Crossing the science-community divide

July 30, 2020
A photo of Ji Hae Lee standing outside her Hawaii State Representative's office

Vollmer-Snarr teaches chemistry students to see how small reactions can help solve global problems like COVID-19


COVID-19 is illuminating disparities too often overlooked—from access to computers and reliable internet, to economic stability, and, most importantly, healthcare.

These issues may seem too big, too tangled for a handful of chemistry undergraduate students to try and solve. But Heidi Vollmer-Snarr, the director of advanced undergraduate laboratories and a senior preceptor in chemistry and chemical biology, doesn’t think so. In her classes, students learn to design solutions for global problems ranging from pesticide poisoning to COVID-19 antibody testing; they turn backyards and taps into mini-labs and even advocate for science-backed policy changes on Capitol Hill.

“We want them to not just regurgitate what they learned in a lecture,” Vollmer-Snarr said, “but to affect society in some meaningful way.”

Mid-pandemic, on June 1, 2020, Harvard recognized Vollmer-Snarr with a Faculty Curricular Innovation Award from the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship (MPES). “By transcending the boundaries of the classroom,” says the program’s website, “the MPES aims to link academic study to real-world questions, problems, and opportunities,” to demonstrate how course content and community overlap. That’s exactly what Vollmer-Snarr does.


A photo of the students, teaching fellows, and Vollmer-Snarr standing underneath a White House awning
Last fall, Vollmer-Snarr (front row, left) planned a trip to D.C. for students to present their policy positions directly to legislators. This spring, she had to cancel this bi-annual trip because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, students called their representatives to push for science policies they care about. Photo credit: Heidi Vollmer-Snarr


Sensing more than ions

Ji Hae Lee, a senior chemistry major who graduated this May, took Vollmer-Snarr’s advanced laboratory class twice, once last fall and again in the spring. “A lot of students, when they think about chemistry labs, they think organic chemistry mainly,” Lee said. They think big books and lab benches, memorization, and delicate measurement. Those fundamentals are critical, too, but in Vollmer-Snarr’s course, Lee saw the Rio Grande and a bigger chemical problem: pesticide poisoning.

“Pesticide poisoning causes a build-up of acetylcholine in neuromuscular junctions,” Lee said. Too much acetylcholine can cause muscle spasms and even death. In New Mexico, for example, mine waste and agricultural pesticides contaminate the Rio Grande river. When people swim or eat fish from the river, they absorb those toxins, which, over time, can lead to acetylcholine build-up.

In Vollmer-Snarr’s course, Lee, with help from Visiting Scholar and Whitesides lab member Khaled Abdelazim, designed a tool to test pesticide levels in blood serum. “It could help alleviate some health care disparities,” Lee said. Some rural areas lack funding to purchase expensive machines to perform blood tests, and patients may forgo testing if the procedure is too costly. But the tool Lee helped design is portable, easy to use, and relatively cheap ($50 in the field or up to $300 in the lab, compared to standard lab machines that cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million). And, she said, it can also test whether certain treatments help decrease pesticide levels in blood.

“There are many applications that can be done with these ion sensors,” said Vollmer-Snarr. For communities beyond the reach of traditional healthcare, such ion sensors could test for other biomarkers like electrolytes or heavy metals.

Or, COVID-19 virus and antibodies. Another student, Raymond So, wrote a proposal to use the ion sensor as a detection method for a faster, low cost, and portable antibody test, again with the help of Abdelazim. “Honestly, they proposed the idea,” said Abdelazim of his students. (This summer, in Harvard Summer School’s “Experimental Chemistry” course, which he teaches with Vollmer-Snarr, Abdelazim and another student, Shria Moturi, began working on fine-tuning the antibody test and a viral test, both also faster, low cost, and portable. Next, they’ll test their new system, though Abdelazim said he hopes their test proves effective enough to be a cheap, mass-producible option for cities, institutions, and patients to test for COVID-19 virus and antibodies).


A photo of the ion sensor A photo of the ion sensor connected via USB to a laptop
The ion sensor can trasmit data straight to a smart phone (left) or laptop (right). The paper version pictured here acts like a pregnancy test, changing color to indicate the presence or absence of certain ions. Photos courtesy of Khaled Abdelazim


“They started to think outside the box,” Abdelazim said of his students after the pandemic forced everyone to leave campus. “Not limited to the lab, they start to think how can we use this to solve real life problems.”

In another small group, he helped students design a test to see how different patients react to anesthesia. “Some people recover after 10 minutes,” Abdelazim said, “some people recover after 10 hours.” The sensor can determine how a patient metabolizes the drug before administration, helping physicians prevent adverse reactions.

This fall, Vollmer-Snarr and Abdelazim plan to send students in CHEM 100R their own ion sensors to perform experiments anywhere. The sensor can deliver data straight to a cell phone, so, with just a smart phone and wireless internet, students can own a portable lab.

Of course, not all students do. Next spring, Vollmer-Snarr is adapting her curriculum to focus on one thing everyone has: water. The Charles River, which flows through Massachusetts, the Harvard campus, and out into the Boston Harbor, accumulates pollutants that can cause rampant and toxic algae growth. This problem threatens water sources worldwide, but the source of the pollutants is not always clear. In socially-distant, outdoor tests, students in or near Cambridge will analyze which chemicals pollute the Charles and where they originated: They’ll check nearby parking lots and manicured landscapes to match pollutants to their source.

Students can explore their remote worlds, too. With the portable ion sensor, they can test local water sources and determine what environmental pollutants might affect water all over the world. Since Harvard will prioritize bringing students without reliable internet access or virtual technology back to campus, Vollmer-Snarr hopes every one of her students will have access to a portable lab.


Beyond the science

At the end of the course, Vollmer-Snarr will have students present their work not just to her or their classmates but to those who can act on their data and push for change. For example, those who analyze the Charles River will virtually present their findings to the Charles River Watershed Association, a nonprofit that helps clean and protect the health of the river.


A photo of Heidi Vollmer-Snarr standing at a podium

“We need more scientists getting involved in this type of work and not just staying in the lab" (Vollmer-Snarr)


“A lot of students don’t think about the policy side of things,” said Lee, “because we’re always focused on what’s going on in the lab.” But policies can help turn research into action. And they impact scientific funding and education. That’s why Vollmer-Snarr, an advocate herself, pushes students to practice policy advocacy in real meetings with real legislators.

Perhaps now more than ever, science and community are inextricably linked but not always compatible. “As you’ve seen during this pandemic,” said Vollmer-Snarr, “there’s a large community here in the United States that still closes the door on science.”

“We need more scientists getting involved in this type of work and not just staying in the lab,” Vollmer-Snarr continued. “They can do their lab work but they can also connect with the community and let them know the importance of science.” This spring, the pandemic forced her to cancel her bi-annual student trip to D.C. to meet face-to-face with representatives. But some students persisted: Raymond So spoke to a member of Elizabeth Warren’s office on the phone, and Ji Hae Lee called her State Representative from Hawaii to advocate for sustainability and environmental protection policies.

“If we teach students to advocate for change at an early age,” Vollmer-Snarr said, “this is a tool that they’ll have for the rest of their career. These are future leaders.”

Lee, who is currently working remotely for Boston Children’s Hospital’s cardiology unit, plans to apply for medical school in two years. She said Vollmer-Snarr taught her to look beyond a chemical reaction—a single challenge—to solve global problems like pesticide poisoning.

When asked if this skill might be useful as a doctor, Lee paused, then laughed. “Yeah!”


Cover photo: Ji Hae Lee gets ready to pitch policy to her Hawaii state representative during the 2019 fall trip to D.C.