Gone viral

diana scooping

Diana Demchenko explores viruses in the world's most extreme environments 

By Shelby Oppel Wood

The daughter of a clinical nurse, Diana Demchenko used to think the only path to science lay through medicine. That was before she met Ken Stedman, a Portland State University biology professor and renowned virus hunter. 

Stedman’s guidance, plus key financial support from PSU, launched Demchenko on a different path. Now, her journey is taking her through boiling hot springs and outer space toward a career that combines teaching with pathbreaking scientific research – just like her mentor’s. 
Demchenko transferred to PSU from Clackamas Community College in 2017. She earned a spot in PSU’s Build EXITO program, which provides financial support to undergraduates aiming to become scientific researchers. She soon met Stedman and joined his virus-focused lab, part of the Center for Life in Extreme Environments (CLEE). 

Diana smiling“Viruses infect such a range of organisms. They live in ice and boiling hot springs and space. That something so small could pose such a threat – just a fraction of a cell…it blows me away,” Demchenko said. 

“When I found out that Ken worked with thermophilic (living at high temperature) viruses, I was hooked. I wanted to work with him so bad.” CLEE, within the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, includes 14 faculty from the departments of Biology, Chemistry and Physics – including Stedman. He’s received research funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Gates Foundation. 

The Stedman Lab focuses on viruses found in volcanic acid hot springs, called Sulfolobus Spindle-Shaped Viruses, or SSVs. Because the earliest life likely lived under similar conditions, studying these viruses can help explain the evolution of other viruses, of life on Earth, and even life beyond Earth. 

Only a junior, Demchenko already has led a lab project that examined the potential of silver nanoparticles to “turn off” SSVs, an effort that could lead to cheaper alternatives to vaccines and antiviral drugs. In her latest project, she’s focusing on the best way to stabilize vaccines using silica, which has major implications for global public health.  

“Ultimately, as a researcher, you want to give back to the community,” she said. “If nanoparticles can be a safe and effective particle for inhibiting viruses, that would have a huge impact for people living in vulnerable countries.”

Demchenko was born in the United States to a family who immigrated from Ukraine. She chose PSU because the tuition is affordable and because it’s close to her Oregon City home. The financial support she’s received from PSU, including a Lester Newman Undergraduate Research Scholarship that enables her to work full-time in the Stedman Lab in the summer, has been essential to her success.

“It’s an amazing opportunity, to do all this as an undergrad,” said Demchenko, who through tutoring other students has discovered that she also loves to teach. 

Stedman has been essential to Demchenko, as well – a motivating and supportive mentor who has guided her on a potentially world-changing career path. She plans to pursue a PhD in microbiology. 

“I take a lot of inspiration from Ken,” Demchenko said. “I want to follow in his footsteps.”