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spacer home > > ask a scientist > > reader questions & answers

SuperKids Ask a Scientist!

SuperKids' original Kids Editor, Sabrina, is now a research scientist with a PhD in both molecular and cancer biology. Dr. Sabrina has kindly offered to answer questions from our readers about anything biology related, from cancer to COVID-19 to what a research scientist does. While this offering is primarily intended to benefit K-12 and college students, we also welcome questions from the public.

So have a question about a topic in biology? Fill out the form below with your question, click on the send button, then check back to see answers!

The Editors

300 characters remaining

role: student teacher other

Please note:

  • Sabrina is a research scientist, not a medical doctor - if you have a medical concern, consult your physician.
  • Science evolves; an answer that is correct at one time, may later change.
  • Not all questions can be answered, given limitations on time and space.
  • The information you provide is to help us tailor the answer to your education level.

Questions from our readers:

How do you determine the efficiency of a vaccine? from an AP class in Wellesley, MA.

There's a formula for calculating vaccine effectiveness (VE):

VE = (Risk for unvaccinated group - Risk for vaccinated group)/(Risk for unvaccinated group).

Example: if we have 170 trial patients infected with COVID, 162 who received a placebo and 8 who received a vaccine, the calculation would be (162-8)/162 = 95% effective.

This number indicates that in the trial, there was a 95% reduction in confirmed symptomatic COVID cases among the vaccinated group, from the number that would have been expected if they had not been vaccinated.

Are the thousands of people in the COVID vaccine trials just walking around trying to get COVID? from an AP class in Wellesley, MA

In a sense. These people are still observing their local COVID rules (wearing masks, maintaining 6 feet from others, washing hands), but they are not just sitting at home in quarantine. They also are not actively going out like they would have, pre-COVID.

What controls are included in the study? from an AP class in Wellesley, MA

Every trial phase has control and treatment arms, where the control patients are receiving a placebo. That means these control patients are receiving an injection of saline. Interestingly, this is a triple blinded study. That means the subjects don't know if they're getting the vaccine or the placebo, the doctor administering it doesn't know, and the scientists looking at the results don't know. The only people who get to see the true full data are the people on the data monitoring committee to prevent any potential bias or data manipulation.

Will there be a cure for coronavirus any time soon? from Riles, a 4th-6th grade student in Newcastle

A cure? Not exactly.

A treatment/preventative measure? Absolutely.

A cure is defined as something that ends a condition. Example: tweezers are a cure for a splinter. Once the tweezers have been used, the splinter is removed and gone forever.

A treatment is something that helps manage the symptoms of a disease, but doesn't necessarily remove the disease completely. Example: an inhaler is a treatment for asthma. People can take the inhaler any time they feel the symptoms of asthma coming, but taking the medication won't prevent their asthma from coming back again. Lots of potential treatments for COVID-19 are being studied and/or developed, and a few have been approved for limited use, like dexamethazone, a steroid.

A preventative measure is something that people take before they get sick to protect them from getting sick. Example: the new COVID vaccines recently announced by Pfizer and Moderna. People will receive the vaccine, their bodies will build up defenses in their immune system, and then if the person comes into contact with COVID, their body will fight it off before it can take hold and do any damage.

Whats the difference between a vaccine and a theraputic? from a 7th-9th grade student in Miami, FL

Great question.

A therapeutic is any treatment for a disease or symptom. It can be treatments like a pill, a steroid, an injection, a small molecule, or an antibody.

A vaccine is a preventative measure, designed to protect a person against becoming sick. Examples include vaccines for smallpox, polio, and the flu.

[Not to confuse the issue, but there is a 3rd category, called therapeutic vaccines. These are designed for use after someone is already infected, and aim to stimulate the individual's immune system to more effectively attack the infection. Examples include the rabies vaccine, and some vaccines for certain cancers.]

Are there a lot of scientific letters in science? from Tanvir, a grade 7-9 teacher, in Toronto, Canada

This feels like a question that needs one more sentence of context. Regardless - we've tried to answer it anyway! (If this was your question and you'd like to elaborate in a few more words should our answers not be fulfilling, let us know!)

Letters as symbols, notations, and shorthand:
Greek letters are prominent in the sciences (particularly chemistry, physics, astronomy, and biology), both as shorthand and for differentiating various proteins and chemicals based on their orientation. Some examples include:

  • alpha represents angular acceleration in physics
  • lambda is the shorthand notation used for microliter in biology
  • delta is used to represent percent error or difference
  • mu is one of the most common in biology as it is a unit of measure such as microns/micrometers (um) or micromolar for molarity (uM)
  • some classes of proteins are differentiated by combinations of greek letters, such as members of the integrin family, like member integrin alpha 2 beta 1 that should not be confused with integrin alpha 6 beta 4

Letters as a form of correspondance:
Many scientific journals have a type of publishing format known as "letters", also referred to as "communications", which are short articles with data that editors feel should be rapidly published for the public to see, rather than waiting to complete the breadth of experiments and data needed for a full scientific "article". These are not the same as "Letters to the Editor", which are opinion editorials.

