Hoya Citings: Student contributes to foot-and-mouth disease research in Shanghai laboratory


This is the second part of our Vox series called “Hoya Citings” in which we feature Georgetown students’ research projects and pursuits in academia. Last week, we interviewed a student from Georgetown’s SFS-Qatar campus.

Until this summer, Georgetown student David Schaffer (COL ’14) never thought he’d need to know how to say “flask” in Chinese. And no, this is was not his way to get to know Shanghai’s nightlife.

Schaffer spent the summer in China at Shanghai’s State Key Laboratory of Genetic Engineering in Fudan University, scrambling to learn scientific words in the Chinese language, to contribute to a research project on vaccine development for foot-and-mouth disease.

“It was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.

He found the laboratory through Georgetown professor Steven Singer, who had contacts in China working on the infectious and often fatal foot-and-mouth disease.

He felt motivated to join the project based on his studies at Georgetown in the Biology department. “The Biology and Global Health major allows you to do both communicable and non-communicable diseases,” Schaffer explained. “I think the communicable part is interesting, like infectious diseases and viruses.”

photo (21)The virus, prevalent in China, causes enormous damage for animal farmers. Foot-and-mouth can prevent cows from producing milk efficiently, and also affects a variety of other “cloven-hoofed animals.” The disease can be contracted from contact with unsanitary farming equipment, predators, or feed. Humans are rarely susceptible to the disease.

The lab’s goal was to create a safer vaccine to prevent foot-and-mouth disease from spreading to other parts of the world.

“What I was working on…you can’t do in the United States,” Schaffer said. “If it [the disease] gets over here, it’s going to be a huge problem.”

Although a student of Chinese for seven years, his conversational fluency did not initially prove helpful enough in the world of science. “I got there and had this idea that in the science world, most people speak English, and I was wrong,” he said. His senior research co-workers did not speak English, and Schaffer was forced to learn an entirely new set of Chinese vocabulary.

He spent the first two weeks in the lab with a legal pad and perked ears. “Any time they did anything, I would write it down. I had to learn a whole new set of words in Chinese, anything from ‘flask’ to ‘milimeter’ to ‘plasma’… If you think about it, if I thought that they said micro-liter and they said milliliter, I could destroy all their research.”

He eventually reached a level where he could work for ten to twelve hours a day and speak in Chinese about science. On the side, Schaffer taught tennis and English to students he met in Shanghai.

At the end of his eight weeks at Fudan University, Schaffer gave an entire presentation in Chinese on the findings of his report. The researchers gave him the opportunity to work on his own project, and he was able to contribute to the laboratory’s vaccine development research.

“The goal of my research was to elicit the smallest possible epitope of Foot-and-Mouth Disease Virus capable of initiating a neutralizing antibody response.  Each oligopeptide must be isolated and tested. In this effort, we picked and tested just 2 oligopeptides (far less than 1% of the total number to be tested) to start the process,” Schaffer said. “Luckily, one of the samples was successful and represents a promising candidate for future vaccine development.”

A promising result indeed, and Schaffer was able to come away from the summer with a concrete contribution to foot-and-mouth disease research.

Throughout his trip and travels in China, the socioeconomic disparities did not escape him. “A university professor who is an esteemed and published researcher could make about the same as the guy who is selling street food,” he said.

Not only did the income inequality strike him, Schaffer also noticed that censorship in China had the potential to affect research in the field of science. “Sometimes I don’t feel like they realize it. For example, there were times when they would search something [on Google] and it wouldn’t work. It happens all the time,” he said.

The work Schaffer produced will eventually be published as part of a larger project on foot-and-mouth disease vaccinations. He hopes to continue working in China in the future. For now, though, Schaffer is pursuing further research through his work on a project with Professor Esther Chang from the Lombardi Cancer Research Center on tumor suppressor gene therapy.

Photo courtesy of David Schaffer

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