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Groundbreaking COVID-19 project led by Lake Central High School students tests hundreds of staff

Lake Central High School seniors Lilah Lopez, Thao Nguyen and Graham Weber created a groundbreaking, school-wide coronavirus antibody research project over the summer of 2020. The project’s purpose was to determine the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in teachers and staff prior to starting the school year.

More than 750 Lake Central School Corporation staff members participated in the original round of free COVID-19 antibody testing offered at the school, which has the sixth largest student enrollment in Indiana and the largest enrollment in the Northwest portion of the state – called the “Region.”

“Throughout our research, we’ve seen a lack of any school-related studies such as this,” Weber explained. “To step up to the plate, it’s been great to produce a project of this level.”

After success with the first round of research and testing that the school corporation provided funding support for, the trio decided to conduct a second round to see how staff exposure had changed with the interaction with students during the school year. When funding for the second portion fell short, Hammond-based Alverno Laboratories stepped in to help fund the testing performed in February. Hundreds of staff members were tested and results from the tests will be available soon, according to the students.

Lopez, of St. John, Nguyen, of Schererville, and Weber, of Dyer, started collaborating on the project last year during AP chemistry, taught by Kendal Smith. They never expected it to gain steam and become a school-wide endeavor that expanded to multiple rounds of high-level of testing and attract a major local entity like Alverno Laboratories. Nguyen, who quests to major in computer science, said the school has embraced the project. “The teachers have been especially excited about this.”

When the funding for the second round fell short, the group turned to raise money via GoFundMe with a goal of $10,000. “Having Alverno involved was like a ray of hope for us,” pronounced Lopez, who expects to major in chemical engineering. “We didn’t know if we’d be able to do a second round of testing, and Alverno’s help allowed us to do that.”

Paige Lockhart, marketing specialist at Alverno and, coincidentally, also a graduate of Lake Central, said several Alverno phlebotomists and staff were on hand for the testing, which took place over the entirety of a school-day afternoon.
“Our team was happy to be involved and give back to the community during a time in which we as a society can feel disconnected from one another,” remarked Lockhart. “Everyone at Alverno who was involved worked tirelessly to plan and prepare for the event given a two week preparation period.”

“This has shown that we are real scientists, and that we’ve done something that’s useful and trustworthy,” stated Weber, who plans to major in statistics and epidemiology in college. “It’s definitely expanded more than we expected.”

“Alverno saw this as an opportunity to encourage high school students to consider science-based careers. Our hope is that kids will hear this story and focus on STEM studies and maybe a future in laboratory medicine. Working in laboratory medicine is rewarding but often is not on the forefront of career decisions because it has less of a familiarity compared to nursing.
By engaging with students, we are trying to make them aware of our field of study and encourage those who are interested to consider a career in laboratory science. It is a diverse field, spanning from genetics to microbiology to toxicology and much more” stated Sierra Breeden, Alverno’s director of marketing and customer experience.

Alverno is one of the largest integrated laboratory networks in the United States. It owns and operates 32 hospital laboratories and supports other hospital laboratories in varying degrees throughout Illinois and Indiana, and features a central laboratory performing both clinical and anatomic pathology. Alverno’s innovative, state-of-the-art laboratory offers cost effective testing and personalized customer service, with advanced technology and testing in Precision Medicine/Next-Gen Sequencing, toxicology, pain management and other specialty testing. The students originally created a GoFundMe that raised more than $5,000.