Blog | A sense of purpose
Blog | A sense of purpose.
Madison Exter joined UK Biocentre nine months ago as a lab technician. She now works as the Laboratory Supervisor in the COVID-19 testing labs. 

I joined UK Biocentre as a lab technician at the end of 2019, before we started testing COVID-19 swab samples. It feels a lifetime ago now, but back then we focused on blood sample tests. It was a perfect job for me after finishing my degree in Human Biology. It meant I could apply my skills in a practical and meaningful way, whilst gaining experience for my future career in diagnostics.

The job transformed in March. I can remember vividly when we were told we were going to play a central role in the country’s national testing effort. The labs expanded overnight and four days later we had the equipment and samples to begin testing for COVID-19.

Seeing the lab transform into a megalab was a crazy and exciting time. The labs and personnel all changed. We had some of the country’s leading diagnostics scientists on site, helping us scale up and ensuring relevant protocols and processes were in place, from health and safety to safe sample handling. This helped our shift teams work efficiently as a unit across their different stations. The British Army were also on site to help us prepare for the forthcoming influx of samples.

Testing samples in a global pandemic is crucial. It’s what the whole country is talking about. It gives us a great sense of purpose, but it’s not always easy.  

Sharing views and ideas

When the COVID pandemic started I was promoted to laboratory supervisor for the manual hood section. This is where we deactivate any potential virus from the swab samples, which takes place in secure hoods. It’s a busy station, as there are always two people to each hood: one scientist deactivates the virus while another witnesses the process, ensuring it’s done safely and correctly. It’s a pretty labour-intensive process – which is why the automated robots are so important for increasing capacity.

From working as a temporary technician to taking such a pivotal role in the national COVID-19 response has been amazing. I work with a fantastic group of people, who all have extensive scientific knowledge and experience from different specialties. I enjoy talking to them about their own work and studies away from the Lighthouse Lab. We work together to solve problems. It’s a real privilege to be part of – and the teams have struck up such a strong bond.  

There are lots of younger scientists in the team who are gaining valuable practical experience, applying the skills they developed at university. It’s a great opportunity for them as there’s so much experience and advice available from the group, where people share views and ideas. If you’ve recently graduated and want more experience, I honestly don’t think there’s a better programme to be involved in.

Working with a smile on our face

My role has developed from being hands-on to one that’s now more focused on people management than science. I never thought I’d be interested in this aspect, but I’m really enjoying it. Our workforce has rapidly expanded and every single person needs to be clear on their role for each shift. We recognise how important it is to test each swab sample carefully, accurately and quickly to ensure people can self-isolate in time if found positive, so the specific role of each and every lab scientist is critical.  

The work is physically draining and you have to concentrate for long hours, but everyone here has a great attitude and serious willpower. Some of the work might be repetitive, but everyone works with a smile on their face. We are all scientists keen to help people. We all recognise the importance of the work and that every stage of the testing process is crucial.

Messages of support

Some of the samples we receive include messages from the individual being tested. We love these – it reminds us why we’re doing what we’re doing. We see 96 samples on a well plate repeatedly for 12 hours, so the human touch from outside really puts a spring in our step. We post all the supportive notes on a wall in the lab. One of the notes we received was from a lady who had struggled to do the test due to her Parkinson’s disease. It brought me to tears. I hope people realise how much these notes are appreciated.

So many amazing volunteers have put their lives on hold to help here. I’ve worked so closely with many of them right from the beginning and they have become good friends. It has been a real privilege.

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