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Lab experience earns student job on cutting edge of COVID research

Sep 10, 2021
5 min Read

The line between lab work and useful employment after graduation is clear to Max Hoeffel, BS’19, who stands at the leading edge of COVID-19 research in large part because of undergraduate work he performed in Creighton University’s biology program.

Hoeffel was snapped up by Clear Labs, a two-year-old food-safety company located in San Carlos, California, about 25 miles south of San Francisco. Clear Labs is building a reputation as an innovative firm that uses robotics technology to detect salmonella and listeria in the food production chain. Hoeffel’s undergraduate work at Creighton on the MinION DNA sequencer, where he analyzed the DNA of blood-feeding black flies responsible for river blindness in Africa, paved the way to his current COVID research.

Clear Labs specializes in using DNA analysis in two primary ways, Hoeffel says — to identify items for clients who seek assurance that suppliers are providing the food products they promise, and to detect pathogenic bacteria in the supply chain.

“We realized that, ‘Hey, if we can detect nasty pathogens in food there really isn’t any reason why we can’t flip this over to viral detection in humans,’” he says. “So, in addition to sequencing food pathogens, we can now sequence pathogens to determine if a virus is present or absent and determine the subtype of the virus.”

It is leading-edge technology, still in its early stages, that will allow medical professionals to determine not just whether COVID-19 is present but also the particular subtype, which Hoeffel says is key to understanding the virulence of the disease in particular individuals.

“We’re hoping the information the system provides will help researchers all over the world find out more information about what’s going on with this pandemic,” he says.

Hoeffel attributes his role with Clear Labs directly to his experience performing undergraduate research at Creighton under the direction of Charles Brockhouse, PhD, associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I had a lot of experience with a DNA sequencing device in professor Brockhouse’s lab. It’s a fairly new device that’s only been on the market for the past five years or so, and because I had experience with that machine, this company in California hired me,” he says.

Hoeffel says he considers enrolling at Creighton, despite investigating most of the Big Ten universities, to be a defining decision.

“I was born in Omaha because that’s where my dad was doing his residency,” he says. “But I grew up in Minnesota. That birth connection to Omaha, plus my dad’s residency connection to Creighton and the fact that my older cousin went to Creighton as well, put Creighton on my radar.

“Once I chose to take a look, I met some biology professors and realized it was the right fit for me. I toured it with an open mind and fell in love with it,” he says.