Instead of having a reunion dinner with her family, Shan Sisi celebrated Lunar New Year's Eve on Feb 11 with 13 of her team members in a laboratory. They ordered takeaway food for the night.
It was the second consecutive year that Shan, a 28-year-old doctoral student at Tsinghua University's School of Medicine, spent Spring Festival in the facility. During the festival in early 2020, the lab was almost empty as she did experiments to find out more about the new coronavirus. But this time, she was not alone.
Professor Zhang Linqi, from the university's School of Medicine, has been leading a team with Shan and others, working around the clock to find antibodies against COVID-19 since the outbreak in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province. The team achieved outcomes — they have successfully isolated several antibodies that might help to find potential treatments and have developed a vaccine that is waiting for a clinical trial.
Since Jan 20 last year, Shan has been spending her time in the lab studying COVID-19 and she hasn't taken a day off for around 200 days.
The publicity department of the Communist Party of China and the Ministry of Education recently announced a list of "the most beautiful college students" in 2020. Shan was among the top 10. She was also named Tsinghua's "student of the year" for 2020.
In 2010, Shan started her bachelor's degree at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, and at the same time, she studied for a second degree in business administration at Wuhan University. Shan started her doctoral studies at Tsinghua University in 2015, focusing on research on infectious diseases and the immune system.
"I liked animals like dogs and cats when I was a kid, so I chose to study veterinary medicine for my bachelor's degree," Shan says. "While studying vaccines for pets, I found my interest in immunology."
On the night of Jan 15, 2020, Zhang announced that they would be studying the novel coronavirus at Tsinghua University — the team had previously been successful with studies of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola.
Shan signed up for it right away and took only a one-day trip back home in Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, before Spring Festival to see her sick grandmother and returned to the lab the next day.
"As a medical researcher, I felt obliged to help in any possible way," she says.
She was initially apprehensive that she might disappoint her parents by deciding to return to campus right before the festival. To her surprise, her parents encouraged her to help the nation fight the outbreak.
The campus was empty then and there was not much to eat at the university canteen. Shan had to move heavy lab equipment by herself.
"Back in January 2020, when students weren't allowed to return to campus, Tsinghua gave special approval to allow four members of our team to join me at the lab. Without them, our progress would have been slow," Shan says.
At that time, researchers and experts were studying COVID-19 in many places.
"It was like blind people trying to guess an elephant's body parts. We were all competing and, at the same time, we were also trying to verify each other's findings," Shan says.
The Tsinghua team's efforts drew public attention. President Xi Jinping visited the university on March 2.
"He talked to each member of our lab. He asked whether my experiment showed that the antibody worked on the coronavirus, and I said 'yes'," Shan recalls. "His words to us inspired me and encouraged me to continue our study."
Shan's work was to identify potent neutralizing antibodies from infected and convalescing patients.
In May, Zhang's team and professor Zhang Zheng's team from Shenzhen Third People's Hospital in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, reported their successful isolation of 206 monoclonal antibodies from eight COVID-19 patients in the science journal Nature. They had isolated several potent neutralizing monoclonal antibodies from recovered patients, providing candidates for antibody-based prophylactic and therapeutic interventions against COVID-19.
"Professor Zhang Linqi urged us to be careful when doing the experiment because we didn't know the transmissibility and the route of transmission of the virus then," Shan says.
Shan says the team members are young. Some are around 20 years old. "They are smart and diligent, and have more creativity. They come up with many novel ideas and are bold to ask questions," Shan says.
Yang Ziqing, 23, a doctoral student on the team, says: "When I first entered the lab two years ago, I didn't know what to do. Shan basically taught me how to work in the lab."
Yang says their work in the lab usually lasts from 9 am to 11 pm. "Shan takes me to the field on campus to run a few laps to release pressure."
In 2019, Shan was among three participants picked for a one-week trip to Geneva, Switzerland, under the Tsinghua Sustainable Development Goals Open Hack competition.
Her team created a prototype of a mobile app providing systematic information about HIV. The app can also connect users to experts in the field and control a smart medical kit that reminds HIV-positive patients to take their medicine on time.
Shan was supposed to graduate in 2020. However, her study on the coronavirus forced her to suspend her doctoral studies. She has now decided to take the coronavirus study for her doctorate and will finish her study this summer.
Shan says her research seeks to find broad-spectrum antibodies against both known types of coronavirus, such as COVID-19, SARS and MERS, and new variants that may appear in the future.