Ronan Doyle: From one pandemic to another.
My scientific career started in 2011 when I began my PhD in medical microbiology. I was looking specifically at the role of maternal infections in pre-term birth in sub-Saharan Africa.
My role in the Lighthouse Lab focuses on manually processing samples as they come in – which is all about de-activating the live virus from the sample so we can analyse them safely. We either sort them so they can be put on the liquid handling robots, or we manually pipette them into plates and they can be processed further downstream.
In the manual pipetting, if you have lots of samples coming in at once, you have to move quickly but continue to be meticulous and precise to ensure each particular swab sample can be analysed. There’s a bit of pressure there, as you don’t have the robot doing the work for you.
Applying my experience from Ebola testing
I have lots of experience of diagnosing patient samples. For the entire journey the sample goes on – from arrival at the lab to the result – that molecular biology work is my background. It’s what I’m familiar with.
In 2015 I volunteered in Sierra Leone to support diagnostics around the Ebola outbreak organised by Public Health England. Compared to UK Biocentre, it was a much smaller operation - there were only about ten of us in a shipping container and we tested hundreds of samples, not thousands. The whole thing was manual, so there were no robots – but that whole experience has helped me hit the ground running at the Lighthouse Labs. The testing process itself, although for a different virus, is exactly the same in principle.
Working at UK Biocentre is much more structured than in my PhD. In academia you set your own time and your own workload and different challenges arise every day. Here, we know exactly what we have to do and when – the samples come in and you go again. The same process happens every time there’s a delivery of new swabs.
A sense of purpose
When people ask for your expertise and experience, and you feel like you can contribute for the greater good, you feel compelled to help. This pandemic has shut down our normal work and I didn’t want to do nothing. I volunteered as soon as I was out of quarantine.
A sense of purpose is important – and I feel privileged to be involved with a national effort like this. You feel proud that you’re doing something to help. I think when I look back on this time I’ll be glad that I didn’t opt to sit at home waiting for lockdown to reopen – I was doing something more altruistic.
It’s really interesting working with so many new colleagues from industry and academia. There are a lot of us and it’s great how many have volunteered. You meet a couple of people from left field occupations - I didn’t expect to be working alongside a vet or a secondary school teacher for example. But that diversity strengthens our team’s work – we all have different skillsets to apply to the role.
It’s interesting how it compares to Sierra Leone. That was organised by PHE so it was mainly PHE scientists. This time there are more people from academia involved – and you get such a range of experience levels, from undergrads all the way up to Principal Investigators.
When I arrived I was being trained by an undergrad here, but in this operation there is no time for egos. Even if you’ve done similar work before, you can’t come in thinking, “I know what I’m doing”. It won’t be exactly the same and diagnostics on this scale can only work if people are following the same standard operating procedure.
Camaraderie and catering
I would say the best thing about working here is definitely the people that you work with. (I would have said the food, but they changed the caterer!) Everyone’s in the same boat, there’s a welcoming atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie. Even when I first started it felt like I’d already been here a working alongside my team-mates for a long time.
I started on night shifts. That was tough. I’d never done them properly before and my body didn’t adjust completely. It can knock you for six for an entire week. I stay in Milton Keynes for a few night shifts, and then I drive home to Acton for a few days and come back again. My wife told me after night shifts I was like a zombie – up and around the house at all hours.
But it’s about adjusting and remembering why you’re here. From one pandemic to another, I’ve seen how important testing is to help halt the spread of disease – and I’m fortunate to have the experience to support and contribute.
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