Biology department moves to saliva testing

Photo by Mary-Grace Byers

Veronica Novotny

Assistant Editor

“A lot has gone into it in the last six months,” a student research assistant said about the biology department’s COVID-19 testing research, in light of the recent transition from the use of nasal swabs to saliva-based tests on campus.

Senior Jack Greve, biology and theology double major, has been on board since August as one of several student research assistants who have helped Franciscan University of Steubenville administer testing, run samples and determine the number of active cases on campus based on available testing.

The biology professors at Franciscan began their COVID-19 research at the beginning of the summer in preparation for resident students’ return in August.

The research team consists of Joseph Pathakamuri, who holds a doctorate in molecular virology, Daniel Kuebler, who holds a doctorate in molecular and cell biology, and Kyle McKenna, who holds a doctorate in immunology and microbiology.

During the summer, “the professors had been working with the hospital, kind of developing the program, so that when the RAs arrived in August, that was when we were ready to start,” Greve said.

Because the project began with the administration of nasalpharyngeal swabbing, which inserts a cotton swab through the nose into the back of the throat, the switch to saliva-based testing means a less invasive sampling for patients, a simpler testing process for the lab assistants and a more streamlined process all around.

“(Nasalpharyngeal swabbing) is really invasive,” Greve said. “The fact that now we switched to the saliva one is significantly better. … I think people are probably more willing to do it now, knowing that they don’t have to do the uncomfortable swabbing.”

According to Greve, switching to saliva testing made the lab process simpler, more efficient and less time-consuming.

“The lab techniques we do now are way easier,” Greve said. “It takes less time and it’s less expensive because we need less chemicals and solutions to perform it.”

Greve expressed his hope that students would take the opportunity to get tested using the simpler process and not grow complacent due to the low number of positive cases on campus.

“Initially people were more cautious, so there were a lot of tests the second week that we got here,” said Greve. “It was hard for us to be able to accommodate for the amount of people that wanted testing. As the numbers on campus went down, now we have the opposite problem.”

“Because our testing numbers are way down, it means that people … have a higher risk of spreading the virus when they have it just because they’ve grown complacent,” Greve said. “We would like to see those numbers a little more consistent.”

While the university has several research projects underway regarding COVID-19, the free and voluntary testing on Wednesday afternoons is entirely for the benefit of the university and keeping the community safe, and no personal information is shared outside of the university, according to Greve.

Greve handles the lab work alongside senior Holly Radke, biology major, while several nursing students help with paperwork and contact tracing for the positive cases.

“Overall, because of all the work that the team has been doing, especially Dr. Kuebler and Dr. Pathakamuri, we’re in a really good place as a university,” Greve said. “I don’t think any of us expected it to go this well. It’s been a ton of work for them but it’s paid off.”

For more information on the research project and to sign up for voluntary testing, students can refer to their university email inboxes.