Kaylynn Genemaras ’15

While working with COVID-19-positive samples, Kaylynn Genemaras wears a full gown, goggles, an N95 respirator mask, and two pairs of gloves. She performs the work in a biosafety hood that has specialized air flow to contain airborne particles, such as blood droplets.

Helping the Bayou During COVID-19

Kaylynn Genemaras ’15 put her doctoral research on hold at Tulane University to help increase diagnostic testing capacity in Louisiana and perform lab work for clinical trials on the virus.

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The HIV viral load testing device that doctoral student Kaylynn Genemaras ’15 is further developing at Tulane University was put on immediate hold this March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Robert Garry, principal investigator in their lab, asked Genemaras and her fellow researchers to use their expertise and Tulane’s resources to help increase diagnostic testing in Louisiana quickly.  

“It was the week after St. Patrick’s Day, and all of New Orleans shut down because of the pandemic,” said Genemaras, who earned a Bachelor of Science in bioengineering at Lehigh and is pursuing a doctorate in bioinnovation at Tulane. “Our first project was to get a diagnostic lab up and running. We cleaned out one of the teaching labs and turned it into a lab running tests.” 

The diagnostic lab opened on April 1 and is completing approximately 200 COVID-19 tests a day to help Louisiana better respond to the crisis. 

There were a lot of hoops that we had to quickly jump through to handle clinical specimens,” she said and added that staffing was fast-tracked to get the lab up and running. 

Kaylynn Genemaras ’15

Because of COVID-19, bioengineering alumna Kaylynn Genemaras ’15 put her doctoral research on hold at Tulane University to help increase diagnostic testing capacity in Louisiana and perform lab work for clinical trials on the virus.

Genemaras helped in the diagnostic lab whenever possible until she was called back to Garry’s lab to process positive COVID-19 blood samples and test nasal swabs for use in clinical trials. She worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, for a month, including Easter, with no additional pay other than her graduate school stipend. 

“We take blood after it is no longer needed, process it, and send it out to different collaborators within Tulane University who are conducting different experiments with the antibodies – not necessarily for commercial use, but for research’s sake,” said Genemaras, who also extracted ribonucleic acid (RNA) from nasal swabs for polymerase chain reaction testing in the lab. The RNA samples are forwarded to an external company for sequencing to analyze mutations of the virus.

“Understanding what is going on with the antibody response is very important in learning about the whole infection and it making a comeback,” said Genemaras. 

Following safety precautions and sanitizing are imperative while working with the COVID-19-positive samples. Genemaras wears a full gown, goggles, an N95 respirator mask, and two pairs of gloves. She performs her work under a biosafety hood that contains blood droplets and other airborne particles and is routinely sterilizing the lab with bleach and ethanol. 

“Kaylynn has always been passionate about transforming discovery into meaningful solutions for complex problems, so seeing her at the forefront of the collective effort to tackle COVID-19 is as expected as it is inspiring,” said Susan Perry, professor of practice, Lehigh’s department of bioengineering. “For Kaylynn, working in the face of risk is secondary to her motivation and determination to contribute to innovations impacting global healthcare.”

During her senior year at Lehigh, Genemaras was advised by Perry and also worked with Xuanhong Cheng, associate professor, departments of materials science and engineering and bioengineering, in the Integrated Product Development (IPD) capstone course. The yearlong program brings together engineering, computer science, and business students to research and develop new products and create marketing plans for their inventions. Genemaras’ IPD team designed a novel HIV viral detection device that indicates whether medication is effectively decreasing the virus in the bloodstream. The team won first place in the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge. Genemaras is refining the device at Tulane in a doctoral degree program designed to merge innovations in science into entrepreneurial endeavors. 

Kaylynn Genemaras ’15 plays volleyball

Genemaras, who was recruited to Lehigh to play Division I volleyball, juggled a full schedule as a four-year starter with a demanding bioengineering course load and multiple undergraduate research opportunities. 

A Louisiana native, Genemaras was recruited to Lehigh by then head volleyball coach Jenny Maurer who emphasized the university’s outstanding academic opportunities. A four-year student-athlete who was consistently named to the Patriot League Honor Roll, Genemaras excelled on the volleyball court as a right side hitter and also in the lab conducting research. 

“When I came to Lehigh, I wanted to become a doctor, but I fell in love with bioengineering,” she said. “Lehigh provided me with the undergraduate research opportunities that I needed to go right into a doctoral program.” 

Filling her academic program with as many experiential learning opportunities as possible, Genemaras gained valuable experience as a research assistant on a team led by Xiaohui (Frank) Zhang, associate professor, departments of bioengineering and mechanical engineering and mechanics. Funded in part by a Lehigh grant, her two-year lab experience involved using a customized atomic force microscope to examine single-cell adhesion and the biomechanical properties of cells. 

“By far one of the best undergraduate researchers whom I have ever trained, Kaylynn showed exceptional experimental skills and was meticulous and tenacious when it came to problem solving,” said Zhang.

Accepted for a summer research internship at Lehigh’s Biosystems Dynamic Summer Institute sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Genemaras also worked under biological sciences associate professors Amber Rice and Julie Miwa. In the lab and in the field, Genemaras and fellow interns explored whether a DNA sequence variation of lynx1-related genes in birds may lead to variations in learning potential.

“I think that it is truly amazing the number of opportunities that are given to undergraduate students to do research at Lehigh University,” said Genemaras. “Lehigh challenged me mentally and physically in a way that makes what I am doing now because of COVID-19 more bearable.”

Story by Dawn Thren ’21P

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