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A Biology Class Changed This Former Botetourt County Drama Kid’s Career Trajectory

When 14-year-old Skylar Gay enrolled in BIO 101 at Virginia Western Community College, it was just to fulfill a requirement. Now she’s on her way to the U.K. to present a scientific paper on COVID — and she’s still just 18.

May 2023

Skylar Gay pictured in her hometown of Fincastle. Randy Walker photo.

by Randy Walker, Cardinal News Press

Botetourt County teen Skylar Gay walked into the biology class at Virginia Western Community College intent on a career in the arts. BIO 101 was just a required science credit, a box to check off.

It was in October 2018, when her lab group isolated a virus from a soil sample, that the light started to come on.

Then, in the following spring semester, Gay learned how to use a computer to analyze the virus’s genome.

The light went to “full bright,” recalled her Virginia Western instructor, Heather Lindberg.

Pulled away from the stage and into the lab, Gay applied for a remote internship at the University of Georgia. Working from home, she helped analyze the origins of the pandemic and developed software called transRate that can be used to track gene flow between localities during an epidemic.

She applied for, and received, a fellowship to attend the World Congress on Undergraduate Research, to be held April 3-6 at the University of Warwick in England.

After presenting her findings and receiving feedback at the conference, she and her coauthors plan to submit their results for publication.

Heady stuff for an aspiring scientist who is still just 18 years old.

Gay grew up in Fincastle, the historic county seat of Botetourt County, where she appeared in shows at Attic Productions.

Trina Yancey directed Gay in “The Sound Of Music.” Gay, then 9, played Gretl, the youngest von Trapp. (Disclosure: Yancey is related to Cardinal executive editor Dwayne Yancey.)

“She was very talented, learned and understood her lines, songs and dances, and followed direction,” Yancey said.

At age 10, she lobbied for a part in another show — and got it. “I’m not at all surprised that she has already has succeeded in everything that she has undertaken,” Yancey said.

The performing and visual arts, including music, acting, dance, photography and painting, “will always be such a passion of mine,” Gay said. What pulled her toward science was the opportunity to be part of the continual advance of knowledge.

Gay accelerated her academic progress by dual-enrolling at Virginia Western while still a home-school student in high school.

When Gay enrolled at Virginia Western, Amy White, dean of the college’s STEM school, recommended she sign up for a particular section of BIO 101 that used the SEA-PHAGES protocol for the lab part of the class.

SEA-PHAGES — Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science — was developed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland and is offered at more than 200 institutions throughout the United States.

The program is a two-semester undergraduate research course that begins, as its website says, “with simple digging in the soil to find new viruses,” but then progresses through a variety of microbiology techniques. Eventually, the site explains, the course leads to complex genome annotation and bioinformatic analyses.

White said she recommended SEA-PHAGES for Gay “because she was a very motivated student. And for someone who is motivated and was interested in doing her high school education, basically, at the college level, this was a good opportunity to expose her to academic research to let her know if she liked that or not.”

Heather Lindberg, an associate professor of biology at Virginia Western Community College, holds a virus sample. Randy Walker photo.

SEA-PHAGES is “about getting them involved early,” said Lindberg, an associate professor of biology at Virginia Western. In standard college biology labs, freshmen and sophomores do “kit science … It always works because we know exactly what it does, ta-da! And then you move on to something else the next week. There’s no continuation.”

SEA-PHAGES, on the other hand, offers the chance to conduct a meaningful investigation that unfolds over a year, progressing from viral samples and test tubes in the first semester to computerized analysis in the second.

When Gay started the class at age 14, “she was very into the arts. You could tell she had that training, because she was very well-spoken,” Lindberg said. “She held her own in the classroom. If I hadn’t known who she was, she would have blended in to my college-level kids. Her labmates had no idea how old she was. Which is frankly astounding.”

She was one of only three high schoolers who have taken SEA-PHAGES with Lindberg since Virginia Western adopted the program in 2017.

The software Gay developed, transRate, “essentially looks at gene flow events during the epidemic between different localities,” Arnold said. “And again, I don’t want to say too much about what it does, because again, she’s going to go through the normal process. She’ll present her research findings at this international meeting, and then she’ll submit it and then she’ll also be put in the position of having to go silent on it until it goes through the review process.

“She has a manuscript that’s pretty close to finalized on it. The usual steps in scientific research is, you do the work, and then you get feedback from your colleagues, either by sharing the material you’ve done, or going to a meeting and getting feedback there. So she’s going through all the steps.”

It is unusual for an 18-year-old to have two papers in the publication pipeline.

