With state, University and student support, bioengineering professor Delphine Dean spearheads a collaborative, communitywide effort to combat COVID-19 through testing. 

Delphine Dean doesn’t sleep much these days.

Her mind is at work, and her work is focused on the health care solutions that will help her University and the surrounding community cope with the daily uncertainty and challenge of COVID-19. 

“We have a lot of people working to solve problems right here on our campus,” explains Dean while standing outside her bustling lab in the basement of Clemson’s historic Sirrine Hall. 

Behind her, through a set of glass-windowed doors, is the Research and Education in Disease Diagnosis and Intervention Lab, REDDI, and there a team of student scientists can be seen working at computers and moving boxes of test tubes around the modest space. The student researchers are processing hundreds of trays of COVID-19 saliva tests collected earlier in the day from Clemson’s main campus and from community testing sites around the city of Clemson and neighboring Greenville. 

“A lot of people are being helped by Clemson University and the people of Clemson,” says Dean, who for months has been the face of scientific solutions at Clemson. She is one of many at the University working to keep campus and the surrounding community safe during a nearly yearlong global pandemic. 

“I’ve always wanted to work on problems that help people, and that takes teamwork,” Dean says. “In the last 10 months — across the U.S. and the world — I have seen more collaborations to combat COVID-19 than I have seen throughout the rest of my career.” 

And her on-campus REDDI lab, which was built from the ground up in a matter of months, is the epicenter of it all. Thanks in part to a $6.9 million grant through Gov. Henry McMaster and the State’s Joint Bond Review Committee, the lab was able to expand quickly, ramping up to process more than 20,000 tests a week and allowing Clemson students, faculty and staff, as well as residents from nearby towns, to know if they are positive or negative for COVID-19. Through awareness and knowledge, the testing has made Clemson a place people can work, live and play more safely in the midst of a global pandemic.

“We have to be innovative because the virus is innovative,” Dean says. “We are coming up with new ideas all the time. That’s how we’ll beat this disease.”

Research solutions

As Clemson’s Ron and Jane Lindsay Family Innovation Professor of bioengineering, Dean has long focused her research on providing health care solutions through bioengineering methods, and she’s done so well before COVID-19, with much of her work happening in Tanzania. 

But no matter where she is in the world, Dean works to improve health care in two key ways: through basic and applied science methods. At a fundamental level, she seeks to understand nanoparticle interactions with cells along with cell mechanics and properties. These small-scale interactions and modeling help drive understanding of cell mechanics and develop therapies for a variety of medical needs. 

By translating her bioengineering research into solutions for health care problems, Dean has dedicated herself to innovating high-tech and low-resource solutions to solve problems, often through new materials and procedures. With the onset of COVID-19, she now finds herself doing that on her home campus — for the people she works with and the students she teaches. 

“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” she says, pointing to the sweeping collaboration across campus, as well as with area doctors and — yes — her husband, who is chair of the computer science division in the School of Computing at Clemson and has been chief among those supporting her long hours and sleepless nights.

A larger effort

Dozens of other COVID-related efforts are underway across Clemson’s campus, doing everything from creating a combined flu-COVID test to studying transmission models to innovating new methods of sanitizing and sterilizing medical masks. Students, as well, are providing valuable hands-on help to the testing effort and gaining field experience. 

Rebekah Woodard, a December 2020 nursing graduate, works about 20 hours a week, scanning cellphones and handing out test tubes to collect saliva samples from hundreds of campus and community testers. Typically working in the “symptomatic or exposed” testing area, she verifies that testers’ information is consistent with their bar code scan, and then she provides instruction on how to perform the test.  

“This job has shown me how important it is to screen for disease, whatever the disease may be,” Woodard explains. “As a future nurse, prevention of disease, and not just the treatment of an existing disease, is a large part of what we do.”

Additionally, for Woodard and many of her fellow students, the importance of having readily available and simple screening processes for a large population became very clear in a very short span of time. 

“People won’t get tested if it’s not easy, affordable or fast,” she explains. “Thankfully, Clemson and Rymedi have developed a wonderfully efficient system that allows for a painless and simple test, getting students, faculty and staff in and out in five minutes, and getting their results back the same day most of the time.” 

Future success

The speed and success of scaling up rapid testing on campus is just one achievement that foretells many more, Dean and others say. 

“I think a lot of people didn’t think we could do it,” Dean says. “I talked to people who run clinical diagnostics labs, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you know, getting to thousands of samples a day capacity? That’s so impossible.’”

But Dean, who has spearheaded innovative health solutions in far corners of the world, thought otherwise. With support from University and state leadership, including the South Carolina General Assembly, she worked quickly to put her ideas into action. 

Now, more than 20,000 tests a week later, Clemson is living proof of what’s possible.  

“If you really sit down and strategize and plan on how to do it, it’s doable,” she says. “You just have to have a plan. And a lot of people are working in the background to make it happen. I love that.”