When Marissa Howard first came to George Mason University as an Honors College student and a scholar in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program, she was a biology major.
As she began looking for hands-on research experiences, her LSAMP mentor, Volgenau School of Engineering professor Alok Berry, suggested she give bioengineering a try.
“It really clicked for me,” said the Richmond, Virginia, native, and she ended up switching her major to bioengineering.
In her junior year, Howard participated in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP). That’s when she met Mason researchers Lance Liotta and Alessandra Luchini. She spent the summer studying the electrical properties of their Nanotrap technology.
“I really loved it,” she said. “I really loved them, and they were excited by the work I was doing and asked me to continue working with them. Since 2016, I've been in [the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM)] lab.”
For her senior capstone project in 2016-17, Howard led a team of bioengineering students—Sara Sharif, Sameen Yusuf, and Rohit Madhu—to create a noninvasive urine-based tuberculosis (TB) test called TB Assured, and the invention garnered a lot of attention for the team and many awards.
In addition to winning several Mason awards for being the best project of the year, the team also won the $15,000 prize from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering’s Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge to help develop the test further.
TB Assured started as a dipstick test, much like pregnancy tests, that would find biomarkers of TB in urine. In an effort to make the test more sensitive and user friendly, Howard came up with the idea of using a paper origami cup as a next generation urine collection cup for the test instead of a test strip.
The biomarker-harvesting Nanotraps are in a glass wool-like substance embedded in the cup. After use, the cup is emptied, collapsed back into its original flat, two-dimensional form, and can be mailed in an envelope for processing.
“Everything that's in the urine is captured by the Nanotraps, and you don't need a centrifuge or other equipment,” said Howard, who completed her bachelor’s degree in bioengineering in 2017. “People loved it. They keep asking when it is going to be available at their local pharmacy.”
Howard is now a doctoral student in biosciences at Mason. During the coronavirus pandemic, Howard was able to get back into the CAPMM lab, but now all the researchers are working on COVID-19-related research.
“We are doing some of the analytical validation studies to help different companies file for FDA approval for their rapid COVID-19 antigen tests,” Howard said. “That's been really interesting and fun—seeing all these different tests that come in.”
For her dissertation, Howard is focusing on cancer research. She is looking at how cancer exosomes (small, membrane-wrapped packages released by cells) communicate. The findings could help create a new kind of immunotherapy.
“[Looking at the exosomes in a tumor sample] is going to tell you a little bit more information than just the pathology would,” she said. “It's sort of telling you what that tumor is thinking and how it is communicating to its neighboring cells.”
With completing her PhD still about a year away, Howard is planning a future in a lab, possibly in an academic setting.
“I love the research space and the creative potential that comes with it,” Howard said. “You never know when your next idea is going to pop up.”