For example, Nature Letters can be found here:

Scientifically, what can I do to enjoy my school year? Are there tips and tricks I can do to increase my physical enjoyment, happiness, and whatever else? from Julian SW, a high school student

As Elle Woods so effortlessly pointed out in Legally Blonde, "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy." The thing is - she's not wrong. Exercise has been scientifically shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression while also increasing happiness, learning ability, and even your ability to sleep. Looking forward to your school year, putting an emphasis on physical activities may be a way to balance not only your physical health but also your mental health.

COVID-19 has certainly put a damper on many forms of exercise, leaving a lot of us trying to find new ways to still get that endorphin boost. If going for walks around your neighborhood or riding your bike aren't feasible or aren't sufficiently fun or exciting enough, now is the time to branch out. If available, try finding some new classes online like through the YMCA or your local gym. Unlike being in a class at the gym, no one can see how inflexible you are or how bad you are at counting music when working out online - so no excuses!

Digital workouts not your thing?

The home is ripe with options for making up your own styles of workouts.

  • Example 1: Find a deck of playing cards - assign each suit a type of exercise (hearts are pushups, clubs are lunges, diamonds are planks, and spades are burpees, etc.) and the number that comes up are either the number of reps or 5x the number of seconds you do the exercise.
  • Example 2: Using the letters of the alphabet, walk around your house in the format of an animal starting with the same letter (A - Ape walk; B- Bear crawl; C - Crab walk; see how far through the alphabet you can get).
  • Example 3: if working out by yourself isn't cutting it, reach out to your local animal shelter and see if they are accepting volunteers to walk their dogs. COVID-19 may have affected these policies, but this is always a great way to find a walking buddy who will definitely be excited to walk anywhere you want to go at any time - and you don't have to worry about whether or not they remembered their mask too.

From a mental health perspective, remember that you definitely are not the only one going through things right now. If it's in your bandwidth, set time aside each week to have a phone call or a Google hangout or a gaming session with your friends. Talk about anything not related to COVID-19 - who found the best new waffle recipe, who's reading the worst book, who's wearing the best sock combination, something positive and pleasant to debate. If you're not mentally up for talking to anyone after a day/week of classes, that is okay too. The important thing is to try to stay engaged with something - even if it's just classes.

If you need more ideas, Harvard has a really nice collection of videos and blogs about staying healthy in the time of COVID-19 that could also be a good starting point for some of your own research: Coping with Coronavirus

If you come up with any of your own great solutions that you want to share, feel free to write back in to Ask A Scientist and we'll share your discoveries with our other readers!

When will COVID19 disappear and when will it approximately end? from Ola, a middle school student

What a great question (and one lots of scientists are trying to answer right now)!

The short answer? We're not sure.

The long answer? There are a lot of things we need to think about to try to answer both of these questions.

  1. How long does a virus live?
    One of the key features about viruses, including COVID-19, is that they need a host (a body) to survive. If they don't have a home, their existence is generally only a matter of hours (up to a week at most). Therefore, if we can build up enough immunity in humans, we can essentially remove us as a possible host for the virus.
  2. When will this main outbreak of COVID-19 end?
    Right now in the United States, we are seeing increasing numbers of confirmed cases and hospitalizations in many areas of the country, making it less likely COVID-19 will end soon. Some other countries, like New Zealand and South Korea, have managed to control the spread of COVID-19 and have kept their number of cases low, giving hope that this is something we may be able to control through good social practices.

    • Is it over when we have a vaccine? How long do vaccines take to generate? How long to innoculate a population?

      Unfortunately, making a vaccine is a very time-intensive process - starting from identifying what part of the virus the vaccine will target, to the testing of a candidate vaccine in patients (it's really important to study all the of the possible side effects of a vaccine to make sure that it targets just the virus and not something else important in the body). One of the fastest vaccine developments to date was the mumps vaccine - and that took 5 years.

      On the plus side, this is one of the largest and most rapid attempts to identify and mass produce a vaccine in history! Scores of companies are working to understand COVID-19 and design a treatment to protect against it. As of the writing of this answer, several companies have already moved to the last stage of clinical trials with their vaccines - testing to see if their treatments prevent patients from catching COVID-19. If successful, we could see vaccine production possibly by the end of the year.

