Sandia National Laboratories' intern aids development of antivirus for chikungunya virus

Sierra Kaszubinski

Biology student Sierra Kaszubinski spent her summer at Sandia National Laboratories as an intern in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, helping scientists study potential antiviral compounds for the chikungunya virus.

Sierra Kaszubinski, a ballet dancer since age 2, had envisioned a career with pliés and pirouettes. But the longer she sat in biology and chemistry classes in high school, the more interest she cultivated for the body’s internal movements—and not just the deliberate, delicate motions of her torso and toes.

“I was so fascinated about how complex living things are, and I wanted to figure out how they worked,” said Kaszubinski, a senior in biology at the University of Arizona.

That curiosity led her to pursue multiple laboratory positions at the university, including one with the Agricultural Research Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, she joined the Criminal Justice Association (CJA) because of her interest in DNA and forensics.

As president of the CJA, Kaszubinski invited officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to speak at a club meeting, and she learned about DHS’s research dedicated to biodefense. Several months later, Kaszubinski was an intern in the DHS HS-STEM Program at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California.

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program provides students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the United States.

Kaszubinski’s ultimate research goal was to help discover inhibitors that block the chikungunya virus infection. Mosquitoes transmit to humans the virus that often results in fever and extreme joint paint. Currently, scientists are investigating potential antiviral compounds, and Kaszubinski was in charge of developing a biological tool to help determine the efficacy of these compounds.

“Viral threats like chikungunya, dengue, Ebola and Zika are emerging as serious public safety concerns, including concerns for use in a bioterrorist attack. Having an effective drug screening method will help create antivirals or vaccines that would help limit the spread of these diseases,” said Kaszubinski.

Specifically, she used molecular cloning techniques to clone the virus; then she added fluorescent protein genes. Ultraviolet light excited the virus particles until they glowed red or green.

Scientists will know the antiviral compounds are ineffective if healthy cells are infected with fluorescent virus particles and exposed to antiviral compounds and continue to glow under ultraviolet light. Alternately, if the fluorescence of the infected cells decreases over time, scientists will know the antiviral compounds are effective.

Seeing the green fluorescence in the microscope for the first time is one of Kaszubinski’s favorite moments in her science career.

“I couldn’t believe I not only created a glowing virus, but it infected cells just like the normal virus,” said Kaszubinski. “I was so proud to have made a functional tool that the lab is going to use!”

Kaszubinski’s mentor Brooke Harmon, Ph.D., a virologist at Sandia, along with Edwin Saada, Ph.D., a post-doc working under Harmon, guided Kaszubinski through protocols, troubleshooting and new techniques. She gained skills in molecular cloning, the programming language Python™, and virology.

“I really liked immersing myself in a new line of research. I had never studied viruses before and it turned out to be amazing,” said Kaszubinski. “The people at Sandia were so kind and helpful. My experience was worthwhile because I was surrounded by dedicated and intelligent scientists.”


—At the end of the summer, she landed a position studying a potential plant-based Zika vaccine in a virology lab at the university.

“My experience in the DHS HS-STEM Program already has proven to be very useful to my career path in forensics or biodefense, and I imagine it will continue to be,” said Kaszubinski, who is in the process of applying to master’s programs in forensics and biodefense across the country.

“I took a gamble by leaving a previous lab position at my university to go to the internship, and I am so thankful I did,” she said. “I learned so many useful skills, explored some incredible science, and confirmed my passion for laboratory research. I would definitely recommend the program to others. It was an unforgettable experience.”

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.