Back in 2003, when Dr. Sarah Comstock, then a brand-new graduate researcher at OHSU, was asked to learn a relatively new technique called quantitative polymerase chain reaction testing (qCPR), she never imagined it would remain such a prominent piece of her career nearly two decades later.

Comstock, now Associate Professor of Biology at Corban University, was headed to her son’s basketball tournament when news of COVID-19 outbreaks first reached her. “That week, I started reading research papers,” she says. “It’s nerdy, but that’s just what I do.”

She was unsurprised to see that the qPCR test, the same test that she had been asked to learn years ago at OHSU, and that she now specialized in through her continued career research, was now at the forefront of global medical interest. Dr. Comstock knew that Corban’s equipment could be useful to more than just her own research, but to Corban and the local community. “I was trying to find a PCR technique that would work on our machines,” she says. “Right away, I found papers from China and South Korea that were using techniques that would be compatible.” 

After partnering with nearby Santiam Hospital, donating her own equipment and time to helping the small rural hospital run qPCR tests to identify and diagnose COVID cases during a medical materials shortage crisis (read full story here), Comstock began to develop her own version of COVID testing in partnership with researchers there.

Comstock’s test utilizes a “SYBR green dye” qPCR testing method rather than the more common probe-based method. Her test is more labor intensive than the probe-based test run by most major hospitals and COVID testing centers, but it has produced quite a few benefits. “The test we use runs 30 samples at a time as opposed to one,” she says. “It’s a little more labor-intensive because you can’t just put a cartridge in the machine and walk away, you have to actually do everything, but even with labor factored in, it is significantly cheaper.”

Comstock has to develop her own primers, along with managing many other specialized and technical processes and procedures, but Corban and the local community are already reaping the benefits of her expertise, receiving access to critical testing that has otherwise been prioritized to other high-population areas. “It also allowed me to bypass the supply chain issues that many are dealing with, because most people are using probe-based tests,” she says. As a result, not only has Comstock been able to help develop, administer, and analyze COVID tests for Santiam Hospital, but for the Corban community as well.

Additionally, because of this partnership, Corban science students are able to participate in this relevant and robust COVID research. “I have four interns who are working with me on Thursdays at the hospital to help transition the test from a nasal pharyngeal swab to a saliva-based test,” Comstock says. Corban is one of the only schools in the Northwest where students are actively participating in practical and actionable COVID research.

The hope is that they will be able to help Comstock develop a saliva-based test that will increase both Santiam Hospital and Corban’s ability to test more individuals, by less invasive means, and with a quicker turn-around. Under Dr. Comstock’s guidance, these students have rare access to collaboration in a professional medical environment, affording them the opportunity to give back to their community.

The process has been arduous for these student researchers. “They went through tons of training. It was crazy,” Comstock says. “They had to be TB tested, get all of their vaccines, go through a full background check, plus drug testing.” But the effort is already proving worthwhile.  “They’re now available to work at the hospital. And because our research is run there, everything is actually certified and can be used as true, publishable, medical results.”  

For Corban’s young researchers, the experience has been both daunting and exciting. “I am surprised how prepared I was to help conduct this research,” says student researcher Jack Farley. “I expected to show up and feel like a fish out of water, but because of the experience I’ve gained at Corban, I feel right at home.”

For all involved, the immediate gravity surrounding their research provides additional purpose. “It is exciting to be a part of Dr. Comstock’s team at Santiam Hospital,” student researcher Natalie Norell says. “The importance and need for this research cannot be expressed enough. It is perhaps the most relevant topic in the medical field as of late, so I am honored and grateful to be able to study it firsthand.”

Corban’s partnership with Santiam Hospital is certainly unique, born from the extraneous circumstances generated by the pandemic, and grown and shaped through opportunity and adversity. Comstock’s generous sharing of her specialty equipment and expertise opened the door for Santiam Hospital to provide vital resources for Corban students and staff in return.

“Santiam Hospital has been a big supporter of Corban already,” Comstock says. “I think they loved the idea of partnering further with Corban University. They’re a rural hospital that works really hard to serve their community and I think they liked the idea of being involved with a local university that also works hard to serve its community.”

Santiam Hospital has helped Corban by setting up a new Student Health Center that provides face-to-face appointments for students and has the capability to perform on-campus COVID testing at no cost. Open Monday through Friday, students have free access to professional care in addition to COVID testing, including acute and minor illness diagnosis, treating of minor injuries and illnesses, sports screening, and routine medical care.

When Comstock and her student team finish their research, they hope to utilize the Student health Center to be able to administer simple, rapid saliva-based tests campus-wide. This could significantly improve Corban’s ability to manage student and campus health, and the rapid availability of these tests could also help minimize the risk of spread for high-contact groups like athletics, allowing them to travel and compete in a safer manner.

Dr. Comstock does not foresee the benefits of this partnership ending any time soon. She believes that her knowledge and familiarity with the hospital’s staff and administration, and her newly gained experience with student certification, will lead to further collaborative research opportunities and also allow her to effectively facilitate student clinical rotations in Corban’s new pre-nursing program—set up in partnership with George Fox.

For Corban’s community, and its students, Comstock’s expertise, selflessness, and diligence have provided unexpected blessings in the midst of unexpected trials. From her willingness to learn a brand-new technique as a young researcher back in 2003, to her eagerness to share her equipment and knowledge to help her local community, Dr. Comstock has exemplified Corban’s model of combining servant leadership with professionalism and expertise. And her students take notice.

“Dr. Comstock is an absolutely brilliant woman,” says Norell, a senior with a love of chemistry and a desire to one day impact the world through her own research. “I’m inspired by her passion and initiative to begin and execute this project. I’ve had her as a professor before, so it’s an honor to be able to work alongside her in her research.” Fellow researcher Jack Farley agrees, “Her determination and brilliance is a model that health science students look up to. Getting to work with her is a huge honor.”