WSU lab that took off during COVID switches gears to microbiology


With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, Wichita State University’s Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory will soon be expanding its focus to become a full microbiology laboratory.

The lab’s evolution will give students more opportunities for applied learning, boost research capabilities and help fill a gap for medical testing across the state.

“When COVID hit, we stood up the ability to do molecular testing, which is a specific type of testing where we look at DNA or RNA,” said Sarah Nickel, director of the MDL and assistant professor of medical laboratory sciences. “We can now use that technology to test for any bacteria or virus and any other thing causing an infection.”

In the case of bacterial infections, the MDL will also have the ability to analyze samples and determine which antibiotics will most effectively treat infections.

Wichita State University established the MDL in October 2020 in response to a statewide need for high-volume COVID-19 testing with a quick turnaround. At the height of the pandemic, the MDL was processing thousands of specimens per day with results in less than 24 hours, ensuring quick quarantine and treatment for those infected, and allowing hundreds of businesses, schools and state agencies across Kansas to stay open. 

“It felt good to know we met a need,” Nickel said. “And right now, one of the needs is more micro-testing with better turnaround time.”

We have such a high concentration of expertise in this area at Wichita State, and we need to help more because we can.
Sarah Nickel
director of the MDL and assistant professor of medical laboratory sciences

Nickel said she hopes the MDL will help support health care systems across Kansas, particularly rural areas.

“We have lots of tiny hospitals in Kansas. Almost every county has a little hospital, and they all have to send their microbiology work somewhere,” she said. “Some of them are partnered with bigger hospital systems. We want to try to figure out if there’s a way to help support that network, give them better turnaround times, focusing strictly on serving these places that really need it.”

Filling the gap for testing aligns with Wichita State’s vision to serve its community and state.

“We have such a high concentration of expertise in this area at Wichita State, and we need to help more because we can,” she said.  

The MDL’s expanded capabilities will also help Wichita State students gain specialized applied learning experience and learning highly specialized skills that will make them more employable once they graduate.

“Medical laboratory science students have to do a clinical rotation in several areas of the lab. It’s pretty easy to find rotations for everything except for microbiology, which is more of a specialty. Most labs outsource those tests,” Nickel said.

Micah Ruff, a senior in international studies, works as a medical laboratory assistant at the MDL. He’s looking forward to doing testing on blood samples.

“I am extremely excited about the transitions that the MDL plans to make,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the future that the MDL is going to have, and I am ready to start learning new things that I might be able to use for future jobs.”

Bryan Perez-Moreno, a sophomore in dental hygiene, collects samples for the MDL. He said he sees the lab’s expanded capabilities as an opportunity for students.

“Expanding the lab into more than just COVID can help us build up experience with different things and can expand our knowledge in microbiology,” he said.

Students and medical laboratory scientists will be working on state-of-the-art equipment, including a VITEK® MS PRIME Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization-time of flight (MALDI-TOF) system, which identifies bacteria; a BACT/ALERT® VIRTUO®, which can determine if there’s bacteria in a patient’s bloodstream; and a VITEK® 2, which helps identify which antibiotics work best on the infection.

Initially when the lab opens in early 2024, Nickel said it will focus on urine cultures, women’s health, and testing for gonorrhea and chlamydia. Eventually, she said, the MDL will expand its testing even further to things like wound cultures.

Nickel said the nature of bacterial cultures require longer processing times than COVID-19 testing.

“The cultures have to physically be incubated in a warm, moist environment that allows the organism to grow,” she said. “On a urine culture, you’re looking at least 48 hours.”

Through her research, Nickel hopes to create new methods to optimize testing.

“Our research is really going to focus on improving the turnaround time in the microbiology laboratory,” she said. “Anything we can do to improve that, that’s what we’re going to be working on.”

About Wichita State University

Wichita State University is Kansas' only urban public research university, enrolling almost 22,000 students between its main campus and WSU Tech, including students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

Located in the largest city in the state with one of the highest concentrations in the United States of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wichita State University provides uniquely distinctive and innovative pathways of applied learning, applied research and career opportunities for all of our students.

The Innovation Campus, which is a physical extension of the Wichita State University main campus, is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing research/innovation parks, encompassing over 120 acres and is home to a number of global companies and organizations.

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