Carnegie Mellon University
October 11, 2023

Yunfei Niu Eyes Quality Control for Vaccine Advancements

By Lauren Smith

Sherry Stokes
  • Senior Marketing and Communications Manager, College of Engineering
  • 412-268-5976
Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Carnegie Mellon University's Yunfei Niu is helping develop a new method for quality control in lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) in mRNA used as vaccine components.

In the biomolecular engineering lab in Doherty Hall, Niu works with Jim Schneider, professor of chemical engineering, to develop rush assays to quickly tell how much mRNA is in a sample, if it's folded properly and if it's the right quality. Niu and Schneider are aiming to offer a capillary electrophoresis method, a less-expensive and easier-to-use alternative to high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).

HLPC, the current industry standard for mRNA quality control requires expensive solvents and maintenance, and throughput is limited by extensive wash and conditioning steps. Additionally, the gel electrophoresis methods widely used in lab-scale testing of mRNA for LNPs are too slow for routine analysis of vaccine feedstocks.

Because electrophoresis instrumentation is relatively cheap and easy to use, Schneider's new method could be deployed not only in biomanufacturing but also for routine testing at point-of-use to ensure safety.

Niu is a master's student in the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering (MS-BTPE) program, a joint master's program between the Mellon College of Science and the College of Engineering. She started working in Schneider's lab at the beginning of the spring semester and plans to continue through her graduation in December.

She chose Carnegie Mellon's MS-BTPE program for its interdisciplinary courses. She said she liked the continuity from her undergraduate studies in bioengineering, which also combined chemical engineering and biological sciences.

Niu comes from a family of doctors. Her father is also adept at working with computers and electronics. Watching him sparked Niu's interest as a child. When it came time to choose her own course of study, so she chose engineering. Niu appreciates that the MS-BTPE program balances lecture courses and lab experience.

Yunfei Niu (second from the right) poses with MS-BTPE classmates for carnival
Yunfei Niu (second from the right) poses with her classmates in MS-BTPE for Carnival.

"This program is really focused on how we can learn skills that are very helpful for finding jobs or doing research in the future," she said.

When thinking about her job search, Niu said she feels well-prepared for opportunities in biological sciences and chemical engineering.

"We are learning some really useful information about what we might be asked if we have a job interview with a pharmaceutical company," Niu said.

The MS-BTPE students whom Niu knows from last year's class all either found a job or are pursuing a Ph.D. after graduating last December. Niu emphasized that the MS-BTPE program is a small and supportive community.

"Everyone in my program is a close friend," she said. "We also have a lot of time to talk with our advisors and professors."

— Related Content —