Professor Melissa Maginnis (left) works in her lab with Jeanne DuShane, PhD, a graduate from the Maginnis Lab. Credit: Courtesy of Holland Haverkamp

As of 11:30 a.m. Thursday, March 19, 42 Maine residents have been confirmed positive and 10 others are presumed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

As a virologist, University of Maine microbiology professor Melissa Maginnis has spent her career studying exactly how viruses actually get into the human body — how they bind to cells and then cause various reactions, often health problems.

As mom to 9-year-old Daphne and 4-year-old Phoebe, she and her husband, fellow virologist Aaron Derdowski, have suddenly found themselves, alongside other parents in Bangor, and throughout Maine, taking on the additional jobs of homeschool teachers this week.

Maginnis, a Pennsylvania native who started at UMaine in 2014 after finishing her postdoctoral research fellowship at Brown University in Rhode Island, said she wasn’t surprised at all to see COVID-19 arise in China in December 2019.

“We’ve seen the emergence of several of these viruses in the past couple decades, like SARS and MERS,” said Maginnis, referring to the 2003 and 2012 epidemics, respectively. “It was predicted there would be another one that would emerge, and that it would transmit into humans. I wasn’t surprised.”

What did surprise her was how well this coronavirus spreads from human to human.

“Those other viruses, they were fairly well contained and then they fizzled,” said Maginnis. “But in this case, the transmission rate is pretty high. It’s not as high as measles, which is one of the most transmissible viruses we know of. It’s not unlike the rate that the flu has, but coronavirus is higher than that, and it’s much more deadly than the flu, and it shouldn’t be compared to it.”

Credit: Courtesy of Holland Haverkamp

Maginnis runs a laboratory at UMaine that studies a virus called human JC polyomavirus, which infects the majority of the population and is confined to the kidneys with no symptoms. In immunocompromised people, that virus can cause a rare and fatal brain infection with no known treatment or cure. Presently, she’s running her lab from home, and her student researchers are coming in one at a time to prevent close contact.

She and her husband are also finding creative ways to educate — and entertain — two curious and creative girls who will be stuck at home for the near future. Maginnis says her daughters have always been interested in science, since both their parents are scientists.

“We talk about science a lot. My kids set up little labs in the living room. They write hypotheses in their notebooks. I bring home extra supplies from the lab sometimes, and they play science,” she said.

Now, however, the “play” science labs have turned into real, albeit makeshift, teaching labs in their Bangor home. For Tuesday’s lesson, Maginnis put her scientific bona fides to the test, with a class for 9-year-old Daphne on what the coronavirus is, and how it works.

“We just asked her, ‘What do you want to learn about?’” said Maginnis. “And her eyes lit up. Kids are really hungry for knowledge. Especially for something like this, which her friends are talking about at school. She said people at school were saying, ‘I don’t want to get the coronavirus.’ She was already doing her own research.”

Lesson one: how the respiratory system actually works. Then, a primer on what a virus is — specifically, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Maginnis

Maginnis and her daughter made a model of the coronavirus out of an orange and some frilly toothpicks. The orange stands in for the sphere of the virus — the main body of the structure that contains nucleic acid, and is surrounded by a capsid, or protein shell. An “envelope” surrounding the sphere is made of lipids, a fatty chemical. Within the lipid layer are spike proteins, the toothpicks in the model, which helps the virus “bind” to host cells so it can invade cells and start replicating.

Here’s where hand-washing comes in, explained Maginnis.

“Soap is able to wash away the lipids that cover the virus, which destroys the virus,” she said. “That’s why we need to wash our hands so often.”

Finally, her daughter learned about the different things viruses — in this case, the coronavirus — do to the human body. In particular, they looked at what happens when a person gets sick with pneumonia, which can be a complication in more severe cases of COVID-19.

Maginnis said she thinks that in many cases, the way parents behave and communicate during this time may be just as important as the content of the schooling they will oversee while their kids are at home.

“I think for a lot of kids, they’re going to remember how they felt during this time. The details of what they learned might be a little fuzzy, but the basic concepts, and the emotions they had, will stick,” said Maginnis. “How we react during this time is really important. We remember the experience of learning as much as we do the specifics.”

Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.