Blog | Proud to be working on the frontline
Blog | Proud to be working on the frontline.
Edward James Howlett, a Biomedical Science student at Oxford Brookes University, has been working at the UK Biocentre Lighthouse Lab for the past 12 months. Here he shares insights from his role in transforming the labs at UK Biocentre to support high throughput Covid-19 testing.

Coronavirus has impacted the whole world and I feel privileged to be able to work on the front line to halt the spread of the virus in the UK’s leading Lighthouse Lab.

I was already working at UK Biocentre when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I wanted to gain some industry experience in diagnostics, so I was taking a year out of my biomedical science degree. When the lab became the UK’s hub for coronavirus testing I was offered the role of section supervisor. Who could turn it down? Without hesitating, I deferred my studies for another year. It was 100% the right decision.

UK Biocentre’s facility in Milton Keynes was the first of the ‘Lighthouse Labs’, leading diagnostic testing at scale under Pillar 2 of the Government’s testing strategy. In a matter of days, the lab was transformed on a breath-taking scale. An empty hangar was quickly filled with equipment, ethernet cables and power – and also a complete roof! We worked around the clock to set the labs up to begin testing swab samples and we started testing within four days of the government’s call.

The transformation continued throughout late March and early April. I would come back from lunch and find new high-tech machines installed.

The team transformed too. Previously there were 14 of us working on separate projects but now the team is much bigger. It’s a great place to work, with scientists at all levels and from various specialties working side-by-side (hierarchy isn’t really a thing here).

Pride and purpose

Even before the COVID pandemic I was learning so much from working in the lab. From my time at university I had a general understanding of how RNA extractions worked and had learnt some of the theory about the machines we use in the labs. I am now using those same machines for 12-hours a day every day, so I now have an in depth understanding of how they work. This practical experience is invaluable and I’ve learnt so much more than I would from a book or a lecture.

It’s not just about building my scientific knowledge and confidence. I’m also developing important skills such as people management and communication skills that will be vital after I graduate. For instance, in my role as supervisor communication with my shift team is critical. I need to make sure everyone is clear on their shift station, their responsibilities and how the processes work. If this communication is muddled, the whole testing process could collapse. The role can be high pressure at times.

I enjoy learning from the scientific experts and leaders that I am working alongside. To hear PhD and Masters students talking about their specialties is great. It is rare that an undergraduate is able to work with a PhD student so freely. We’re all working together in an historic and unique situation which gives us a collective sense of pride and purpose.

I feel that I am doing my bit to help the country return to some kind of normality. Waking up and knowing that I’m helping so many lives is so rewarding. This is without doubt the best placement in the country – I would 100% recommend getting involved to other students.

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