Volunteering to Make a Difference
Volunteering to Make a Difference.

Bethany Gollan, a PhD Student at Newcastle University, has been volunteering at UK Biocentre’s ‘Lighthouse Lab’ analysing COVID-19 swab samples for the past two months.

There are so many courageous people out there who are volunteering to support the national effort during this pandemic. People shopping for their neighbours who are shielding. Communities coming together to collect medical supplies for older neighbours. Furloughed workers lending their services to support charities and key workers. The list is endless.

I feel fortunate that I’m able to help during the pandemic. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people – and the feeling of uncertainty when waiting for your test results to come back makes this an even more pressurised environment. That’s why I’m proud to play my own part in helping analyse swab samples from people who may have coronavirus.

We all have something to offer

I trained as a biomedical scientist and have been studying for a PhD at the University of Newcastle for three years. Like other volunteers working in the UK Biocentre ‘Lighthouse Lab,’ I have relevant experience that I want to put to good use to help. My lab experience would be wasted if I was sitting at home. So I’m doing the 12-hour shifts – including night shifts – to help us analyse tens of thousands of swab samples every day.

Everyone volunteering in the lab brings something to the table. The wide variety of skills and experience, along with a can-do attitude and humility across the board, makes the scale of the work possible. There are undergraduates, professors, scientists and many more roles in between working in the lab – all from a broad range of scientific disciplines. You wouldn’t know we had professors working alongside undergrads if you saw us. We work and support each other regardless of our substantive roles and experience. We all have something to offer, which in turn broadens our scientific horizons as we learn from our peers.

Fast paced and focused

As the section lead in the RNA extraction, there’s a lot of scientific skill and problem solving involved in my work. The extraction process is automated using KingFisher equipment from Thermo Fisher Scientific. I do all the electronic input of the sample linkage and make sure that the qPCR is testing the patient’s sample. I see every plate that is prepared during my shifts so I see first-hand the huge scale of the work. In one shift alone there are tens of thousands of samples tested.

My role often involves troubleshooting the extraction machines. For example, the machine may show an error message but you then have to work out the actual error. My previous experience working in biochemistry, which is heavily automated, has helped. I am able to identify themes and pinpoint issues. You’ve got to be on the ball and stay switched on.

The science is important – but my experience as a waitress has also helped. Especially with the physical side of the work. It is fast-paced and you’re on your feet for long periods of time. There are peaks of activity when new deliveries arrive – I’m certain my experience of waiting tables has helped!

Every well is a person’s test

Every sample comes through us. If we do 30,000 every day our team will see each one. RNA extraction is time-sensitive and if we leave a sample for too long there’s a risk of degradation, which would invalidate the sample. So we’re constantly on alert.

The team spirit is fantastic. We’ve all volunteered to work in the lab for the same reason – we want to help. This keeps us all motivated. We’re all really aware that every sample that we test is really a person. It might be easy to see a plate of 94 wells on each plate being processed – but there is a person behind each and every one of those wells waiting for their test result.

We always keep that front of mind. It keeps us motivated and reminds us that, by volunteering our skills and experience here, we’re helping to make a difference.

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