ChBE alumni on frontlines of COVID-19: Ashlee Ford Versypt
Ashlee Ford Versypt received her PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois in 2012, completed her postdoctoral training at MIT, and is currently an assistant professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University.
Soon after the outbreak of the pandemic, she joined an international, multi-disciplinary coalition that is developing an open-source, multi-scale tissue simulator for viral infection by SARS-CoV-2 and its effects in human tissues. Led by Indiana University professor Paul Macklin, the team includes researchers in mathematical biology, cancer systems biology, biomedical multiscale modeling, and immunology research communities.
What questions are you hoping to answer?
Ford-Versypt: We aim to understand and test interventions in the coupled dynamics of COVID-19, including virus spread in tissue; virion adhesion to ACE2 receptors on cells; endocytosis (active transport into the cell); viral uncoating, replication, and assembly into new virions; viral exocytosis (release of completed virions); single-cell responses to infection, including disrupted metabolism, secretion of interferons, and cell death; inflammatory responses; immune activation and expansion in lymph nodes; immune cell infiltration and predation in infected tissue; tissue damage, including edema that can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
The team continues to grow to include industry and non-profit partners as well as clinical, experimental, and computational academic researchers.
How does this project fit into the kind of research you do?
This project is a dream team of people I’ve wanted to collaborate with on various applications. I love working on interdisciplinary project teams as well, so this is a great opportunity to contribute to this larger societal need.
My research group is called the Systems Biomedicine & Pharmaceutics Lab. We develop and use multiscale systems engineering approaches including mathematical modeling and computational simulation to enhance understanding of the mechanisms governing tissue remodeling and damage as a result of diseases and infections and to simulate the treatment of those conditions to improve human health. We specialize in modeling the mass transport processes and chemical kinetic interactions related to physiological conditions, disease onset and progression, and therapeutic interventions. We also develop and refine computational software elements to support multiscale modeling of such systems.
We draw from an interdisciplinary skillset in chemical engineering, pharmaceutics, physiology, applied mathematics, and computational science. This project aligns nicely with our current research area of tissue damage due to infections and an overstimulated immune response. Additionally, the renin-angiotension hormone system has been implicated in acute respiratory distress associate with Covid-19 and potential interactions with medications for hypertension and diabetes. We have been studying this hormone system in the context of diabetic kidney disease for about 6 years.
What’s is like being a university professor and researcher during this unprecedented time?
Ford-Versypt: I am working from my home in Stillwater, OK. In early March, I was in-person visiting the University of Illinois Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Urbana to give a seminar. Travel restrictions and major quarantine policies started to come into place the next week. I feel very blessed in my situation. My family and friends are healthy, and I have a quiet comfortable place to work in my home.
My computational research lab is able to connect and continue on their projects with very minor adjustments. My course has transitioned to online fairly straightforwardly as I already had homework, quizzes, and lecture materials on our learning management system. Previously, when I would miss class, I would provide video screencasts. Now I’m just doing this for 100% of the content. I have recently learned and embraced Zoom for so many aspects of my live including course office hours, guest lectures, meetings, and even social events like happy hours and board game nights. I struggled with strategies for continuing engaging active learning practices with a purely online course with pre-recorded videos and for fairly giving exams in during a crisis and online. I’ve joined multiple virtual communities of practice with other chemical engineering educators to share ideas. Now that my class is under control and my lab has adjusted to working exclusively from home, I’m able to dedicate more of my time to this collaboration.
How has your education in chemical engineering prepared you for this time?
Ford-Versypt: I don’t think anyone was mentally prepared for the amount of change, uncertainty, and range of emotions that we’ve all experienced in the last month. For my day-to-day tasks and the COVID-19 research project, chemical engineering has prepared me to adapt rapidly to new technologies, think deeply about complex systems and how they interconnect, communicate scientific concepts to lay audience, and work collaboratively in teams distributed around the world.