Innovator of the Year Made Herculean Efforts Throughout the Pandemic

November 8, 2021 By Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu

When Dr. Amy Mathers was a kid, she had no interest in following in the footsteps of her father and becoming a doctor. At the age of 6, she decided she wanted to study the ocean. Mathers wouldn’t waver – until she got to college.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t live on a boat at sea for long extended periods of time,’” Mathers said with a laugh. “I didn’t think it would be right for me.”

All these years later, Virginians – and people all around the world – should be thankful for her career epiphany.

Over the last 20 or so months, Mathers, associate director of clinical microbiology and an associate professor of medicine and pathology at the University of Virginia, has been a hero.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when federal health agencies couldn’t provide enough COVID-19 tests, Mathers worked with Melinda Poulter to help create in-house tests to meet the demand at UVA and at hospitals across the state.

But she was just getting started.

When massive testing led to a nasal swab shortage, Mathers helped solve that issue, too – by helping design, manufacture and get FDA clearance so swabs could be distributed across the state to meet the shortage needs.

As the pandemic wore on and students returned to Grounds, Mathers helped develop a solution for testing wastewater from buildings to detect signs of COVID-19, thereby helping identify potential positive cases and prevent larger outbreaks.

And then, as SARS CoV-2 mutations and successful variants began to emerge, she quickly pivoted her laboratory to begin applying whole-genome sequencing to monitor emergence to inform public health policy and understand transmission.

It was for these life-saving innovations – as well as her work as the chief medical officer of Antimicrobial Resistance Services Inc., a company that specializes in whole-genome sequencing to inform and mitigate the spread of harmful bacteria – that the UVA Licensing & Ventures Group chose Mathers as the recipient of this year’s Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year award. The endowed award recognizes University faculty members or a team of faculty researchers whose work is making a major impact on society.

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Mathers will receive the award Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in a ceremony in the Rotunda’s Dome Room and will also deliver a public lecture highlighting her latest research. The event is open to UVA community members and the public.

“We are thrilled to honor Dr. Mathers with this award for the leadership and ingenuity she demonstrated in the face of unfathomable challenges presented by COVID-19,” Bob Creeden, interim executive director of UVA Licensing & Ventures Group, said. “Dr. Mathers leveraged her experience with translational research and innovation activity to address the urgent need for high-impact testing solutions, and made them as widely available as possible to combat the spread of the pandemic across the state.”

Mathers grew up in Montana before getting her undergraduate degree at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, and earning her medical degree at Loyola Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago.

Mathers, who came to UVA for an infectious disease fellowship in 2006, says it was in her second year at Humboldt State when she “fell in love” with bacterial genetics. “I was like, ‘Whatever I need to do to study bacterial genetics, that’s what I want to do,’” she recalled.

According to Mathers, it was around March 10, 2020, when UVA Health began admitting more patients with COVID symptoms than they had tests on hand.

The hardest part of those early days, Mathers said, was having to assume that all patients with symptoms had COVID. She had to tell relatives of patients – whether they had COVID or not – that they couldn’t be with dying family members. Since nobody could be tested, Mathers and her colleagues’ hands were tied. 

“It was just very, very stressful and sad and felt somewhat overwhelming,” Mathers said, “and so I was highly motivated. … I felt like I should be the person at UVA who should be able to figure this out, because I’m trained in both infectious disease and in diagnostics and felt between Dr. [Melinda] Poulter and [me] that we should be able to get a test launched.

“Failure was just not an option. It was like, ‘We have to figure something out.’”

Creating a test was actually the easy part. Navigating the political red tape? Well, that was something entirely different.

As a result of new regulations from President Donald J. Trump that mandated the Food and Drug Administration oversee every clinical lab, Mathers and Poulter had to jump through several unexpected hoops.

Amy Mathers working in a lab with a sampling dish
Among many contributions during the pandemic, Mathers helped develop a solution for testing wastewater in dormitories. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“I use the analogy that if you were making a sandwich, you had to use Wonder Bread and that was it,” Mathers said. “You couldn’t use any other kind of bread or other ingredients.”

As a result, acquiring specific reagents and equipment became extremely difficult, since everyone in the country was all looking for the same thing.

Working around the clock, Mathers went door-to-door around the health system, piecemealing the tests into existence.

Just eight days later, with the help of the University of Washington – which provided virus samples – the tests gained FDA approval.

But just a short time later, Mathers and her colleagues realized they had another problem. “There were no swabs anywhere to be had,” Mathers said. “It was just nuts.”

Without the nasal swabs, all the tests were useless. So Mathers, through the UVA Sink Lab, and in collaboration with Will Guilford, a UVA associate professor of biomedical engineering, created a 3D-printed swab prototype, which was then used as a template for injection-molded swabs that Mathers was able to safety test during a clinical trial.

After running a clinical trial and getting FDA approval, 75,000 of the new swabs were produced every week, with 15,000 reserved for testing at UVA Health and 60,000 distributed to testing sites across Virginia.

Mathers, though, realized there might soon be yet another issue.

Because of the needs for testing personnel, she had been going into nursing homes to test for COVID and saw firsthand just how easily the virus could spread in a group setting. Some of the homes she visited had 90% positivity rates.

With UVA students set to return to dormitories last fall, Mathers felt compelled to create an early warning testing system. Working with Lisa Colosi-Peterson in the School of Engineering and Shireen Kotay, an environmental microbiologist in Mathers’ laboratory group, she developed and validated a wastewater test for building-level surveillance.

“I just wanted to keep those kids safe, and at the time we did not have enough tests to give away to college kids,” Mathers said. “We needed to do a large pool screening and so I wondered if you could test wastewater on a massive, building-level scale. That’s why we started developing it.

“I think it worked … We pulled out several asymptomatic positive students before it could reach double digits in a 100-person dorm, as had happened on many other campuses.”

Most recently her focus has been on monitoring for the emergence of variants. In this work, she is applying the foundational infrastructure established through the Licensing & Ventures Group’s  bacterial sequencing efforts to sequence SARS CoV-2 to assist with the public health efforts. She has now sequenced thousands of samples and provided data to the state for monitoring emergence of variants. 

Mathers, who has two daughters with her husband Billy Jones, an occupational therapist at UVA whom she met back at Humboldt State, is hopeful that the pandemic is winding down.

Professionally speaking, she said she has come to a realization over these last several months. “I love to do research. I’m addicted to discovery. There’s nothing I love more than discovering something in science that nobody has ever seen or known before. I can savor that moment for months and months and months. … I love that feeling,” she said.

“But at the end of the day I think that applied research is more important than making discoveries for discovery’s sake. What is most rewarding is when the discoveries we are making are used to help make things better for everyone.”

Mathers joins a handful of other UVA infectious diseases experts who have been named Innovator of the Year, including Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, who earned the honor last year, and Dr. Bill Petri, the 2003 winner.

Mathers said Petri impacted her at the start of the pandemic by something he said.

“He said that if there has been a time to make a difference in infectious disease, it’s now,” Mathers said. “I kind of heard that call and said, ‘Yeah, if ever I hope to make a difference with research, it’s now.’

“I saw there was a great need and felt very driven to help wherever I could. I knew that I had a skill set that was well-suited to answering many of the really hard questions and to kind of lead and drive some of the things that could really help save lives.”

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Whitelaw Reid

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications