ARCS Foundation Phoenix Chapter Field Trip to Northern Arizona University March 8, 2021
How Heather Mead Joined the Fight Against COVID
by Sheila Grinell
Biologist Heather Mead studies the pathogen that causes Valley Fever, an often debilitating disease endemic to the US Southwest but most common in California and Arizona. It’s caused by a fungus that lives happily in the soil most of the time. But when dry soil is disturbed—by a backhoe or an ATV or other human invasion—and someone inhales it, the fungus changes form and attacks the human’s cells, causing a range of symptoms, some of which can persist for decades.
A doctoral student at Northern Arizona University, Heather and her colleagues work in a “biohazard level 3” laboratory where they take extreme precautions to confine the fungus. This is the same level of care needed to study the SARS –CO2 virus that causes COVID-19. So when the pandemic hit in March last year, in one week over spring break Heather’s mentor, Dr Bridget Barker, converted the lab into a COVID research facility. They had the equipment required to keep researchers—and the community—safe, but they didn’t have an animal in which to test new remedies. Enter Jackson Labs, in Bar Harbor, ME, which had cultivated a mouse that was susceptible to human COVID. Then a Chinese scientist who had previously conducted COVID research came to organize COVID-specific lab materials. The NAU team then offered to partner with other scientists looking for a place to do their COVID-related work.
In the past year, Heather and dozens of others on Dr. Barker’s team have worked on three separate drug treatments; on potentially neutralizing antibodies; on human microbiome changes caused by the SARS virus; and on measurements of its airborne characteristics. And the work continues as they, like others around the world, try to learn how to stop the virus in its tracks.
“It was wonderful how everyone stepped up. It’s amazing how fast research can progress when you cut out the bureaucracy and work together. I’m proud to be a member of the scientific community,” Heather told a group of ARCS Foundation supporters.
Heather’s graduate work is being funded in part by a grant from the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Phoenix chapter. An all-volunteer women’s organization founded in 1975, ARCS supports the best and brightest US students selected by their eligible universities. Awardees can use the money any way they like. Heather used her award to provide extracurricular activities and healthy food to her three growing teenagers.
When the need to conquer the virus abates, the NAU lab will return to investigating the Valley Fever fungus. Heather is hot on the trail of one of the genes responsible for one of the morphological changes that helps the fungus destroy human cells. She can’t wait to get back to her own work, but as a mother of three, she knows how to bide her time. Children, like viruses and fungi, have their own clocks.