Rianna Vandergaast, Ph.D., is a principal scientist at Imanis Life Sciences, a biotechnology company in Rochester. Along with her team, much of Dr. Vandergaast’s research has been focused on the development of a COVID-19 antibody test.
Science project turned passion
Vandergaast admits interest in science came initially from her parents. “In seventh grade, I worked on a science project about the hardness of well water. That was my start. It was exciting to discover something new while contributing to solving real-world problems,” she says. “As I got older, I found molecular biology to be a great puzzle I could help solve. I was more interested in looking into a microscope than a telescope,” Vandergaast recalls.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry, Vandergaast went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to get her Ph.D. There, she studied how cells commit suicide as a defense mechanism against viruses. She then did a post-doc at the University of Maryland–College Park, studying West Nile virus. Vandergaast states, “After my post-doc, I took a job at Imanis Life Sciences. I was drawn in by the work they were doing on oncolytic viruses (viruses that have been specifically engineered to target tumor cells and destroy them). At Imanis, I did some virus work but also got heavily involved in cell line engineering, which I love. Cell line engineering means changing the genetic material (like an instruction manual) inside a cell, so the cell behaves in a new way.”
Cell line engineering appealed to Vandergaast’s love of creating. One of those cell lines was the foundation of the first version of the IMMUNO-COV assay, which is a laboratory test to detect COVID-19 neutralizing antibodies. Vandergaast explains, “It was March 2020, and everyone was working as hard and as quickly as possible to create solutions for COVID. Imanis had an experienced virus engineering team. They generated a surrogate virus that, together with our cell line, we used to create an assay that measures COVID neutralizing antibodies.”
Over the past two years, much of Vandergaast’s research has been focused on IMMUNO-COV, which gives people a measure of their level of protection from future COVID infection. As the COVID-19 virus has changed, so has the test. The team’s most recent version of the test (IMMUNO-CRON) measures antibodies against the Omicron variant. She adds, “For the IMMUNO-COV project, our goal has always been to help empower people to make better personalized health decisions, particularly if high-risk or immune compromised.”
Into the future
On a big-picture level, Vandergaast hopes her work helps speed up the rate that new therapies reach patients. “With COVID shifting to an endemic stage, I’m now working more on cell and vector engineering to support development of next-generation cancer therapies,” she says.
Vandergaast credits curiosity for pushing her to dig deeper when approaching problems. With science, there are many layers. She feels that asking “Why?” is what pushes her forward.
As for aspiring female scientists, Dr. Vandergaast says, “Go for it! We need more great scientists. Being a scientist isn’t just about being brainy. It’s about being creative to solve problems, persistent to try again, curious to dig deeper, patient when waiting on experiments, detail-oriented in analyzing results and collaborative in team efforts. Being a scientist is a big part of who I am, but it’s not the only part. I am a wife, a mom, a baseball fan. Being a scientist doesn’t have to be the only thing that defines you—even when you love being a scientist as much as I do.”