Co-op Student Works on Coronavirus Project



By Stuart Esrock, Ph.D.

A UofL engineering student is continuing his work with an Owensboro company that is working on a potential COVID-19 vaccine.  Dustin Williams is in the second year of the chemical engineering program and is doing a co-op with Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), a U.S. subsidiary of British American Tobacco. 


Co-op Dustin Williams

Pre-clinical testing is underway on the potential vaccine, using fast-growing tobacco plant technology.  According to KBP, tobacco plants offer the potential for faster and safer vaccine development compared to conventional methods.  If testing goes well, the company is hopeful that between 1 and 3 million doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June. KBP remains a commercial operation but its work around the COVID-19 vaccine project will be carried out on a not-for-profit basis.

While Williams can’t talk about the specifics of his confidential work, he remains in Owensboro working on this important project.  “We're still on site, and we're taking care to apply strict social distancing policies based on guidance from state and federal government agencies.”

Williams realizes the COVID-19 outbreak has created a unique opportunity for his professional growth. “The cooperative education program is meant to give students some engineering work experience while they're still in school, but this experience has also given me the opportunity to work on something truly important and impactful early in my career. I'm sure that's something many students worry about: struggling to find a meaningful path forward using their education.” 

Williams has learned a great deal during his co-op. “It's has a lot more to do with advanced chemistry and biology than most chemical engineering co-ops, and I've learned many skills and concepts that I wouldn't have imagined learning. So my trajectory is a lot different than I expected, but I'm thankful to be here, and to be doing important work. I would also love to keep growing my skillset in this sector.”

But the lessons learned in Williams’ co-op extend beyond the application of chemical engineering knowledge. “For me, this experience has helped me compartmentalize -- to draw the line between free time and crunch time, to tell the difference between an opportunity to learn or innovate and something that just needs to get done.”

Williams credits his KBP colleagues for making him a part of the team and for the important work they are doing to find a COVID-19 vaccine. “I’ve developed a deep appreciation for my relationships with my coworkers. During a time when many of us are struggling to fulfill those social needs in our lives, I cherish being able to come in and work alongside some of the brightest, most hardworking people I've ever known.”

Dustin Williams and the team at KBP in Owensboro give us hope that we’ll come out together on the other side of the pandemic.  If you know of other UofL students like Dustin doing work to currently benefit our community as we fight coronavirus, please email that information so we can tell more of these stories (