Mariama Diallo | Scientist, Scholar and Early College Star

Imagine my delight as I am scrolling through my google alerts for all the brilliance coming out of the Bronx this graduation season and I see our very own Ms. Mariama Diallo being featured in a USA Today story by Karen Weintraub. Hostos students are champions in every field.

Please check out the story below.

Original story found here.

High school scientists-in-training take on the Big Apple as urban virus hunters

NEW YORK CITY — Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long to find fresh bird poop in Central Park.

On a recent spring day, three high schoolers searched for only a few minutes before finding their first sample.

Mariama Diallo, a senior at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the South Bronx, carefully scooped up the small white blob with a large Q-tip and placed it into a small test tube. She zipped the tube into a cooler bag to keep it safe and cold until the team could bring it back across the street to a lab at Mount Sinai Hospital.

William Kim, a junior at Central Park East High School in East Harlem, quickly found a second sample, as 12th grader Aaron Huang, also of Central Park East, paced the edge of a small fence scouring the ground for more.

The students are part of a program to study urban-dwelling, wild birds to better understand the viruses that live alongside New York’s 8.4 million human inhabitants.

A previous New York City Virus Hunters team discovered two viruses – harmless to people – that weren’t known to flourish in urban birds. Several of the high schoolers were listed as co-authors on a March scientific paper about the finding.

The current group has been looking for avian influenza, also know as bird flu, among other viruses. Avian influenza has been so bad this year that 24 million domestic birds have been put to death to try to stop its spread. So far, the students haven’t found it among New York City birds.

There’s little scientific research into the critters that scurry by on urban sidewalks or swoop down at the sight of crumbs.

“It’s totally understudied,” said Christine Marizzi, who leads the Harlem team at BioBus, the nonprofit that runs the virus hunters program.

Such research offers an opportunity to learn about the world while also alerting people to any dangers that may lurk, Marizzi said. Plus, studying urban wildlife is a fun way for high school students to learn about and prepare for careers in science.

In the Mount Sinai lab, the students learn techniques to amplify and analyze genetic material in the bird droppings to identify species of animal and virus.

The process is surprisingly similar to what everyone is now familiar with from COVID-19 testing.

The students purify their sample, pull out some genetic material and then make copies by the PCR machine. Students then figure out if the sample contains a virus or is from a bird of interest and if so, send it elsewhere for sequencing.

During the height of the pandemic, Marizzi had to initially show students the process via online videos, but it’s much more interesting and useful to enable them to do the work themselves, she said.

She quizzes the students at every step, making sure they know the purpose of each action, what chemicals they’re adding and how to keep themselves safe.

“If we have virus in here, we’re going to try to make more,” Diallo said, and then explained the difference between a positive and negative control and why each experiment needed a control to make sure nothing had gone wrong.

Even just the seemingly simple skill of using a large dropper, called a micro pipette, to move tiny amounts of liquid, is an employable skill, Marizzi said while Diallo expertly transferred material. “It’s not trivial,” Marizzi said.

These students have also visited a wildlife clinic to sample sick birds, which is much scarier than picking up poop, Diallo said, though making eye contact with a dying bird clearly made a big impression on the young woman.

The BioBus program has brought supplementary science education to more than 800 schools over the last decade. 

After a week-long summer session that introduces high schoolers to professional science, the virus hunters program accepts five “junior scientists” a year from New York City public schools.

Several afternoons a week – often squeezed between choir practice, anime club, student leadership and afterschool sports – the students walk or take the subway to Mount Sinai’s upper east side Manhattan hospital. There they work in the lab of virologist Florian Krammer, who beams at the thought of encouraging young people to enter his field. 

“Of course, we all hope they’ll come back and at some point join our PhD program,” he said. 

Among the virus hunters on this recent day, none was ready yet to commit to virology, but all expressed an interest in continuing with science.

Huang says he’ll probably major in biology and through the program, “learned the importance of collecting data.”

Diallo, who is graduating this year with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, wants to become an OB-GYN. She said she appreciates that as a virus hunter “you’re seen as someone who’s a part of this. Your input matters.” In her previous lab job, she was expected to simply do what she was told. 

After two pandemic years and much heated debate about how to respond, it seems even more crucial for young people to understand science and the scientific method for collecting and analyzing data, Marizzi said. 

The students are deeply involved in the process of designing the experiments, collecting the samples, analyzing the data and drawing conclusions, she said. They record their findings in a lab notebook that becomes part of the Krammer lab’s research.

“At least you have an appreciation for science,” Kim said of his experience. “There should be more opportunities like this.”

Contact Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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