“It’s difficult to be a little Asian girl in any field,” shares scientist Catharine Aquino-Fournier, the UPLB alumna leading the development of a COVID-19 mass testing technology in Switzerland. Called HiDRA-seq, this scientific breakthrough detects the novel coronavirus using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), a state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technology.
“Honestly, it’s very hard [to be Filipina scientist working abroad]. My degree is not even valid here,” Aquino-Fournier, who stands 4-foot-11, says in her peculiar German-English accent.
Aquino-Fournier, who finished B.S. Biology at UP Los Baños and eventually took Master’s Degree in Genetics, Major in Molecular Biology, considers it a feat landing a post at the Functional Genomic Center Zurich (FGCZ), a core facility of two prestigious universities, the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. “It’s in these two universities where Einstein studied,” the scientist says proudly. ETH Zurich ranked 6th in the world at the 2021 edition of the QS World University Rankings, while UZH ranked 69th among around 1,000 universities at the QS World University Rankings 2021.
Fitting the mold
According to Aquino-Fournier—FGCZ’s only female group leader—one of the main challenges she experienced working abroad was re-learning certain traits and values.
“A lot of the things that we consider right as Filipinos are considered wrong here,” Aquino-Fournier says. “For example, in the Philippines, you don’t necessarily have to say ‘hi’ or make eye contact with everybody you meet at the corridor, especially if you don’t know them personally. Whereas here in Switzerland, you have to do it all the time. You have to say ‘Hi, how are you?’ otherwise people will think that you’re not nice.”
One also needs to be precise and straightforward when saying yes or no. "Here in Switzerland, no one gets offended for speaking their mind. If you don’t say no, it means you agree. If you don’t say no, it means you agree. In the Philippines, we don’t say what we think. So that was a major adjustment on my part, because these qualities are ingrained in us Filipinos,” she explains.
But there’s a quality about her that she refuses to change. Aquino-Fournier possesses a cheerful personality and is known for it in her place of work. She would usually get comments like, ‘You’re smiling too much’ or ‘You’re too happy all the time.’
“People weren’t taking me seriously, because I smile a lot,” she says. “But I refuse to change! Why should I be sad just to make others feel comfortable? I see nothing wrong with it, so I refused to change that about myself. I’m sorry, I’m going to smile. You just have to accept it. When they told me I’m too happy on Facebook, what I did was take everyone out from my Facebook. I’m sorry. What can I do? I’m happy!”
Born this way
Aquino-Fournier was born and raised in Los Baños, Laguna, where some say a science-realted career is a natural choice for young people.
“UPLB has its own ecosystem,” she tells this writer in a video interview. “UPLB has its own ecosystem,” she tells this writer in a video interview. “The parents of my classmates were all working at the University. So the dream to be a professor or a scientist was a given. I have a very sheltered childhood. We had to go to this high school. We had to pass the exam. We had to go to this university.”
“It’s considered normal for kids to dream of becoming a doctor, a scientist, an astronaut, an engineer,” says Aquino-Fournier. “Dreams of becoming a football or a basketball star aren’t really considered valid dreams—basically, that’s how I grew up.”
The lady took BS Biology because she wanted to be a doctor, but her parents separated on her second year in college, and pursuing her medical studies became financially impossible. “I had to do Plan B. I took up some education courses, so I can be a teacher,” she says.
But opportunities steered her to the direction of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), described in its website as “a premier research organization dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger through rice science." She worked in their lab for a while. It was at IRRI where she met her Swiss husband who was then doing practical work at the institute for six months. After her masters degree, she followed her boyfriend in Switzerland where she originally planned to take her PhD. “I didn’t get to pursue my PhD because the degree I finished in the Philippines is not considered a degree here.”
Fortunately, an opportunity soon presented itself—she got offered a job at FGCZ. The nature of the job was somehow similar to what she was doing at IRRI, so that became a leverage.
Developing the COVID-19 testing tech
DNA sequencing is what Aquino-Fournier and her team does on a daily basis at the FGCZ in Switzerland. “That’s what we think about, that’s what we dream about at night,” she says. “In our work, we help people answer a lot of research questions. And our job is to implement technologies and methods to answer research questions.”
