When the coronavirus first began to spread across the United States, Megan Cooper ’95, an associate professor of rheumatology at Washington University and director of the clinical immunology program at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, didn’t expect to do research on the virus. However, the research laboratory she runs was invited to be a genetic sequencing hub for the COVID Human Genetic Effort, an international consortium of scientists investigating COVID-19. Her laboratory, which typically researches genetic sequences in children with very rare primary immune deficiencies, quickly pivoted its focus to provide genetic testing on children and young adults who have had COVID-19 with the goal of identifying risk factors in the immune system.
Cooper first became interested in biomedical research while completing her Independent Study project as a chemistry major at The College of Wooster, for which she worked at a biotech company off campus. “The independent thesis was a critical part of what got me interested in research,” Cooper said. “The ability to ask questions and address those questions in a rigorous manner really set me up for my interest in a career in biomedical research.”
After working for a year as a chemist at Procter & Gamble after graduation, Cooper decided that she wanted to continue to pursue research. She completed a combined M.D. and Ph.D. degree at The Ohio State University, during which she worked in a lab that focused on the immune system. Since she had always loved working with children, Cooper did her residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric rheumatology and immunology at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital at Washington University. “It was a really good fit for me to combine my research interests in immunology and my clinical interests in helping kids,” Cooper said.
Cooper has since been on the faculty of Washington University, where, in addition to leading the research lab and working at the medical school, she sees patients once a week in a clinic. Amidst the stay-at-home orders earlier this year, Cooper had to shift to conducting telehealth visits over Zoom. While she has now returned to seeing most of her patients in person, Cooper’s research work continues to be very different than it was prior to the pandemic. She said that strong teamwork allowed her lab to quickly pivot its focus to COVID-19. “It shows you what’s possible when you have good infrastructure and good colleagues,” she said.
As part of the COVID Human Genetic Effort, Cooper’s lab deposits its sequencing data into a repository that all of the participating scientists contribute to. “We can all look at the data and try to learn from each other and make discoveries,” she said. The consortium’s mission is to discover what factors in the immune system cause some previously healthy people to experience severe forms of COVID-19 and make others resistant to the virus. Cooper explained that this level of international collaboration is very unusual. “It’s been quite remarkable to see this number of scientists all around the world work together,” she said.