    • Is it over when we reach herd immunity?
      Herd immunity is when enough of the population has built up immune resistance to infection (by becoming infected and recovering, or by receiving a vaccine) such that even if someone without resistance does get sick, they won't be able to easily spread it. Think of this like when you're at a birthday party passing out slices of cake. If enough people have a piece, if someone hands them another slice, they can't take it and the person trying to pass the piece has to just hold on to it. Current studies say we are likely at least a couple of years away from reaching herd immunity, though this could happen faster with a vaccine.

  3. What can we do to help speed this up?
    Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Don't touch your face or eyes. Minimize your social contacts. Help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The sooner enough people do this, the sooner life will become more normal.

What sources of data and analysis do you think are most helpful for students interested in being informed about COVID_19? from Mike, in Santa Clara, CA, USA

Why is this virus (COVID-19) called Novel? from Samantha, a 7th-9th grade student

Simply put, "novel" means "new".

Scientifically speaking, any time a virus (or bacteria or disease) is discovered that hasn't been previously identified, it is classified as "novel". Though humans have been exposed to coronaviruses before, and even SARS-based coronaviruses, this is the first time we have seen/experienced/contracted SARS-CoV2. Hence, it is novel!

How do you make a vaccine for any disease? from Nikita, a middle school student

Short answer - we create something harmless that the human body will mistakenly recognize as the disease virus, and then the body builds up an army of antibodies that can later attack the real virus if it enters the body.

Details.... There are many things scientists have to think about when making a vaccine.

  1. What kind of virus is the vaccine targeting?

    Viruses are often classified by their genome (their DNA) - is it double stranded DNA (like humans), single-stranded DNA, double-stranded RNA, or even single-stranded RNA? Determining the genome format helps understand how the virus replicates (reproduces) and therefore how to target it.

    Viruses cannot replicate by themselves - they need a host cell and can only infect specific species (or even a single tissue within a species). For example, swine flu can infect pigs and humans. Other viruses can only infect a single type of bacteria known as E. coli. Understanding the type of cell targetted by a virus helps guide vaccine development.

  2. Have we ever made a vaccine for a virus like this before?

    One of the great features about science is that it builds on itself - once the field has learned a solution, scientists can use it again rather than having to start from scratch. Based on identifying the features of the virus, scientists have a place to start when designing vaccines - like in the case of COVID-19 [SARS-CoV-2] vaccines, many companies are looking at vaccines developed for the SARS [SARS-CoV] outbreak in 2003.

  3. Who is going to need this vaccine?

    To make a successful vaccine, it is very important to identify both the burden of the disease and the target population. This means understanding how big of a deal is this disease and how many people are likely to get it. A common example is the flu shot (also known as the flu vaccine). According to the CDC in 2018, 35 million Americans had flu symptoms - that's more than 10% of all Americans. 11 million were under 18 years old, 12 million were between 18-49, and 12 million were over 65. There is a clear example of disease burden (more than half of these patients saw a doctor because of their symptoms) and population (all ages were affected).

  4. How do you make the vaccine?

    While the first example of vaccines dates back to 1796 (when a doctor named Edward Jenner scraped pus from a wound on a milkmaid's hand and then injected it into an 8-year old boy to inoculate the boy from smallpox), things since then have become significantly more controlled and regulated! The type of vaccine you want to make will determine the method that is used.

    Vaccines against things like polio or measles use "live attenuated viruses" which are viruses that have been chemically weakened so they can't cause disease, and are then grown in animal cells in plastic petri dishes.

    Vaccines against things like the flu (influenza) grow the virus in chicken eggs where it can quickly make more virus. Once removed, it will be chemically inactivated so the virus cannot continue to infect cells but maintains its shape so the body can recognize it as foreign and attack it.

    Vaccines against things like Hepatitis B use "recombinant or subunit vaccines" which combines a small part of the viral DNA (usually the surface markers that identify a virus as a virus) with a second non-dangerous virus that is used to shuttle that virus DNA piece into cells. This combination virus is then grown in animal cells and response proteins that are released by the cells are collected to be used as a vaccine.

    Two vaccine types that are currently in the news around COVID-19 include DNA and RNA vaccines. Similar to recombinant vaccines, DNA vaccines use part of the virus (genomic DNA) that will cause the immune system to respond, put into bacterial cells where the viral gene can be grown in massive quantities, and then can be put into animals. The potential advantage of a DNA vaccine is that they usually only require a single dose and because they haven't been weakened or inactivated, they more closely resemble the actual virus. RNA vaccines follow the same principle, but use mRNA (messenger RNA) in place of DNA, with the added benefit that mRNA cannot interact with the host's DNA and cannot replicate on its own.

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