So when news about the COVID-19 pandemic started circulating, she immediately thought about what they can do. “Since we are dealing with genomics technology, we want to help solve the issue. We thought there’s a lot of issue on reagents, so we probed on that problem,” she says.
Aquino-Fournier’s team is multidisciplinary. “I have a virologist, a plant scientist, and bioinformaticians in my team, so this kind of research comes naturally for us. A lot of the ingredients we need are just in our freezer, but, of course, the expertise and knowledge were gained from 15 years of training in genomics,” she says. “We know that we can sequence the virus, or count the virus this way, because we know its characteristics. We know how individual things work. I have team members who are virologists and are experts on DNA sequencing. This allowed us to respond to the situation.”
As the team leader, Aquino-Fournier’s contribution is more on protocol development. She is involved in all the parts of the scientific control with other members. “I am the one thinking about what to do next and how to do it. Of course, I provide them with moral support, which is very important.”
How their technology differs from the rRT–PCR
During her guesting in Radyo DZLB’s GALING UPLB, a campus-based internet radio program, on June 19, Aquino-Fournier said that HiDRA-seq’s method is similar with the real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rRT–PCR), the “gold standard” for COVID-19 testing, because it also counts how many virus particles are present in the sample.
“The difference is that [while] in rRT-PCR, the output is a fluorescent intensity, in our test, the output is COVID-specific sequences. Since we have the sequences, we can determine the strain of the virus depending on the mutations that we find,” Aquino-Fournier explained in that interview.
Skipping the extraction of the genetic material is another thing that differentiates HiDRA-seq from rRT–PCR. “In the technology we developed, we are trying to skip the part of extracting the genetic material and get it straight from saliva, or gargles, or directly from the swab,” she added, taking note that this decreases the processing time. Aquino-Fournier said that their developed method also has a built-in contact tracing functionality, which can detect where or from whom one got infected.
In its official press release, the team explained that the genetic sequences of the virus are not only tested for an infection, but are also sequenced. This enables scientists to draw conclusions about infection chains and the origin of the virus.
Ralph Schlapbach, head of FGCZ, added in the said press release a disclaimer that their approach was not developed for diagnostic purposes, although its promising results showed that it can be used to complement the current diagnostic methods and that it enables population testing or mass testing.
The application enables the processing of up to 100,000 samples in a single run for about USD 2 per sample. “Since there is a shortage of materials used for rRT–PCR, we tried to come up with a technique to not affect their supply,” Aquino-Fournier added, stressing that HiDRA-seq is not meant to replace rRT-PCR.
HiDRA-seq also fills in rRT-PCR’s main drawback—its lack of genotypic information. This support could enable the mapping of the spread and transmission, as well as the monitoring of the evolution of the etiological agent (a viable microorganism, or its toxin, that causes or may cause disease in humans or animals), which is crucial for vaccine development. She clarified that like rRT-PCR, their developed method is not 100 percent accurate, with a 10 percent chance of yielding wrong results.
Being a new diagnostic method, Aquino-Fournier’s project team is constantly seeking feedback from experts and collaboration opportunities to improve it. The team published its paper on a preprint server, which gives scientists the information required to establish and adapt the testing system in their own labs.
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Relevant and useful work
Aquino-Fournier’s team does some of the most fascinating researches—from tomatoes to humans to viruses. They do researches related to aid developments in various fields—agriculture, biology, physiology, forensics, name it!
But she confesses that scientists also feel useless sometimes, especially when they do research that they feel aren’t relevant to our present. “[New scientific discoveries on] tomatoes aren’t really important now,” she quips.
So when they embarked on the COVID testing technology, there was excitement in the air. “We all became a bit more enthusiastic again about our work. Knowing that we are doing something that is important for the current situation makes us feel better about our work. We don't feel so useless and helpless,” she admits.
Aquino-Fournier says she’s not even sure if others will adopt the technology they developed. “Maybe it’s only us who will use it. But it doesn’t really matter. With the press that we’re getting, what we hope to do is simply inspire the young ones to become a scientist,” she says. “In these times of pandemic, and amid other problems we face like global warming, scientists could help save the world."