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Alumni help define health policy working in research lab

April 27, 2022

UW-Stevens Point alumni have been on the leading edge of research on COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness, and they are doing their work right here in central Wisconsin.

The Integrated Research and Development Laboratory at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute ran more than 7,000 COVID-19 tests weekly during the height of the pandemic. As the only lab in the nation to support several Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-led studies, it quickly scaled up to handle that volume.

One-quarter of its research associates are UW-Stevens Point graduates.

“Before this contract, we had a much smaller group,” said Elisha Stefanski, senior research associate, who majored in biology and graduated in 2004. Five or six people were hired in the six years prior to the pandemic.  Since mid-2020, their staff has grown from 17 to between 50 and 60. “We ramped up in a hurry. We hired new graduates and trained them quickly.”    

Dan Miesbauer, a wildlife ecology major and May 2020 graduate, was one of those hired in November 2020 for COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness studies. He is among UW-Stevens Point alumni representing five decades at the Research Institute. The oldest is Wayne Frome, senior research associate, who started in 1968 after graduating in 1967.

MCRI has a long history with CDC, dating back to 1980s/90s when it was first involved in influenza vaccine effectiveness studies. Those tests have continued, and so has the relationship.

When the demand for COVID patient testing swelled, “not many labs had the bandwidth to take on the number, scale and scope of the studies that we were being asked to potentially participate in. But we’ve done international studies and we’d already done (influenza) pandemic response studies with the CDC,” said Jennifer Meece, director of the Integrated Research and Development Laboratory.

The Research Institute received a $22.5 million grant from CDC ​in July 2020 and an additional grant for nearly $20 million in June 2021 to serve as a research lab in a number of COVID-19 studies across the United States. About 4,000 samples come from health care personnel, first responders and other frontline and essential workers from across the United States who self-swab and mail tests weekly to Marshfield.

Their work involves testing samples for vaccine effectiveness in adolescent and adult populations.

UWSP alumni researchers at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute
These UW-Stevens Point alumni make up 25 percent of the staff at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute’s Integrated Research and Development Laboratory in Marshfield. Several were hired since 2020 as the lab became a central COVID-19 testing site in the nation.

The results of samples from these groups have been instrumental in defining national policies on vaccine recommendations, masking policies and more, Meece said.

“I tell the staff, when there’s new CDC guidance you can be assured that the data helping drive some of those decisions is in part, based on the data that we’re developing in our laboratory,” she said. “What a great impact, to be 24 years old and know you worked on a study in an unprecedented time that helped define public health policy. Most people will go their whole life without that kind of impact.”

As the lab scaled up, securing supplies needed for testing was also a challenge. “We shut down every other project so we could support COVID testing,” Stefanski said.

Their work is both physically and mentally demanding. They receive up to 1,500 boxes a day that have to be cut open and processed, then placed in the correct testing queue so data can be collected and tracked with precision.

It’s one of several projects in which these alumni have been involved. A major in biology and chemistry, Frome’s ground-breaking research includes isolating angiotensinogen, a protein that is essential in the regulation of blood pressure. This knowledge is especially useful for pregnant women who develop preeclampsia.

Frome is also working with the National Farm Medicine Center to study the relationship between asthma and the environment, sampling mothers’ breast milk, babies’ teeth and household dust, among other items.  

Miesbauer is working on a test for Lyme disease that is a more efficient, cost-effective and accurate way to detect the tick-borne disease in blood. The Research Institute has long been involved in studying Lyme and other diseases with higher incidence in northcentral Wisconsin, including blastomycosis, a soil-borne fungal infection that affects the lungs. Both diseases are relevant regionally.

A wildlife disease class with Professor Shelli Dubay at UW-Stevens Point, coupled with his biology minor and lab skills, led Miesbauer to MCRI. “I thought this was a great opportunity to learn more about how disease works and, in the future, apply that to wildlife disease management and research.”

Stefanski joined the Integrated Research Lab in November 2004 with the human genome typing service. She has been involved in pharmacogenetics research where genotyped patients have alerts sent to their pharmacist showing how their body will metabolize a new prescribed medication. The dose or medication can then be adjusted as their body needs.  

The research and development lab supports clinical trials to make sure technology is viable in a clinical setting, Stefanski said. “Pretty much everything we do has a direct relationship on patients and improving patient care.”

The university provided solid general education in science and lab skills, Frome said. 

“UW-Stevens Point does a really nice job of preparing students for work in the real world and for us,” Meece said. “A lot of local people attended college there because it’s a great campus and a great training ground. We’ve been able to keep people locally because they’ve been able to find good, meaningful jobs. The pandemic is one subset of the meaningful kind of work we’ve been doing.”

The proximity between Stevens Point and Marshfield is an advantage, too, she said. “In a time of crunch and crisis, we were able to draw upon a really skilled population of young adults who could step into our lab and contribute.”