“I use the analogy that if you made a sandwich you had to use Wonder Bread and that was it,” Mathers said. “You couldn’t use any other type of bread or other ingredients.”
As a result, the acquisition of specific reagents and equipment became extremely difficult, as everyone in the country was all looking for the same thing.
Working around the clock, Mathers went door-to-door through the healthcare system, fragmenting testing.
Just eight days later, with help from the University of Washington – which provided virus samples – the tests gained FDA approval.
But soon after, Mathers and his colleagues realized they had another problem. “There was no swab anywhere,” Mathers said. “It was just crazy.”
Without the nasal swabs, all the tests were unnecessary. So Mathers, through the UVA Sink Lab, and in collaboration with Will Guilford, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the UVA, created a 3D printed swab prototype, which was then used as a template for the injection molded swabs that Mathers was able to test for safety in a clinical trial.
After conducting a clinical trial and obtaining FDA approval, 75,000 new swabs were produced each week, of which 15,000 were used for testing at UVA Health and 60,000 distributed to testing sites across Virginia.
Mathers, however, realized that there might soon be another problem.
Due to the need for testing staff, she had visited nursing homes to test for COVID and had seen with her own eyes how easily the virus could spread in groups. Some of the homes she visited had positivity rates of 90%.
As the AVU students were due to return to the dorms last fall, Mathers felt compelled to create an early warning testing system. Together with Lisa Colosi-Peterson at the School of Engineering and Shireen Kotay, environmental microbiologist in Mathers’ laboratory group, she developed and validated a wastewater test for building-level monitoring.
“I just wanted to keep these kids safe, and at the time we didn’t have enough tests to give the college kids,” Mathers said. “We had to do a big pool scouting so I wondered if you could test the wastewater on a massive scale at the building level. That’s why we started to develop it.
“I think it worked… We pulled out several asymptomatic positive students before it hit double digits in a 100-person dorm, as has happened on many other campuses.”
More recently, she has focused on monitoring the emergence of variants. In this work, she applies the basic infrastructure established through the Licensing & Ventures Group’s bacterial sequencing efforts to sequence SARS CoV-2 to aid public health efforts. She has now sequenced thousands of samples and provided data to the state to monitor the emergence of variants.
Mathers, who has two daughters with husband Billy Jones, an UVA occupational therapist she met at Humboldt State, is hoping the pandemic is drawing to a close.
Professionally, she said she had gained awareness in recent months. “I like to do research. I am addicted to discovery. There is nothing I love more than discovering something in science that no one has seen or experienced before. I can savor this moment for months and months and months. … I love that feeling, ”she said.
“But at the end of the day, I think applied research is more important than making discoveries for the sake of discovering. What’s most rewarding is when the discoveries we make are used to help make things better for everyone. “
Mathers joins a handful of other UVA infectious disease experts who have been named Innovator of the Year, including Dr Rebecca Dillingham, who won the honor last year, and Dr. Bill Petri, the 2003 recipient.
Mathers said Petri touched her early in the pandemic with something he said.
“He said if there was a time to make a difference in infectious disease, it’s now,” Mathers said. “I kind of heard that call and I said, ‘Yeah, if I ever hope to make a difference with research, it’s now.’
“I saw that there was a great need and I felt very determined to help wherever I could. I knew I had skills well suited to answering a lot of really tough questions and leading and leading some of the things that could really help save lives.