As a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, what Cheri Ackerman ’11 was doing in the lab is about as relevant as it gets in the current environment.
“We were working on this a couple of years before the pandemic happened and then this turned out to be more relevant than we thought it was going to be,” said Ackerman.
The this Ackerman is referring to is a new technology developed in Broad lab that flexibly scales up CRISPR-based molecular diagnostics, using microfluidic chips that can run thousands of tests simultaneously. A single chip’s capacity ranges from detecting a single type of virus in more than 1,000 samples at a time to searching a small number of samples for more than 160 different viruses, including the new coronavirus.
“The thing that motivated this project is a longstanding need for diagnostics, and that is something that our collaborators have been working on for a long time,” said Ackerman.
“We started dreaming about what would it look like for us to actually have a diagnostic platform that would allow you to diagnose every viral infection a person could get?” said Ackerman. “What would it look like for every person who went to the doctor to get a real diagnosis, to know which virus made them sick? Could we design technology that was comprehensive enough, fast enough, cheap enough that you could imagine testing every single person for every single virus every time they got sick and actually get that level of data throughput, sample throughput?”
The result? Combinatorial Arrayed Reactions for Multiplexed Evaluation of Nucleic acids (CARMEN). In short, it’s a technology— validated on patient samples—that provides same-day results and could someday be harnessed for broad public-health efforts.
Ackerman’s leading role in this amazing story had its genesis in a 10th-grade biology class.
“I learned how DNA goes to RNA goes to protein,” Ackerman said of the class. “This literally blew my mind. I thought this was the coolest thing I could possibly imagine in the world.”
Just a few years later she found herself in Professor Dave Koetje’s biology lab at Calvin University. “I was doing normal lab things like pipetting, and I remember him coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, I think you are kind of good at this, what do you think about summer research?’”
From there, Ackerman’s piqued interest was soon cultivated into a deep passion. She got connected to a summer research experience at the Van Andel Research Institute and soon knew this passion was only beginning.
Her next stop was grad school. She earned a PhD in chemical biology at the University of California-Berkeley. She also won the prestigious Hertz Fellowship, which meant a full-ride scholarship.
In June, Ackerman left the Broad Institute to co-found Concerto Biosciences, a scientific startup that seeks to identify groups of microbes that perform useful functions for plants and people.
But her impressive journey thus far has its foundations at Calvin, she said.
“A liberal arts education is so important,” said Ackerman. “It is not enough to be good at science. You have to be able to communicate that to the world. You have to be able to write about it, to be able to talk to people about why the science is relevant, and care about those people and figure out what they need, and why they need this technology.
“The aspect of incorporating faith and science has also been really powerful in my life. Calvin was a place where I learned that my mind and my faith are not at odds. In fact, they work together,” said Ackerman. “Having that sense of grounding, the sense that the work that I do is because God has put me here, to God be the glory for this work, it is just an amazing way of going through life, and I think Calvin was central to me exploring that and feeling comfortable owning that, feeling comfortable expressing that.”