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Tabitha Willis

Junior, Medical Anthropology and Biology

The COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to heavily impact life for all. This was especially the case in the summer of 2020 when students across Ohio State and the country struggled to find productive opportunities to further their education after travel was no longer an option and in-person internship programs were canceled.

Medical anthropology and biology double major Tabitha Willis was one of these students.

At Ohio State, the medical anthropology major is unique because it looks at how illnesses and health are understood and shaped in different cultures throughout time.

“This major can prepare you for working at an NGO, graduate studies in anthropology and public health, or international health organizations,” Willis said. “It also can be a great major for those interested in medicine, social work, or health-focused law.”

Before the pandemic hit, she was supposed to do research at a lab in Illinois that would help her on that medical anthropology path. But instead of pulling the plug once it became clear most in-person activities would be suspended, the lab agreed to shift Willis’ research to a project she could do from home — and her summer unexpectedly flourished into something worthwhile, nonetheless.

Originally, Willis was supposed to be a Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (LSAMP SURE) grant research fellow in the GenScape Lab at the University of Chicago Department of Human Genetics.

The LSAMP SURE grant is offered through Ohio State’s LSAMP program. LSAMP scholars submit grant proposals for STEM-related research ideas, and seven receive $6,000 to cover costs. Scholars are paired with mentors and advisors in their field to assist them in conducting 10 weeks of research, capped off with a symposium presentation.

Willis’s original project was coming up with the best protocols for isolating ancient RNA from ancient DNA samples. She said few scientists get the opportunity to study ancient DNA samples, so it was an incredibly prestigious opportunity.

Instead, Willis’ internship transitioned to a remote, virtual opportunity reconstructing the maternal genetic history of South Asian populations using mitochondrial DNA. She ran mitochondrial DNA through computational programs to gather haplogroup data — a genetic population group of people who share a common ancestor — to trace populations.

Research continues to look different, especially for undergraduate students. Labs typically include shared materials and confined workspaces, so ongoing social distancing policies limit who is allowed in labs. Still, Willis has continued to find ways to stay involved by joining new projects this semester.

Even with all the uncertainty, Willis has a positive outlook on her future as a student and a scientist. She hopes that, collectively, we can take time as a society to make decisions that will benefit the public good.

“Ultimately this semester and the future are filled with a lot of unknowns, but with it, I hope our society can take the time to re-evaluate how we approach education, medicine, and daily social tasks to better prevent future pandemics and learn from this one,” Willis said.