Zoom Relief: UC Davis vs. Cardiff in COVID-19 Quiz

In a bit of pandemic relief, while still extending our knowledge of the coronavirus, students from UC Davis and Cardiff University, Wales, will face off in a biochemistry quiz Wednesday (March 10).


Drawing of Eric Conn from event poster
Eric Conn, from the event poster.
  • WHAT: Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes, Final Rounds, UC Davis vs. Cardiff University
  • WHEN: 11 a.m. PST March 10 (7 p.m. GMT at Cardiff)
  • WHERE: Online

Chancellor Gary S. May will deliver live welcome remarks for the friendly rivalry, and Cardiff President Colin Riordan will deliver a message by video. The event on Zoom is scheduled to start at 11 a.m., and everyone is invited to attend, free of charge.

Distinguished Professor Walter Leal of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology is the organizer and the moderator of the Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes, named after the late professor who was the founding father of biochemistry at UC Davis.

“I thought the quizzes would help students get out of the Zoom routine,” said Leal, citing the side effects of screen-time fatigue and a lessening of the ability to focus. He also saw an opportunity to foster international connections at a time when student exchanges have been curtailed.

“We hope that this educational activity will promote physically distant, socially close interactions between undergraduate students and further our institutions’ ties,” he said.

Leal described the response to the quizzes as overwhelming. “Students showed a genuine interest in the activity,” he said. “They recorded videos for self-introduction, studied for the quizzes, and — more importantly — made new friends.”

The preliminaries

Sixty students signed up for the UC Davis preliminary round, so many that Leal divided it into two rounds for a total of 12 teams with five students each. Eight teams competed in the first preliminary, a Feb. 20 Zoom event that drew an audience of more than 350 people. You can watch a recording here, and see some of the questions at the bottom of this article.

Two teams advanced to the final rounds:

  • Ironic Bonds Team — Kelly Brandt, Jiaying Liu, Aly Lodigiani, Catherine Rodriguez and Efrain Vasquez Santos
  • Gibbs Team — Tina Luu, Brandon Matsumoto, Yasi Parsa, Esha Urs and Kathryn Vallejo

The other four teams competed in the second preliminary — and two of them tied for first place:

  • Alpha Helices — Mary Aina, Daniel Colon, Stephanie Matsumoto, Joseph Morrison and Eva Pak
  • Beta Strands — Beatrice Ark-Majiyagbe, Erica Arsaga, Brycen Carter, Shiwani KC and Samantha Levy

“I am absolutely delighted to provide this opportunity for our students to learn biochemistry, have fun, work as teams and build international ties,” said Leal, who noted that the teams are exchanging university hoodies.

“Yes, remote learning is challenging,” he said, “but it also creates new opportunities.” Indeed, besides the biochemistry quizzes, Leal also has organized and moderated three COVID-19 symposia, each of them reaching hundreds of people on Facebook and Zoom.

Professor in webinar studio
Professor Leal in studio for the Feb. 20 preliminary round. (Pingxi Xu/UC Davis)

The finals

Wednesday’s competition will begin with Ionic Bonds vs. Gibbs Team; the winner will send all five members to the final match, accompanied by one member each from Alpha Helices and Beta Strands, who will compete in a tie-breaker after the Ionic Bonds vs. Gibbs Team match.

The seven-person UC Davis team will go up against a seven-person Cardiff team for the championship.  

Walter leal headshot

Questions during the finals will focus on protein structures, particularly two proteins closely related to SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 illness. “Specifically,” Leal said, “students will be asked questions about the structures of human hemoglobin — the protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues (and returns carbon dioxide), and the virus’s spike protein — that binds to a human receptor, known as ACE2, and starts the process of invading human cells.”

Leal said one of the most notorious presentations of COVID-19 is hypoxia (insufficient oxygen in the blood). “While the virus replicates and the spike proteins trigger invasion to other cells, hemoglobin cannot capture enough oxygen because the lungs’ alveoli are filled with the mucus derived from the viral infection,” he said.

Judges: Charles Gasser and Clark Lagarias of the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and John Harwood and Dafydd Jones of the School of Biosciences, Cardiff University.

Continued outreach: Professor Leal has arranged to have Dean Blumberg, an epidemiologist who is chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, answer questions about COVID-19 vaccines and vaccinations, while teams are answering their quiz questions during the final round.

Test your knowledge

Here are some of the questions from the UC Davis preliminaries (click each question to see the answer):

  • Why do hairdressers use thioglycolic acid for permanent hair treatment?
  • To break disulfide bridges.
  • Why is the spike protein called a glycoprotein?
  • Because it is decorated with sugar.
  • When you get ivy poisoning, where do you expect that the active ingredient (urushiol) will accumulate?
  • In the cell membrane.
  • Who was the scientist at the UC Davis Genome Center who came up with the idea of using papain protease to reduce saliva viscosity?
  • Lutz Froenicke


Kathy Keatley Garvey, communications specialist with the Department of Entomology and Nematology, contributed to this report.

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Media Resources

Dateline Staff: Dave Jones, editor, 530-752-6556, dateline@ucdavis.edu; Cody Kitaura, News and Media Relations specialist, 530-752-1932, kitaura@ucdavis.edu.

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