Tech alumni on the front lines of COVID-19 test development

Mikenah Rogers, a Tennessee Tech chemical engineering alumna, works in the lab developing a COVID-19 test at Integrity Laboratories in Knoxville.

TENNESSEE TECH – Two Tennessee Tech chemical engineering alumni are on the front line in the development of faster COVID-19 testing.

Amber Monroe, a 2018 chemical engineering graduate from Rockwood, and Mikenah Rogers, a 2019 chemical engineering graduate from Kingston, both work at Integrity Laboratories in Knoxville. The lab received emergency clearance from the Federal Drug Administration in March to develop COVID-19 tests, which enables the lab to get results in hours, not days.

“I attended the healthcare career fair at Tennessee Tech in May 2018 where I met the CEO, COO and director of laboratory operations of Integrity Laboratories who sponsored a booth,” Monroe said. “I am on the integrity method development and validation team, anchored by Dr. Jim Vinson, while Mikenah helps to carry out everyday laboratory testing and procedures.”

Rogers joined the lab team in March to help in the fight of COVID-19 and help with testing other molecular specialties.

The swabs are like the ones people get for flu tests. The specimens are then sent back to Integrity Labs for results.

In developing the test, they followed the Center for Disease Control and FDA recommendations by performing the validation steps outlined in “Policy for Diagnostic Tests for Coronavirus Disease-2019 during the Public Health Emergency Immediately in Effect Guidance for Clinical Laboratories, Commercial Manufacturers and Food and Drug Administration Staff.”

“This included a number of studies, including the limit of detection, a cross-reactivity, clinical evaluation and correlations,” Monroe said.

They both credit their Tech education with the work the lab has done.

“We would like to thank Dr. (Jonathan) Sanders, (associate professor) of the Chemical Engineering department for instilling the joy of molecular research and lab work,” Monroe said. “We would also like to credit Dr. (Pedro) Arce, chair and professor of the Chemical Engineering Department, for always pushing us to never settle for a career path we aren’t passionate about.”

“It’s exciting to see what students learn in classrooms and labs to be incorporated in real world applications,” Arce said.

“The TTU Chemical Engineering faculty and staff are excited to see ‘holistic’ and ‘T-shaped’ style chemical engineers applying what they learned in our classrooms and labs to social impactful changes such as the development of new and faster tests for the detection of COVID-19,” Arce said. “These examples of are a wonderful illustration of the application of innovation-driven learning approaches guided by the ‘Renaissance Foundry Model’ (RFM) that our students are exposed to.”

The RFM is a holistic-centered learning platform largely developed in the Chemical Engineering Department in close collaboration with colleagues at the College of Education, College of Business and the School of Nursing.

“Biomolecular engineers like Mikenah and Amber are a direct product of this powerful learning strategy,” Arce said. “The solid training in Knowledge Acquisition and Knowledge Transfer coupled with excellent opportunities for research, leadership and entrepreneurship available in our program enable engineers like Mikenah and Amber to make an immediate positive impact on society. We are extremely proud of their achievements.”

Amber Monroe, a Tennessee Tech chemical engineering alumna, shows off one of the COVID-19 tests in Integrity Laboratories in Knoxville.

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