research meetings with Dr. Lackey, assistant professor of chemistry at Westminster, and weekly group meetings were held with the Duquesne University research advisers and graduate students. Additionally, Shine and Mackenstein participated in weekly instrumentation workshops on topics such as microscopy and next generation sequencing, as well as an ethics forum with students from other research groups. They also offered biweekly presentations on different phases of their research.

“Westminster students who participate in summer research programs learn valuable research skills because they can dedicate all of their day to research,” said Dr. Peter Smith, professor of chemistry and chair of Westminster’s chemistry and biochemistry department. “Their participation in summer research experiences prepares them for success after graduation.”

For more about Westminster’s biochemistry major, please visit

Biochemistry majors Morgan Shine, left, and Nicole Mackenstein