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From community college to COVID-19 research, he followed a nontraditional path to fighting the virus

At Philadelphia's Wistar Institute, Yaya Dia is part of a vast effort to study one of the potential COVID vaccines.

Yaya Dia, a graduate of Community College of Philadelphia, is a research technician at the Wistar Institute, where he helps study a possible COVID vaccine.
Yaya Dia, a graduate of Community College of Philadelphia, is a research technician at the Wistar Institute, where he helps study a possible COVID vaccine.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When Yaya Dia comes home from a long day at work, hungry for a steaming plate of his mother’s fish with rice, his little brothers don’t let him sit down without a big hug.

“Are you a doctor yet?” the youngest, 10-year-old Abou, will often ask.

“I’m getting there,” replies Dia, 29.

He is on a longer journey than most. He spoke no English when he emigrated at age 9 from the West African nation of Burkina Faso, and at first was indifferent about school amid the unfamiliar tumult of Philadelphia. He went to an automotive vocational school, considered a career in the military, then was most of the way through a two-year business degree at Community College of Philadelphia before, on a whim, he took a course in biology. A passion for medicine was born.

He took more science classes, in between working as a delivery driver (colleagues affectionately called him “Doctor”), but he knew the path would take years. So for now, he is contributing to medicine in a more immediate way: joining the fight against COVID-19.

More than 40 coronavirus vaccines are in various stages of testing on humans, and dozens more are being studied in lab animals. Thousands of researchers worldwide are tackling the puzzle: the industry scientists, the tenured professors, the legions of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. At the bottom of the ladder are the lab technicians, charged with setting up equipment, preparing nutrient “broths” to feed cultures of experimental cells, and other behind-the-scenes tasks with scant recognition.

Among them is Dia. Since February, he has been an apprentice at Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute, the 128-year-old biomedical research center known for its expertise in cancer and the immune system, which is helping to study a vaccine developed at Inovio Pharmaceuticals in Plymouth Meeting.

Though he plays just a small role in an enterprise involving dozens of people, his work is praised by supervisors, who rely on him to test samples from lab animals to see how well their immune systems respond. And along with others who have gone through training at Wistar, he represents progress toward a broader goal: increased involvement in the sciences by people of color.

When one of the lab’s first vaccine studies was published in May, alongside the coauthors with advanced degrees from big-name schools, there was Dia: holder of an associate’s degree from Community College of Philadelphia.

The pipeline

Bill Wunner needed workers who would stick around.

Every year, a new crop of bright young college graduates would cycle through Wistar, picking up some lab experience before moving on to an advanced degree.

“They’d be gone within a year,” he said.

Wunner, a longtime scientist at the institute, had worked in Scotland, where it was common for labs to hire research assistants who had yet to earn a college degree. With the blessing of Wistar management, he offered to create a similar program in Philadelphia. A consultant suggested an untapped source of talent: community college.

By offering rigorous on-the-job training and supplemental classes to promising candidates, Wunner argued, Wistar could ensure a steady stream of homegrown research assistants. And it would yield another benefit in the bargain: boosting the number of minorities in the sciences.

“The population of students at CCP is a great cross-representation of the diversity of our society in Philadelphia,” he said.

People of color are underrepresented in the sciences even more than in most professional fields, for a variety of reasons. The hierarchical nature of academic labs ensures that people in tenured professorships — very often older white men like Wunner — stay in place for a long time. And the years of training and education can put science and medical careers out of reach for those who need to make money sooner.

Especially given that others with more resources, seeking crucial lab training for their resumés, may get it as volunteers, said Dia’s supervisor at Wistar, postdoctoral fellow Emma Reuschel.

“If you can’t afford to volunteer your time, which is a privilege that a lot of people don’t have, that’s not necessarily an avenue open to you to get that initial experience,” she said.

