Two Virginia Western biotechnology courses and a 10-week internship turned into a life changing journey for one Fincastle native.
A biology major at the University of Virginia, Skylar Gay’s journey into biotechnology started at Virginia Western Community College as a dually enrolled high school student. Under the guidance of Dr. Heather Lindberg, Skylar took part in VWCC’s SEA-PHAGES program that captured her imagination and sparked an interest in biology and biotechnology. In Dr. Lindberg’s lab, Skylar gained hands-on experience in lab research and gene sequencing.
“Dean Amy White and Dr. Heather Lindberg are important mentors for me,” Skylar said, “Before studying at VWCC, I planned a career in musical theater. That will always be a passion for me, but my experiences have affirmed my desire to focus on epidemiology. VWCC uncovered a passion that I didn’t even know I had!”
In 2020, while searching for available opportunities during the COVID lockdowns, Skylar discovered the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Through NSF-REU she applied for a 10-week remote internship at the University of Georgia in the lab of Dr. Jonathan Arnold. Using the skills she learned at VWCC, Skylar researched COVID transmission rates using genetic data and statistical analysis.
To assist with her statistical and genomic analysis, Skylar developed software in the R programing language which is used primarily for statistical computing and graphics. Her software, which she named transRate© is the first computational method to estimate transmission rates using a cladistic approach for genomic data.
Her 10-week internship turned into a 2.5-year research project when she was invited to continue her research under Dr. Arnold’s guidance. While there, Skylar traced COVID variants to a common ancestor, gleaning insights about transmission and mutation. In reconstructing the phylogenetic tree and applying timepoints to her data, she learned which populations had high transmission rates and discovered that transmission was much higher within populations than between populations.
Skylar is preparing to present her new technology and her research findings at the World Congress on Undergraduate Research at the University of Warwick in Birmingham, UK in April. In addition, she is the first author on a scholarly article set to be published later this year in a scientific journal in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Arnold, Dr. Liang Liu, and Dr. Jialin Yang.
“I would not be where I am today without my experiences at Virginia Western Community College,” Skylar said. “I experiences I had there shaped my understanding of research and prepared me for later studies.”
Skylar plans to add a second major in public health to her biology degree and hopes to continue her research at a Ph.D. program where she is interested in combining bioinformatics with wet lab techniques. Her goal is to influence policy makers in creating legislation that protects public health in the event of another epidemic or pandemic by modeling the transmission of viruses within and between populations.