Joining the Fight Against Coronavirus
Joining the Fight Against Coronavirus.
Harriet Lester is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. She is working as a volunteer operator at the UK Biocentre Lighthouse Lab.

When I saw the call for volunteers to join the UK Biocentre Lighthouse Lab I instantly knew I wanted to get involved. This pandemic has impacted me on a personal level when my mother died of COVID in April having contracted the virus. I was determined to do something that directly helped people in a similar situation to her.

Joining the fight against coronavirus has helped me with my grieving process and my overall health and wellbeing, as well as contributing to the national testing effort. The work is vital and it’s rare to be able to apply skills for something we do all the time to support so many people at one time.

Astronomical scale

I’ve been working in laboratories for the past six years but working in the UK Biocentre Lighthouse Lab is a completely different experience. The scale of the operation is astronomical. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The rapid expansion of the facilities was a formidable prospect, but the team of scientists here – from a range of backgrounds and with different levels of experience – is a supportive, coherent unit and every one of us has stepped up to the challenge.

In my academic lab at Oxford I would usually be responsible for the whole process from start to finish – albeit on a much smaller scale. Here I focus specifically on the RNA extraction protocol, which extracts the genetic code from the swab sample.

Automating the extraction process has transformed the lab’s throughput. We use 14 RNA extraction machines simultaneously – one machine can process 94 samples in 25 minutes. We’re currently working with tens of thousands of samples every day.

RNA extraction is a time-sensitive process: once extracted, the RNA sample is incredibly fragile and degrades very quickly. Degradation would waste the sample and void the test, meaning the individual would need to have a second test. So we need to move quickly and remain focused. Once extracted, we put each sample’s RNA in ice and move it to the next phase of the testing process (polymerase chain reaction) as quickly as possible.

Meeting the challenge – and fellow scientists!

While the team spirit has been excellent – the job has been tough. We’re working 12 hour shifts and are focused the whole time given the delicacy of the RNA extraction process. It takes a lot of brain power - and you’re on your feet for the full shift. It’s a challenge but – but these are challenging times for everyone. I’m quietly impressed at myself that I have been able to keep going for this long.

I started out working the nightshift which feels unnatural and can be pretty rough on your body but there is a huge sense of camaraderie amongst the nightshift team – that really helps. We are all awake testing swab samples when everyone else is sleeping!

I’ve met so many interesting scientists from different backgrounds from all over the UK. If it wasn’t for this experience lots of us would never have crossed paths and I know lots of us will definitely stay in touch once this crisis subsides.

Share this article