“It’s very exciting,” Arnold said. “She knows she’s working on something very important.” She’s had that validated, he said, by talking with people like epidemiologist Niketta Womack at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She’ll get even more reinforcement when she goes to the World Congress, he said — and the very fact that she’ll be at that meeting is validation, since she had to apply for a fellowship to attend.

“So she’s really been immersed in research experience from beginning to end,” Arnold said.

Gay leaves for the World Congress on Saturday. “I am definitely excited but nervous,” she said.

The trip will briefly interrupt her classes at the University of Virginia, where she transferred after completing her associate degree at Virginia Western with about 80 college credits.

In some respects Gay is a normal first-year UVa student, even though she is already taking advanced biology courses. She lives in a dorm and is taking a class on drumming and percussion. She is the photo editor for a student publication and belongs to the Virginia Women’s Chorus.

“I’m really loving it,” she said. “I still do all of the normal student things. I definitely would say I feel just like any other student, and there’s so many students at UVa who have had the opportunity to really explore all of their academic opportunities. So I think it’s truly an honor to be with students who have such a like mindset as myself.”

Gay plans to double-major in biology and public health and continue her research at the doctoral level, combining bioinformatics with wet lab techniques to create a model of viral transmission. The end goal is to protect public health in the event of another pandemic.

When she came to Virginia Western, “Skylar was willing to explore things that she wasn’t as familiar with, and willing to listen to herself, as she learned that ‘I really like this kind of work, I really like research or really like science,’” said White.

“To be able to make that kind of change, at that age, I think it’s just incredibly impressive. And I’m just so proud of Skylar, for having that willingness to engage, and it has really I think changed her career path and her life already.”

When she started, “I could tell she was doing the science because she needed the class. The love wasn’t there yet.”

That started to change when Gay’s group found a bacteriophage — a virus that attacks bacteria — in a soil sample. Gay gave it the dramatic name DarkMask. Science was suddenly tangible.

“She was super excited,” Lindberg said. “I still actually have the sample in my fridge because I don’t throw anything away, because it might be interesting later.”

With bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics, bacteriophages are attracting medical interest. “These viruses that attack bacteria are the natural hunters of the bacterial world,” Lindberg said. “So if you have a bacterial infection, the thought is, hey, if we can find the right virus and the right bacteriophage, maybe that bacteriophage could destroy that bacterial infection, as opposed to antibiotics.”

After isolating a virus, students spend the rest of the first semester purifying it and extracting its DNA. Lindberg then sends out several DNA samples to an external laboratory for sequencing.

“In the second semester, we get the genome back. And then the students’ job is to find all of the genes in the genome, say, OK, this is a gene, here’s all the evidence that shows that this is actually this gene, and this is what it does. So that’s the bioinformatics piece. It’s during the bioinformatics section, that that light went to full bright for Skylar. She loved it. It’s all computer work. And this is where a lot of students who love the bench work, they start turning off. She went the other way, like, aww! This is really, really cool.”

During the COVID lockdown of 2020, Gay started looking for bioinformatics internships and found the University of Georgia.

Georgia offers a 10-week program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates: Genomics and Computational Biology, funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

“The National Science Foundation encourages us to consider students that may be in a small college … which would not have the research opportunities that someplace like the University of Georgia would have,” said Jonathan Arnold, a professor of genetics at Georgia. “So we’re encouraged to consider applicants from institutions like that, as well as from HBCUs and so on, to increase diversity in the scientific workforce.”

Admission is competitive. “So you only really have the best and the brightest going through these programs, and about, I would say, 90% of them go on in some science-related career.”

To have a high school student in the program is “fairly rare. I have one NSF grant that allows me to take one high schooler a year,” Arnold said.

Students either do lab science, or, as in Gay’s case, research on a computer. “And that gives them the experience of deciding, well, whether or not this is really for me,” Arnold said.

Her internship turned into a two-and-a-half-year research project under Arnold’s guidance. She traced COVID variants to a common ancestor, finding, among other things, that the COVID that infects humans is related to a similar virus that infects bats and penguins, Gay said.

Gay worked on two projects. The first, now in prepublication stage, looks at the origin of the pandemic. “I can’t really talk too much about the content because they put a muzzle on me when I submit the work, but I will say it’s timely, based on what’s been in the news lately,” Arnold said.

“And then the second one is her own project, which she developed, which is looking at a tool that would allow policymakers to track what’s going on in a pandemic,” Arnold said. Gay did it as part of a team, alongside Arnold and Liang Liu, a statistician at Georgia who has a focus on phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary relationships among organisms based on their DNA.

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