June 9, 2021
Class of 2021: Study of COVID-19 dataset inspires student to follow a different path
The COVID-19 pandemic changed plans for a lot of people, but, for Erin Brintnell, it changed the course of her academic journey.
In February 2020, Brintnell, a Bachelor of Health Sciences student majoring in bioinformatics, was assigned a project focused on studying a dataset. She and her partner chose some COVID-19 data and, by the end of the course, they had a sample of 100 sequences of coronavirus that demonstrated the evolution of the virus from different populations.
“At the end of the course, we approached our professor and said, ‘We think we have something here; can turn it into a publication?’” Brintnell says.
Chasing the evolutionary ancestor of the coronavirus
After receiving approval from Dr. Dave Anderson, PhD, one of Brintnell’s mentors, she and her partner used phylogenetic trait reconstruction to study the evolutionary ancestor of the coronavirus. They discovered that the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus that binds to the lungs had four amino acid changes from its ancestor. Using this information, they conducted online simulations and found the ancestral sequence could bind to the lungs to a greater degree than the coronavirus.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I really like viruses and I want to continue with this,’” Brintnell says.
Brintnell’s honours thesis built on this research to examine the rates of evolution of viruses, and how evolution of viruses deviates from classical assumptions of evolution. Under the supervision of another one of her mentors, Dr. Jason de Koning, PhD, she created a new flexible software called Slim-Tree to model this evolution without classical assumptions.
Before this pandemic-inspired shift in focus, Brintnell had been working on a pilot project at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Working with the KidSIM program, she created a virtual-reality simulation for children with leukemia so that they could better understand their illness through walking around the environment of a cell and playing mini games.
Teaching kids about leukemia
“It was an interesting way to teach kids about blood cell physiology and how the three stages of leukemia treatment work,” she says.
Brintnell will now head east to Western University, where she will work on her master’s in pathology and laboratory medicine, specifically on a project that aims to predict the population size of COVID-19 from the abundance of sequences that currently exist.
Brintnell doesn’t plan on stopping at her master’s, either, saying she wants to go all the way to the doctorate level.
“I want to be a teaching professor,” she says. “I really like teaching and passing on information, and then do a little bit of research on the side.”
Enduring interest in Guides and outdoors
Beyond the classroom, Brintnell was also able to continue her passion for the outdoors. She has been a member of the Girl Guides since she was five, and she says being a guide is just a part of who she is. During university, Brintnell served as a Guide leader.
“I really enjoy being with the girls, teaching them outdoor skills, teaching them community engagement and teaching them social responsibility,” says Brintnell, who will continue to be a Girl Guide leader in London, Ont., during her graduate studies.
Brintnell also joined the Outdoor Adventurers club at UCalgary, working her way up from junior executive to secretary to president.
She has also volunteered her time to Secret 3K, an initiative that raises money to create safe running spaces for women in Afghanistan. Brintnell served as its university liaison this year, and she hopes to keep growing the annual race in future years.
Mentorship and peer support
Brintnell advises students to take advantage of the mentorship and peer-support programs offered to them, as the help they provide can be invaluable. She also encourages students to take every opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities.
“Find your tribe, find your people within university,” Brintnell says. “Because, if you don’t have people, it’s going to be a long four years.”