Community College Alumni Among Coronavirus Researchers

Montgomery County Community College alumni and scientists (at top from left) Seethal Meda, Carla Campbell, Sean Heron, and Amber Sawyer

by Eric Devlin
for The Post

POTTSTOWN PA – Biotechnology program alumni from Montgomery County Community College are among researchers on the front line in the nation’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve helped develop an antibody being used to detect the virus in patient testing samples.

Alumni Amber Sawyer, Sean Heron and Seethal Meda are employees at Limerick Township-based Rockland Immunochemicals Inc., which earlier this year developed what’s known as the “Anti-SARS-CoV Nucleocapsid (N) Protein” antibody. It’s considered “invaluable for the highly accurate detection of SARS-CoV-2 and subsequently COVID-19 disease in various types of patient samples, including nasal and throat swab extracts and saliva,” according to Dr. Carl Ascoli, Rockland chief science officer.

The antibody has been compared to a chip inside a computer. It powers a diagnostic test to produce an intended result: determining whether a person has contracted the virus. With the antibody now in hand, the next step is to mass produce and ship it globally, so rapid testing can be manufactured and distributed widely.

Community College Alumni Among Coronavirus Researchers

Also helping to create a test kit for the virus is alumna Carla Campbell, who works at Abzyme Therapeutics. It’s located in the Rockland facility (above), where Campbell works shoulder to shoulder with Rockland employees and they use the same equipment.

Sawyer, Heron and Meda, along with Campbell each said their time studying biotechnology at the college with Biotechnology Associate Professor and Program Coordinator Dr. Margaret Bryans, prepared them for the life-saving, cutting-edge work they’re doing today.

“If it wasn’t for Montco, I wouldn’t have this job,” said Heron, who lives in Schwenksville.

Heron graduated MCCC in 2017. Before that, he had dropped out of a four-year institution for a semester and decided to attend a transition workshop run by a friend of his mother. That’s where he met Bryans, and she told him about the program at MCCC.

“I ended up going to Montco and having a great experience,” he said, specifically crediting biotechnology classes he took for their part in helping him land first an internship, then the job at Rockland.

Sawyer, of Lafayette Hill, enrolled in MCCC at age 20, as a liberal arts major to try to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She received her general education diploma after dropping out of school in 10th grade.

“I always enjoyed science because it’s always changing,” she said. “I figured I’d give that a shot.” She’d been impressed by what she’d heard about Bryans and decided to save those four classes for last. “I didn’t meet Dr. Bryans until the end of my degree program,” she said. “She made my last two semesters so fun. And I graduated as a scientist.”

Meda, who lives in Collegeville, received a bachelor’s degree in 2001 but for the following 15 years held the demanding job of full-time parent. By 2017, she decided it was time to go back to school. “All of a sudden I realized I wanted to do something,” she said. “It had been 15 years since I closed my books. I thought ‘my kid is leaving soon. Montco is there. I can get something for myself.’”

When she decided to take biotechnology courses, she almost immediately began to panic and thought about dropping out. It was Bryans, she said, who gave her confidence to keep going and earn a certificate. She described the laboratories at MCCC as “mini versions of Rockland’s” laboratories, giving her the experience she’d need after graduation.

From there, things went well for her. Bryans helped her land an internship at a local pharmaceutical company that collaborates with the college, and then she got the job at Rockland.

“Dr. Bryans gave me the support I needed,” she said.

Campbell, who lives in Limerick, graduated high school in 2010 and decided to work as an automotive technician. Yet she soon realized it wasn’t the career for her and decided to enroll at MCCC in 2016 in the biotechnology program. Campbell met Bryans, whom she said became an invaluable resource, during her first semester.

“I knew I could trust her for answers, or if she didn’t know, she would get back to me with an answer later on. I enjoyed learning from her.”

Bryans had nothing but glowing remarks for her former students.

“In the biotechnology program at MCCC we focus on the hands-on skills and knowledge a graduate needs to work in the exciting world of a biotechnology company. It’s a great testament to the program to hear how Sean, Amber, Seethal and Carla are contributing to the COVID-19 response at Rockland and Abzyme,” Bryans noted. “These scientists excelled in their studies at MCCC and have gone on to a successful and meaningful career in the industry.”

Campbell, like the others, said the work she does today is the same work she did at MCCC, just on a smaller scale. “I can still remember back certain experiments are the same experiments I do now,” she said. “It’s a great introductory program that provides real-life experience.”

Campbell pleaded for more women to pursue careers in science.

“We need more women in science to expand and grow in this field. We offer a lot,” she said. “For me, being one of the only women in the company, it’s overwhelming sometimes, but when you get taken seriously and trusted, in the science field you can go far.”

Sawyer, Heron and Meda said knowing their work may hasten an end to the coronavirus motivates them to double their individual efforts. “I realized we were making a big impact,” said Heron. “Several countries are using our antibodies. It made me try harder, 100 percent.”

“It makes you work harder,” Sawyer agreed. “You want this stuff to be as pure as possible to get out to customers, so people can stay safe.”

“We’re very excited,” said Meda. “My contribution is little but the world is waiting.”

Photos from MCCC