Mayha Fazel

For a number of young adults, the pandemic has them rethinking their post-secondary school plans, with many opting for a “gap experience”. For Mahya Fazel-Zarandi it was a chance to get started on her career rather than simply hitting pause.

The 18-year-old graduated from high school last spring with the intentions of pursuing a molecular biology degree from Princeton University. But COVID-19 gave her pause about attending the school during the worldwide pandemic.

“For me, the more important reason (to taking a gap year) was that I wanted to contribute to the global response to COVID-19 beyond following public health advice,” said Mahya.

She contacted Dr. Anne Claude Gingras, Senior Investigator at Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI) where she had participated in both the student outreach program and the LTRI Summer Internship program.

“We normally only accept as summer interns, students that have completed a few years of undergraduate training in a relevant discipline. But Mahya had made such an impression when visiting during an outreach activity that we offered her a summer internship,” said Dr. Gingras. “Mahya did an excellent job during the summer assisting one of our senior lab members with sample preparation.”

Dr. Gingras gladly supported Mahya’s application to Princeton, though neither of them anticipated the massive changes that would bring them back together so soon.

In March 2020, the Gingras lab shifted some of their work to testing antibody response in people with SARS-CoV-2 infections. The lab soon became flooded with requests for collaborations to support an increasingly large number of projects. While the team was coping with the workload, it became clear that they would need to bring someone reliable in to help process all the samples.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. As Dr. Gingras was contemplating placing a job ad, Mahya contacted her to discuss the possibility of volunteering in the lab instead of heading to university. Dr. Gingras offered her the position of Student Research Assistant for the year.

“Since I started working full-time at the lab in September, my interest in being here has quadrupled as I am gaining tremendous experiences in research while also expanding my knowledge of biology and medicine,” said Mahya

As she was already familiar with the lab and its members, she was assigned to the serology team. The team uses manual and automated versions of a technique called Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) to analyze the behaviour of antibodies in response to the SARS-CoV2 virus. The research will help provide better and more efficient testing capacities, increase understanding of the virus, while also aiding in the monitoring of vaccine responses. Mahya is learning to program and monitor the robots that carry out the automatic ELISAs.

Before she leaves to pursue her degree at Princeton this fall, Mahya will be included as an author on several publications that stem directly from her work in the lab. Her future plans are to be a doctor and a medical researcher.