AKRON, Ohio (WJW) – University of Akron biology students are getting real-world experience testing wastewater from dormitories for the presence of COVID-19, which can help the school understand and react appropriately to any presence of the virus on campus.
Under the supervision of Dr. John Senko students are taking samples of the wastewater, then in a laboratory at the Auburn Science and Engineering Center they are collecting the fragments of the shed virus in those samples to determine the prevalence of COVID.
“We see gene fragments in the wastewater so when you are infected you shed the virus everywhere,” said Senko
“We can visualize not necessarily like the intact viruses but gene fragments from the virus. It tells you that you have more or less cases in an area,” he added.
The study, which began in January, also tests municipal wastewater samples from Akron, Youngstown and Warren.
It gives biology majors like Blake Bilinovich an opportunity to do hands-on research that has a real-time impact on his school and the community.
“You get to help, be a part of something that monitors the spread of COVID. So it’s pretty interesting, especially from like a biology student perspective, so I was pretty happy when I got the job,” said Bilinovich
“With COVID affecting everyone’s everyday life, it’s kind of nice to do something that’s really relevant to today’s society,” said Clayton Hubler, also a senior biology major at the University of Akron.
The studies have been used by municipal sewer districts to forecast spikes in COVID-19 through the winter, under the assumption that people who are infected may spread the virus before they become symptomatic or even if they never experience symptoms at all.
But Senko says the science is trending away from the thought of using the testing to predict what may happen, and believe it to be a very reliable tool to determine what the experience currently is, particularly in smaller sample groups like dormitories.
And he says the studies show that the virus is trending in the right direction.
“There was a dorm where we saw a spike or some unusually high numbers but that was pretty early in our testing,” Senko said. “And since we didn’t really have a lot of baseline data, we weren’t really sure what to make of it. Fortunately, those have come back down.”
The university says the campus and municipality projects are funded through June.