Published: Aug. 6, 2020 By

Volunteers test students at a collection station outside of the Athletics Department

A collection station outside of the Athletics Department on July 28. Photo courtesy Kristen Bjorkman.

CU Boulder is ramping up its ability to conduct COVID-19 monitoring analyses by enlisting volunteer graduate students and postdocs across campus, including several from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Professors Leslie Leinwand, Roy Parker and Sara Sawyer, who have been playing important roles in CU Boulder’s COVID-19 testing strategy efforts, realized that making testing easily available on campus and monitoring asymptomatic students could help reduce the spread of disease.

“We are committed to making the CU Boulder community as safe as it can be and we believe that our best approach is to test and monitor as often as feasible,” Leinwand and Parker said in a joint statement.

“Studies have shown that a test every month or two weeks will be insufficient to stop or slow the spread of the virus infection. This will be an enormous effort requiring coordination of sample collecting and running monitoring tests from individuals at high risk of contracting or transmitting the virus.”

The testing plan will evolve as the situation changes and new technologies become available, but the contributions of the volunteers will remain important regardless.

“Critical to the success of this plan is the tremendous spirit of generosity in the form of volunteers among our graduate students, post-docs, staff and faculty to help us in this effort,” they said.

They approached Kristen Bjorkman, a postdoctoral researcher working in the Leinwand Lab of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and the BioFrontiers Institute, to work on the all-volunteer monitoring program. Bjorkman now serves as the surveillance advisor and liaison for this effort and, recognizing the need for volunteers with the right experience and skill set for lab testing, put out a call to recruit students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty with life sciences backgrounds.

“We are fortunate to have expertise from multiple departments on campus as well as Medical Services to be able to formulate the safest, most efficient and most robust approach to sample collection, protocol validation and information security,” Bjorkman said. “Each volunteer is bringing a unique and valuable skill set with them. Some faculty already have decades of experience performing the exact molecular techniques in the lab that underlie the tests being deployed here.”

Testing process

Individuals to be tested as part of monitoring on campus—especially those judged to be at high risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19—will self-collect their saliva in vials at outdoor collection stations. The saliva donors add a solution and seal and disinfect the vial.

Before the sample is ever opened, the collection station attendant—a volunteer graduate student or postdoc—will then boil the sample for at least 10 minutes to ensure that any virus present is rendered inactive. When the sample arrives at a specially prepared secure lab, the volunteers conduct molecular analysis on pools of these samples to determine if molecular signatures of the virus are present.

If one of these pools tests positive, the team will then work with Medical Services to get sample donors certified clinical testing, appropriate medical care and contact tracing as necessary.

The outdoor collection stations will be set up outside of the athletic training facilities to help test athletes and staff, who are being tested using pooled RT-PCR as well as an RT-LAMP assay developed in Sara Sawyer's lab. Collection tents will be present at all three student move-in events in August. Incoming students who have not already completed a PCR test within five days of move-in will be tested with the RT-LAMP screening tool and swabbed for a diagnostic PCR test to be run in the Wardenburg Clinic.

A semester-long collection process is also planned, with weekly sampling and analysis of on-campus residents, student athletes and other individuals at high risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19.

These efforts will happen in concert with daily wastewater monitoring of residence halls and select high-use buildings on campus, as targeting collection at these sites can occur as necessary.

ChBE graduate students step up

Get Involved

Graduate students or post-docs with a life sciences background affiliated with CU can volunteer to assist with the testing effort by contacting Kristen Bjorkman at

Zachary Baumer is a graduate student in Timothy Whitehead’s lab, which specializes in protein engineering and synthetic biology. Volunteering as a tester was a natural choice for him—and a source of inspiration.

“I am having trouble staying motivated in these weird times,” Baumer said. “But I believe this is important and purposeful, and that drive will carry over to my own research. I’m always looking to be part of something bigger than myself.”

Holly Coleman is an incoming graduate from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, about to begin her first semester as a graduate student here at CU.

“I volunteered because I want to help with the University's effort to monitor COVID on campus, and I thought my previous laboratory experience would be useful,” Coleman said. “I learned how to perform many biological assays during my undergraduate studies and internships.”

Ankur Sarkar of the Fox group works in a separate field, but volunteered to support CU and the Boulder community.

“Testing is known to help suppress infectious spread,” Sarkar said. “This effort is an opportunity to use my laboratory skills to meet a critical yet unmet need.”

Varsha Rao of the Anseth group likewise works in a field distinct from COVID-19 research, but has had a strong, ongoing interest in how the virus has spread in various countries.

“As a scientist and a member of the CU Boulder community, I feel really passionate and morally obligated to help out with the testing efforts in any way I can,” Rao said. “This opportunity sounded like the perfect way for me to use my scientific skills and knowledge to help the university open safely during a pandemic. I think engineering and research training forces you to make and justify decisions based on data. I can recognize why testing efforts are so important. They will allow us to better track and isolate COVID cases in a timely manner, providing the data necessary to quash outbreaks.”

Monitoring assays of those already on campus have already begun, helping the multifaceted team troubleshoot its processes and prepare to upscale its efforts when more students return in August.

Cross-campus collaboration

The developing COVID-19 testing and monitoring program has generated collaborations with students and faculty from a number of departments and units across CU Boulder, including Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology; the Department of Biochemistry; the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and the BioFrontiers Institute.

The proposed pooled assays are being developed by the Parker Research Group. A rapid assay that will be used was developed by the Sawyer Lab. FDA approval for that test is being sought.

Additional support

  • Cresten Mansfeldt of The Department of Environmental Engineering and Sara Sawyer of MCDB and BioFrontiers developed wastewater monitoring programs and rapid screening tests, respectively.
  • Matt McQueen of Integrative Physiology and the Institute for Behavioral Genetics contributed to CU’s contact tracing capacity by training over 100 students.
  • Dan Larremore of Computer Science and BioFrontiers worked with Roy Parker to produce a study that confirmed the value of population testing and the importance of short turnaround time.
  • Gloria Brisson, Ann Mattson and the staff of Medical Services have continually provided expertise and are establishing a Public Health Clinic to specifically serve students who may have COVID-19.
  • Leisha Connors Bauer from Health Promotion is leading the contact tracing program through the Public Health Clinic, and has contributed numerous staff and student volunteers.