Mary Gates Endowment For Students

Katherine Lochner

Mary Gates Research Scholar, Winter 2022

Research Project: Improving Sensitivity Capabilities of Novel Oral Swab Diagnostic Analysis and Processing Methods for Tuberculosis Detection

Project Description: Tuberculosis (TB), a communicable disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), is a leading cause of global morbidity and mortality. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, TB was the leading cause of death worldwide by a single infectious agent. Pulmonary TB is typically diagnosed by analysis of sputum, a viscous material derived from patients’ airways. Producing sputum can be uncomfortable and difficult for patients, especially children and those living with HIV, and is hazardous for health care workers. Developing alternative diagnostic samples to sputum is an urgent need for TB detection and control. Oral swab analysis (OSA) is a promising alternative diagnostic sample that is safer, less invasive, faster, and easier than sputum collection. I have been working to optimize processing and analysis methods of OSA using lab contrived samples (samples collected from healthy participants and spiked with non-virulent TB material), and my project will focus on clinical validation of these findings. My research is focused on sponge-like foam swabs which have much potential due to their capacity to collect large volumes of oral biomass. The challenge, that I will address, presented by this swab type is the greater volume of PCR inhibitors that are picked up with the high capacity swab. 

What have you learned throughout your research project?

I think I have learned a lot about the power of experiential learning. My work in the lab has not only afforded me the opportunity to apply what I have learned in my classes, but also challenges me to use what I know to find creative solutions to complex, real world problems. Another key discovery that has emerged from my research pursuits is there are so many factors that influence the success of a project. For example, in my work I optimize processing and analysis methods for tuberculosis oral swab diagnostics for use in point-of-care settings in Africa. My research is centralized in a lab setting in Seattle where I have access to equipment, safe and comfortable workspaces, extensive resources, etc. However, in a clinical setting in South Africa, the resources at one’s disposal could be radically different and it may not be possible to follow the same protocols we use in the lab. Furthermore, while we have personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, a nurse in Uganda may not and, additionally, they might not be able to maintain safe distances or follow guidelines for ventilating spaces where Tuberculosis patients frequent. I have come to truly understand that real world problems are multifaceted and intersectional; Solutions require the collaboration and creativity of many groups in order to succeed. 

What piece of advice do you have for future applicants?

My advice for future applicants is to find an area of study that really interests you and a mentor who is a really excellent teacher! I have learned so much from my mentor and attribute much of my progress to my positive relationship with her. The foundation of trust we have in our relationship allows me to work alongside her as well as independently; my mentor has an amazing sense of exactly how much guidance I need through new protocols and procedures and knows just the right time to be hands off and allow me to work on my own. She creates a deep sense of trust in me in my capabilities, giving me the confidence to experiment with new things and pursue my own goals. I think a great teacher makes all the difference so in addition to finding an area of research that really interests you, find a mentor who is equally engaging and eager to teach.