The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has received more than $1.3 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expand the New York City Virus Hunters program.

Low-Res_NYCVh student in Krammer lab - credit Christine Marizzi

Source: Christine Marizzi, BioBus

Kailani Gaynor, student virus hunter

The program engages high school students from communities historically underrepresented in science in the first large-scale citizen science effort to catalog and map circulating avian influenza and avian paramyxoviruses in New York City’s wild birds. The goal is to track emerging viruses and to prevent future outbreaks.

Wild bird risk

Wild birds can disseminate infectious virus particles that spread avian diseases, especially highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as “bird flu.” While the risk is very low, bird-to-bird and bird-to-human transmission is possible in highly populated areas like New York City, which features 50,000 acres of green spaces and an abundance of wildlife. Surveillance and virus species identification are vital to prepare for and prevent a possible future pandemic, and to identify the types of viruses that may be harmful to humans and other birds.

Established in 2020, the program is a collaboration between BioBus, a science education nonprofit known for its mobile laboratories that bring science to students; Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center; and Icahn Mount Sinai. Through this program, the students learn lab and research skills, practice science communications, and take steps to become the next generation of problem-solvers.

Virus detectives

The newly awarded Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grant will support the Virus Hunters program, which empowers students to help prevent the next pandemic by turning them into virus detectives who conduct surveillance work.

They begin their research by safely collecting bird fecal samples at urban parks and natural areas. The students then process the samples in the lab of Florian Krammer, PhD, Mount Sinai Professor in Vaccinology and a globally recognized leader in influenza research, including the development of novel vaccines and therapeutics.

The lab work involves screening the collected fecal samples and analyzing the genomes of identified viruses. No live viruses will be handled; only their non-infectious genomes will be detected and analyzed. According to Dr. Krammer, birds are key to finding out which influenza and other avian viruses are circulating in the New York City area as well as important for understanding which ones are dangerous to both other birds and humans, and which are not.

Avian paramyxoviruses 

“Data generated from the pilot phase of the New York City Virus Hunters program has already resulted in peer-reviewed scientific publication and entries of the first two avian paramyxoviruses ever identified in New York City’s pigeons,” said Dr. Krammer, Principal Investigator of the Virus Hunters program.

“This new, five-year SEPA grant will enable us to extend and broaden this citizen science initiative so we can recruit and support many more middle and high school students to participate at large-scale sampling events. This allows us to expand the number of biospecimens we’re able to collect and analyze.”

BioBus has an established network of more than 800 New York City schools and community-based organizations serving primarily diverse student populations that are historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math. Through this new SEPA grant, Virus Hunters program leaders will refine their existing program infrastructure and expand the partnerships between organizations that currently participate to the New York City school system.

Next generation

Over the course of the five-year program, Virus Hunters leaders envision recruiting and training 100 teachers and 6,000 students who will participate in sampling events across New York City. In addition, 25 high school students will partake in the initiative as paid Junior Research Scientist interns, supported by a network of BioBus and Mount Sinai mentors to spearhead the initiative. They will screen collected samples; perform nucleic acid extractions, sequencing, and sequence analysis; perform phylogenetic analysis, and get trained in general virology by expert mentors at Icahn Mount Sinai. Organizers hope some will become the next generation of leading virologists.

“Young people are smart and capable of making meaningful contributions to science when given the opportunity to engage in our scientific community, a community which is in dire need of a new generation of diverse and enthusiastic voices,” said Christine Marizzi, PhD, Director of Community Science at BioBus, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Microbiology at Icahn Mount Sinai and Co-Principal Investigator of the Virus Hunters program.

“Throughout the program, students build their own identity as scientists, gaining both a sense of belonging in the scientific community and valuable experience as they pursue further science education and careers. We are thrilled and grateful to be able to expand our program through this new SEPA grant so that we can empower even more youth to help us participate in research that will make the Big Apple safer.”