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Microbiology, Genetics, and Neuroscience: Meet More Next-Generation Scientists Stepping Up to Fight COVID-19

This is the second part in a Penn Medicine News series featuring the graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and laboratory technicians who have stepped up to fight the coronavirus pandemic and investigate SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Read part one.

For Susan Weiss, PhD, a professor of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine with more than four decades of experience studying coronaviruses, the pandemic means more work for her, and her students, post-docs, and technicians, than ever before.

“My team has been at work in the biosafety level 3 containment lab to support the community effort towards understanding SARS-CoV-2,” Weiss said, describing a BSL-3 lab, which requires specific training in handling pathogens like SARS-CoV-2, Zika, and West Nile virus, and specialized equipment and procedures. “This included growing up virus stocks, testing various cell lines for the best to infect with SARS-CoV-2, providing RNA to other investigators, working on inactivation techniques for the virus. In addition, they are beginning to work on research projects investigating the innate immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, a new research direction of our lab, and to compare pathogenesis of this virus [how the virus develops into disease] to MERS-CoV-2 and murine coronavirus, viruses they have been working on previously. They are also engaged in collaborative work with other Perelman School of Medicine faculty, investigating infections of primary airway cells with SARS-CoV-2.”

These researchers are using their experience and expertise studying things like immunotherapy, genetics, and neuroscience to discover how the SARS-CoV-2 virus works, and how to stop its effects on the human body. The profiles below shine a light on just a few of the scientific trainees advancing discovery about SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19. Follow @PennMedBench on Twitter to get to know more in the weeks ahead through a series on these amazing scientists and scholars.


Courtney Comar

PhD student, Microbiology

Principal Investigator: Susan Weiss, PhD, a professor of Microbiology and co-director of the Penn Center for Research on Coronavirus and Other Emerging Pathogens

The Weiss Lab is currently investigating the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and host-virus competition in coronavirus replication.

What are you studying? I am studying some of the basic biology of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to see if the virus activates or blocks host innate immune pathways during infection. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was working on a similar project for my dissertation. I studied how two different coronaviruses, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and a mouse coronavirus, Mouse Hepatitis Virus, block the host cell from detecting the presence of infection.

What is the impact? SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, and therefore it is important to understand how it is similar to, and different from, other coronaviruses. Also, studying the basic biology of the virus, as well as studying the host-pathogen interactions between the virus and human cells, is important for understanding how the disease it causes, COVID-19, develops in patients over time, and can help identify new drug targets.


Michael McQuillan, PhD

Post-Doctoral Researcher, Genetics

Principal Investigator: Sarah Tishkoff, PhD, a professor of Genetics in the Perelman School of Medicine and Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and director of Penn Center for Global Genomics & Health Equity

The Tishkoff Lab is investigating the genetics of COVID-19 patients, and patterns of genetic diversity across ethnically diverse human populations.

What are you studying? I am contributing to a project that aims to understand global patterns of natural genetic variation at human receptor genes that interact with the novel coronavirus, particularly the ACE2 gene. Specifically, I am looking for statistical signatures of natural selection acting on these genes, with the goal of understanding whether any naturally occurring genetic variants influence the ways human cells interact with the virus. We are focusing on ethnically diverse African populations for this work. 

Before the pandemic, I was and still am working on understanding the genomic basis of adaptive trait variation in ethnically diverse African populations.

What is the impact? This work has the potential to discover novel genetic variation in human genes that play a role in viral infection by SARS-CoV-2. By focusing on underrepresented populations, we may discover variants that would otherwise not be detectable, which may provide future therapeutic value.


Vera Ludwig, PhD 

Research Associate, Neuroscience

Principal Investigator: Michael Platt, PhD, a professor of Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine, Marketing in the Wharton School, and Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences

The Platt Lab is investigating the impact of social distancing on social cognition.

What are you studying? We are using surveys to investigate how the current COVID-19 pandemic, as well as associated social distancing regulations, affect decision-making, social interactions, and mental well-being.

I am particularly motivated to determine what behaviors (meditation, for example), individual differences (optimism, for example), and assumptions about the world (the belief that the world is interconnected, for example) help people cope with the pandemic and prevent mental health challenges. Moreover, together with Jer Clifton, PhD student of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, we are looking at whether traumatic experiences during the COVID-19 crisis might change people's beliefs about the world and thereby affect well-being: Do people, for example, start increasingly believing that the world is a dangerous place and, if so, does this relate to depressive symptoms? And, importantly, will these beliefs revert back to the way they were, when the worst of this crisis is over? Furthermore, together with Damien Crone, PhD, post-doctoral researcher of Psychology, and James Pawelski, PhD, a professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts and Sciences, we take a look at how people’s engagement with the arts and humanities change during the crisis, whether people find new ways of engaging with them which help them feel connected with others, and how this engagement with the arts and humanities may support well-being. 

In addition to these surveys, we are planning to conduct research on the effects of interacting remotely with others (in Zoom meetings, for example) on physiological markers of connectedness. We will then compare our results to people’s physiology during real-life interactions. 

What is the impact? These lines of research might help us derive recommendations or interventions that can support people in staying mentally healthy and socially connected during the global pandemic.

There are graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research technicians across Penn Medicine working tirelessly on coronavirus-related projects. Don’t forget to follow @PennMedBench on Twitter to get to know more in the weeks ahead and stay tuned to the Penn Medicine News blog for more profiles in this series. Want to be profiled? Fill out this form and email photos of yourself at work (whatever that looks like for you these days!) to

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