Fullerton College Graduate Part of Pioneering COVID-19 Antibody Testing Feature Story

June 30, 2020
sophia de Alba research scientist and fullerton college graduate

As California’s COVID-19 positivity rate, hospitalizations and ICU cases all continue to climb, biotech and pharmaceutical companies across the country are scrambling to diagnose, understand, and treat this never-before-seen virus and Orange County community college graduates like Sophia de Alba are leading the charge.

De Alba, a Fullerton College graduate, was recently photographed by Dr. Eric Topol, Executive VP and Gary & Mary West Endowed Chair of Innovative Medicine at the world-renown Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, as she processed his blood draw for a pioneering new serology panel designed to test for COVID-19 antibodies. Topol, clearly excited by the test’s potential, tweeted extensively about it here.

“It’s my hand in the picture,” laughs de Alba, who completed AAs in Biology, Chemistry and Medical Technology at Fullerton College before transferring and completing a bachelor’s from UC San Diego’s number one ranked biological sciences department. “But it’s also my work (and that of my colleagues) that helped make the test possible.”

The test de Alba was administering was Genalyte’s SARS-CoV-2 multi-antigen serology panel, known as “Maverick.” Since 2007, San Diego-based Genalyte has been developing technologies and tests for a wide range of healthcare applications that require just a single drop of blood placed on a silicon chip. When the pandemic hit, de Alba was part of the team of researchers that helped pivot Genalyte’s FDA-approved instrument to COVID-19 related applications.

With so little known about the novel coronavirus, serology tests like Genalyte’s Maverick are playing a crucial role in expanding our scientific understanding of how the disease affects the human body and supporting efforts to treat and cope with the disease. Not only are tests like these playing a key role in helping us understand the disease, they’re also going to help keep workers, especially those on the frontlines.

“While we’re still learning how COVID-19 behaves, typically if you have antibodies to a disease, that means you’re less likely to become infected,” explains de Alba. “That’s how vaccines work. And that’s a good thing for people to know as they return to work, especially if you’re a frontline worker.”

This first in her family to attend college right out of high school, de Alba knew she wanted to be a scientist by the time she was in middle school. Knowing she would need a college degree to pursue her dream, de Alba found a job at the age of 16 in order to start saving money for college.

Encouraged by her AP Biology teacher at Anaheim’s Esperanza High School, de Alba applied to Fullerton and soon found further inspiration and mentorship from biology professor Dr. Jo Wu, who was honored by the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) as the 2018-2019 California ACTE Post-Secondary Teacher of the Year.

“I had so many amazing teachers at Fullerton but Dr. Wu is especially important,” says de Alba. “My father was from Argentina and didn’t have a chance to go to high school. And while my mother did go back to school at Cypress College to become an RN, I didn’t really have anyone to guide me at the college level. Dr. Wu’s mentorship was a huge catalyst and definitely changed my life for the better.”

One of Wu’s many contributions to the field is the Orange County Biotech Education Partnership, which partnered with industry advisors to develop a stackable, biotech certificate and degree pathway that is now being offered at Fullerton, Irvine Valley, Santa Ana, and Santiago Canyon Colleges. Depending on the school, these programs can lead to occupation-based certificates in Biomanufacturing Technician, Lab Assistant Skills, Laboratory Technician and an AA in Biotechnology.  Students can then transfer to bachelor’s degree programs at two community colleges, as well as multiple programs at CSU, UC and private universities.

“Students need to know that there are many jobs that are satisfying and fulfilling and that can make you a great living if you love science,” says Wu.

In addition to inspiring de Alba in class, Wu encouraged her pursue a paid internship through the UC Irvine’s Bridges to Baccalaureate Program. A joint partnership between UC Irvine and four local community colleges (Cerritos, Fullerton, Orange Coast and Santa Ana Colleges), the program’s mission is developing opportunities to interest, motivate and prepare underrepresented students enrolled at partner community colleges to transfer to science majors at 4-year universities and pursue biomedical research careers. And transfer is exactly what de Alba eventually did.

As much as de Alba enjoyed her time at UC San Diego, it’s the hands-on career-focused education she received at Fullerton College that she really appreciates.

“UC San Diego had the reputation but really my experience at Fullerton is what gave me the skills I needed,” reflects de Alba. “Walking into my first class at UCSD was a real shock. Here I’m used to 20 person labs and my first class has 700 students in two lecture halls. That made me really appreciate Fullerton. Dr. Mary Nolan-Riegle, Dr. Wu, Dr. Mohd Ansari—I got to know my teachers and they got to know me. I could actually ask questions. That can’t really happen in a class with 700 students.”

In addition to more manageable class sizes and the personal connections she was able to form, de Alba also appreciated the more career-focused, hands on nature of her education at Fullerton.

“When I got to UCSD, I had a huge leg up on the students around me,” says de Alba. “There were juniors who didn’t even know how to use basic lab equipment like a pipettor to measure or transfer liquid. In contrast, every single class at Fullerton had a hands-on lab component. It just seemed like a huge disservice to those students.”

While de Alba acknowledges that her BS from UCSD is the required degree for her current occupation, it is her career education Medical Technology AA that gave de Alba the skills and education she needed to move from a pure researcher to her current position in Genalyte’s interdisciplinary, translational medicine department.

“What I liked about the Medical Technology classes is that they got me closer to the patient,” says de Alba. “I got to work with patient samples and the machines that process those samples. It’s that clinical training that gave me the experience and qualifications to move into my current role.”

Fullerton College’s Medical Technology AA prepares students for employment as a Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) working in a clinical medical laboratory and performing a wide variety of routine procedures in both public and private laboratories. Graduates of the program qualify for the state licensure examination administered by the American Society of Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) Board of Certification to become state licensed medical laboratory technicians.

Since de Alba’s graduation, Fullerton has also added a biotechnology program that leads to such occupation-based degrees and certificates as Biological Technician, Biotechnology Biomanufacturing Technician, Biotechnology Laboratory Technician, Biotechnology Lab Assistant Skills.    

Going forward, de Alba looks forward to continuing to play a key role in the development and dissemination of Genalyte’s innovative and important serology test. As of May, Genalyte has partnered with the San Diego Blood Bank to launch county-wide COVID-19 antibody testing in San Diego.

To learn more about the many biotech, life science, and health-related careers available through Orange County’s career education programs, visit the industry sector pages at www.FutureBUILT.org. For more information about Genalyte and their pioneering new test, visit www.Genalyte.com.