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Using big data to solve a big problem: Biology alumna in vital COVID-19 data collection

| Denise Olson

Like so many others who have faced major workplace shifts and disruptions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, biology and German alumna Alana Lemke '19 has had to quickly adapt to a whole new function, location and way of performing her job in response to the pandemic. And like so many other Blugolds, she is taking it all in stride and succeeding.

Alana Lemke on Little Niagra

Alana Lemke, a 2019 graduate in biology and German, plans to take her love of research and biology into a career as a research doctor in osteopathic medicine.

Lemke, a critical-care research intern at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, had been collecting data from emergency room patients to screen for eligibility in a variety of clinical studies ranging from complex components of head trauma care to simple patient resilience studies. All that changed in March, however, when nearly all studies were put on hold and research shifted to COVID-19.

"Up until the COVID-19 outbreak, I was working in Regions Hospital as a critical-care research intern, screening every person who came into the emergency department to see if they were eligible for one of our currently enrolling studies — but that all changed in mid-March," Lemke says. "I am now working on the forefront of COVID-19 research, as my department is in charge of all of the COVID-19-related research across our health system."

Regions, like most hospitals across the globe, have had to shift their facilities, staffing and services in order to meet the demands of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and that includes much ongoing research. The facility was also forced to trim on staffing, especially at the intern level, and Lemke is one of five research interns remaining from an original staff of 12.

"Interns are the bread and butter of the research machine in medicine," Lemke says, describing how interns like herself coordinate with the physicians and master's-level researchers, performing much of the setup work for studies and conducting supporting functions like literature reviews to back the projects.

The name of Lemke's primary research project is the "COVID-19 Registry," designed to capture a large amount of accurate data points from patients who have been admitted to the hospital with a COVID-19 diagnosis, information beyond common data points that can be pulled from the electronic charting system.

"I was lucky enough to be involved in the startup and background of this project, helping create training materials for the other interns, and worked through a lot of the small details as we started collecting data and learned how data collection was going to go," Lemke says. "Because things are constantly changing with COVID-19, it means how we track patients and collect data is changing as well. All of the data we collect on these patients goes into a database through which physicians can post a request for COVID research ideas; data matching their request is then available for their project."

A second COVID-19 project Lemke's data currently supports is a drug treatment trial called OSCAR. 

"The OSCAR trial is a phase 2, multi-center, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial to assess the efficacy and safety of a drug called Otilimab for the treatment of severe pulmonary COVID-19-related disease," Lemke says.

The next step for this trial, phase 3, would expand to more patients and compare outcomes of other placebos in phase 3 trials.

It's not only the nature of Lemke's work that has changed with the onset of the pandemic, but also the way she works. She can no longer be inside the hospital due to potential exposure to infection.

"I currently live with my parents who are over the age of 60, one of whom has chronic pulmonary disease. This means that if I were to work in direct patient contact with COVID-19 patients, I would be putting them at higher risk. For this reason I have been working remotely from an office outside of the main hospital," she says, adding that she is glad that was an option, as she truly enjoys this work.

"What I enjoy the most is feeling like I am really contributing to the effort of finding a treatment for this terrible disease, which has affected almost everyone in the world in some way or another," Lemke says.  "It also gives me a sense of hope, knowing and working with so many people who are putting in tireless hours around the clock into our research and trying to help as many people as possible."

The path from undergrad to clinical researcher and beyond

When Lemke was considering colleges five years ago, biology studies were at the top of her mind, but she admits that along with continuing her German studies, she had one other main criteria on her short list of schools.

"I was only looking at schools that had an equestrian team, which isn't actually that many schools," says the avid rider. "I was on the team for all four years and served as captain."

The White Bear Lake, Minnesota, native has two cousins who attended UW-Eau Claire, so it was always on her list for visits. The excellent biology department, the opportunities for research, her meeting with Dr. Julie Anderson in the Health Careers Center, and an ideal setup for being able to continue her riding made UW-Eau Claire her ultimate choice.

"At Trinity Equestrian Center, our team was able to ride the horses free of charge as long as we put in a certain amount of time volunteering there," Lemke says. "It was a perfect situation." 

Faculty made lasting impact

Lemke is currently submitting applications for graduate school, with plans to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine, perhaps also with a Ph.D. and a research emphasis.

"I first learned about osteopathic medicine from Julie Anderson, that it is a more holistic view of patient care and medicine, emphasizing the interrelated unity of all systems in the body, each working with the other to prevent and heal illness," she says.

Lemke hopes to attend osteopathic medical school someplace in the Midwest.

As she prepares for that next step, Lemke feels very well-positioned for success in graduate school and attributes much of her preparedness to Dr. Martina Lindseth, professor of German, and the sound basis in critical thinking that Lindseth helped her develop.

"Dr. Lindseth had probably the biggest impact. She really taught me how to learn, to keep questioning things and to maintain open dialogue. Because of the academic confidence, she helped me build, I’m now able to ask tough questions, even in my role as intern, and to not be afraid of failure when I try new things.” 

Lindseth is flattered by that sentiment and grateful for the opportunity to have played a role in developing a budding scientific mind.

"In my recollection, Alana stands out as someone who is able to think outside the box, make connections, approach problems holistically," she recalls "As such, she embodies the meaning of the Blugold AND — she embraces new challenges and persists until she succeeds."

Whether she's contributing to solving the medical puzzle of COVID-19 as a researcher, or perhaps someday holistically treating some of its survivors as an osteopathic doctor, Alana Lemke does indeed embody the Blugold spirit of inquiry, innovation and compassion. 

Top photo caption: As part of the Blugold Equestrian Team for four years, Alana Lemke was able to balance her studies and her personal passion for riding.