Blog | Contributing to the wellbeing of others.
Halima, a Pharmaceutical Science student at the University of East London, recently joined the lab team at the UK Biocentre Lighthouse Lab.
As a second-year undergrad, working at the UK’s biggest Lighthouse Lab in Milton Keynes has been unbelievable. I sometimes have to pinch myself that this is really happening!
It’s exposed me to the practical side of science in a way I never thought imaginable – particularly so early on in my studies. The is likely the biggest crisis to hit this country – and the world – in my lifetime, and I get to play a part in a way that has a direct impact on people. I mean, isn’t that why we all got into science in the first place? Every swab I process, each pipette I handle, every single one of the 96 wells on a well plate is having an impact on someone’s life.
I’m originally from the Netherlands – and my family roots are in Somalia, so this experience has given me an opportunity to learn how different countries have responded to the pandemic. Somalia doesn’t have the regulatory bodies, the supply chains or the infrastructure that we have here in the UK – so it’s been interesting for me to see the differences internationally.
Working in the lab
Let’s start with the lab. It’s HUGE. I’ve never seen anything like it – and the throughput is staggering. So is the organisation of the staff on each shift – we get a briefing before each shift to confirm which station we’ll be operating. What’s great is they mix things up – you get to work on different parts of the process from shift to shift.
Overall there are five key processes:
- Unbag the virus
- Deactivate the sample so you’re not handling the live virus (done with manual pipetting as well as Tecan robots)
- Extracting the RNA sample
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which copies the RNA sample to amplify it so we can test it properly
- Quantitative PCR, which measures the sample to determine whether the virus is present
One of the best things about working here is that I’ve been able to work on different parts of the process – doing different tasks in the process makes the shifts more varied and you get detailed understanding of each stage. For my part, I’ve worked on the manual pipetting in the hoods to deactivate the virus, I’ve operated the Tecan robots (which transform our throughput), the RNA extraction on the Thermo Fisher KingFisher machines as well as PCR.
Having the opportunity to work along scientists with different types of expertise and experience is invaluable. People working in academia and industry think differently and take different approaches which means that often come up with different solutions. Working with the balance between academia and industry provides valuable insights for me and my studies – it’s unprecedented really.
A diverse and experienced team
I may not have the same levels of experience as some of the other team members – but the different specialties and qualifications help us work together and solve problems as a team. Each of us offers different interpretations and considerations – and everyone is so supportive and provides advice.
The whole experience and the support of the team means I can navigate advanced diagnostic systems, solve problems and understand the importance and risks of every stage of the testing process. Each element of the system affects the quality of a person’s test result – so understanding these risks is vital. As a full-time pharmaceutical student I have been given a glimpse into post university life. Everything that I am learning here will help with my university experience – and I’m learning from some of the leading diagnostic operators around.
I am used to working on a much smaller scale and I work with mainly lecturers in a lab. Teamwork is not a big part of the university experience. Science can often be quite lonely. But this is different – the staff at the lab work as one big team, bound together through this unprecedented experience. Every individual has a role in the process.
The most valuable skill this experience is teaching me is problem-solving. In an operation of this scale – with a throughput of 1300+ tests every hour – some things can and do go wrong. The barcode may not be stuck on the swab properly. There might be an issue with the quality of the sample. All kinds of issues can present themselves. But our commitment to problem-solving and determination to make sure the person waiting anxiously for their test result gets something meaningful back, means we will do everything we can to extract a result.
Making a difference
I enjoy all the processes and techniques in the lab, but the main driver for me is knowing I am making a difference. Being able to help so many people is why I got into science and it lies at the core of my studies. Even when I am unbagging a sample pack, I know that I am contributing to someone’s wellbeing.
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