Kaitlyn Sadtler remembers applying to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and thinking there was no chance she would get in.
“[Johns Hopkins] was an enigma for someone who grew up in rural Frederick,” she said.
She did get in though, and it ended up being just one step along a decade-long journey of research and study on everything from chemical to tissue engineering.
Now, the former Frederick County Public Schools student is an immunologist and researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where she is currently leading a group of scientists who are studying COVID-19 and its possible antibodies.
Sadtler grew up in Urbana and remembers attending Urbana Elementary School, “back when it was a little one-story thing,” she said.
It was different then, more rural, she said and recalled strawberry festivals and the thrill of getting off school for Fair Day.
“I have fond memories of growing up in Frederick back before things built up a bit,” the Urbana High School graduate said.
Her interest in science began when she was young and never faltered. She took STEM — science, engineering, technology, math — related classes in high school and worked at a local veterinary clinic.
But it wasn’t until a post-baccalaureate program at the NIH after graduating from University of Maryland, Baltimore County that she began to hone in on something specific.
“A decade ago, I was on the same campus I am now as a freshly finished college student having their first full-time lab experience and that’s where I fell in love with immunology,” Sadtler said. “Understanding how our body defends itself against pathogens, bacteria, viruses, and things like that.”
She went on to get her Ph.D. and spend a few years in Boston completing a post-doctorate at MIT.
Now back at the NIH, Sadtler leads a lab and a team of research students and post-baccalaureate fellows.
When the tendrils of COVID-19 first started creeping into the United States Sadtler admitted that she didn’t think there was anything for her to do. After all, she isn’t a virologist, she said.
However, she then began to think of her role as an immunologist and her deep knowledge of how the human body responds to sickness. She was fascinated by the range of symptoms that the coronavirus presented — some people hardly sick, and some people end up in critical condition.
This fascination led to the study she’s leading now, the primary goal of which is to figure out what percentage of the population contracted the virus but didn’t know it because either they were never diagnosed or their symptoms were few to none.
“We already have the numbers of people who got tests and know they tested positive, so we’re curious about all of those people who haven’t tested positive, what proportion of those actually did have the virus,” Sadtler said.
To do this, Sadtler and her team are looking for whether people have developed antibodies to the virus. If they have, that usually means that at some point the person was exposed to the virus and contracted it.
For the first part of the study, the NIH first focused on the DC area and began testing people on its campus, Sadtler said. Medical staff, contractors, people that travel to and from the NIH every day from all around the DC, Maryland, Virginia area.
The next step is to expand to the entire United States. The NIH asked for 10,000 volunteers to participate in the research study. Sadtler and her team ended up getting 400,000 responses from people all over the country willing to participate.
She said the response was overwhelming and unexpected and that she is beyond grateful that so many people are interested in helping the research move forward, but added that it will take some time to figure who the 10,000 participants will be.
“We want to make sure that those 10,000 individuals receiving these kits are actually representative of the population of the United States,” Sadtler said.
The kits she’s referring are how Sadtler and her research team will collect their samples for study. Those selected will be mailed a few pieces of medical equipment that will allow them to prick their fingertip and collect some blood, which will then be sent back to Sadtler and her team.
Their work will help in two ways in the fight against COVID-19, Sadtler said. One, it will help scientists understand the spread of the virus and what areas and populations of the United States have been more affected than others.
Two, it will help further the study of COVID antibodies.
“It will add a layer of understanding to that question of immunity, that question that everybody wants to answer,” Sadtler said.
After her team’s study is finished and all the data has been collected and validated, she and others can begin looking at the functionality of COVID-19 antibodies and whether or not they can truly protect people from the virus.
“There are a lot of places to branch off to and we are currently linking up with other groups so that way they can use our data and really be able to start understanding what’s going on here,” Sadtler said.
Her team hopes to get the first set of data regarding DC-area residents released by the end of the month but added that the study in its entirety will take time.
There is a sense of pressure though, in the midst of a pandemic to do things quickly, and Sadtler said it’s a challenge everyday to balance that against doing good work.
“We want to make sure we get the data out as quickly as possible but also make sure that it is the cleanest, most beautiful, statistically sound data you will see,” she said. “Careful, good science takes a little bit more time.”
One thing that helps keep the pressure off the FCPS grad — not thinking of her work in too high of a regard.
“We are scientists who are just doing what we know best,” she said.