When Wunner started the program, a few colleagues were skeptical, he said. But 20 years later, there is no question it works. Of the 160 students who completed the program, half have gotten science-related jobs within a year, said Kristy Shuda McGuire, the Wistar associate dean who oversees it now. Two-thirds pursue additional education in science or medicine.

Participants start with a seven-day orientation, meeting on Fridays to accommodate the Monday-through-Thursday class schedule at CCP. Then comes a pair of 3½-week paid rotations in two different labs, in some cases with Philadelphia-based biotech firms such as Integral Molecular and Invisible Sentinel. Last comes a three-month paid internship at Wistar or an area university.

It can be daunting at first, working in a big lab alongside others with fancy degrees, said Abeer Hudaihed, who completed the program in 2014. But everyone was welcoming, eager to answer questions or lend career advice.

“Dr. Wunner, he always made me feel like I could do it,” she said.

She went on to earn a master’s degree at Thomas Jefferson University, where she found her laboratory skills were more advanced than those of many classmates. Now she has now come full circle, teaching biology at CCP.

The spark

Charles Heise described the inner workings of human biology as a factory.

DNA is the blueprint for making proteins, the building blocks of life, he told his biology students at CCP. The “workers” are cellular structures called ribosomes, assembling proteins on a factory “floor” called the endoplasmic reticulum.

It is a standard analogy in first-year biology, but to Dia, who had signed up for the class on impulse in 2014, it was a revelation.

“The way he taught it, it really grabbed my attention,” he said. “I found a whole new passion.”

Heise, who now teaches at Delaware Valley University, deflects the credit to his former student, one of several who always stayed after class, peppering him with questions.

“He was the kind of person you could put your finger on and say, ‘He’s going to amount to something,’” Heise recalled.

Dia earned his associate degree in 2017 and continued to take more science classes when he could, in between a series of jobs. He saved money by living at home with his seven younger siblings, fending off questions from his parents about his choice of a career path that required so many years of preparation.

He finally found time for the Wistar program in 2019 and liked it so much that he plowed through the training, the lab rotations, and the internship one after the other, rather than spread it over the usual two years. He followed that with a nine-month paid apprenticeship, partly funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a new opportunity that Wistar created several years ago for graduates of the training program.

That started in February, just as COVID-19 was gaining steam.

The vaccine

The vaccine developed at Inovio is based on research by David Weiner, the head of the Wistar lab where Dia works.

As with any vaccine, the goal is to give the immune system a practice run, teaching it to make antibodies and other customized defenses in the event of infection. Traditional vaccines accomplish this by exposing the person to a weakened or inactivated form of a virus.

The Inovio vaccine, on the other hand, involves administering the genetic instructions for a fragment of the virus — enabling the person to make it onsite, in those cellular “factories” that Dia had learned about in biology class.

Among other advantages, DNA vaccines can be produced quickly. The first version of the COVID-19 vaccine at Inovio, where Weiner is a board member, was “printed” from chemical components within a matter of hours. But so far, no such vaccine has been commercialized in the United States, and unlike several other COVID-19 vaccines in development, Inovio’s entry has not yet proceeded to Phase 3 trials. The company’s stock dropped Monday after it announced that stage of testing was on hold, pending a review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

With COVID-19’s global death toll now over one million, the effort continues, with Dia among many dozens of contributors.

It is repetitive work, requiring intense focus. One recent day, he measured the antibody levels in samples of blood serum taken from vaccinated monkeys. The study in May, published in Nature Communications, involved testing the vaccine in mice and guinea pigs.

Sometimes he will ask lab colleagues for help. And sometimes they ask him.

“Just because they have a Ph.D., that doesn’t necessarily mean they are smarter than you,” he said. “That just means they went further than you in education."

He does not know yet if medical school lies ahead. Another option is to be a physician’s assistant, or perhaps a researcher.

All he needed was the chance. Now the work is up to him.

“If you just do whatever you’re supposed to do, and help out whichever way you can,” he said, “then you’ll make a name for yourself.”