A day in the life of a Covid-19 testing volunteer

10 Apr 2020

Mariam Marai. Image: UCD Conway Institute

Mariam Marai, a PhD candidate and research assistant based in the UCD Conway Institute, shares her experience of volunteering in the Covid-19 testing lab in St Vincent’s University Hospital.

My research at the University College Dublin (UCD) Conway Institute focuses on resolving inflammation in the context of the complications that arise in diabetes. We are particularly interested in an anti-inflammatory messenger called Lipoxin A4. This molecule is relatively instable in the body and expensive to make.

We work with colleagues in the UCD School of Chemistry who designed new synthetic versions (analogues) in order to stabilise this molecule. My job was to help screen around 30 lipoxin analogues in the laboratory (in vitro). I worked with Dr Eoin Brennan on some promising analogues. We tested one in a diabetic mouse model last year to study the potential anti-inflammatory effect of this new molecule in vivo.

With the Covid-19 crisis, the institute is closed so, like all of my colleagues, I have had to stop my research. However, I replied to an email calling for Covid-19 testing volunteers that was circulated in the Conway Institute.

I was trained by Alejandro Garcia, who helped to set up the Covid-19 lab in St Vincent’s University Hospital (SVUH) with Prof Kirsten Schaeffer in the National Virus Reference Laboratory, and Dr Guerrino Macori and Dr Evonne McCabe – all brilliant research scientists.

How the Covid-19 testing lab works

Volunteers at SVUH work in three teams of two people, seven days a week, with one person on call each day. Each team works five to six days a week. We try to have two days off but this can vary each week depending on the number of patients and staff being swabbed daily.

In a typical day in the Covid-19 laboratory, the samples come from the BL3 (biosafety level three) laboratory where the virus is inactivated and lysed. We triple-check all samples received before moving on to the extraction and purification of the viral RNA with a high-throughput extractor robot.

The reverse transcription step and the qPCR (quantitative, or real-time, polymerase chain reaction) happens straight after this step. We detect the mRNA coding for the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 in the patient samples. When the run is successfully completed, we pass the results to the microbiologists. These steps are repeated for every batch of samples coming through from the BL3 lab.

Through this experience, I have learnt to work with an automated nucleic acid extractor, which I was not familiar with as I have always been doing my extraction manually. I also manage my stress better now since adjusting to this hectic hospital setting. The experience has improved my problem-solving skills as well. And I have met some amazing scientists and doctors here who I am glad to work with.

A challenging responsibility

I feel a huge sense of responsibility with this work. The fear of making technical or interpretation mistakes that can have serious consequences on people’s lives is always there when you work under pressure. This is not something we are used to dealing with in a research lab, but we rely on each other in the team to proofread everything.

Like all Covid-19 test centres, we are encountering difficulties due to the worldwide shortage of lysis buffers, extraction and qPCR kits. Finding new kits, testing and validating them, or designing our own primers in a very short period while patients are still waiting for their results is extremely challenging.

It is difficult to balance this volunteering work with my day job. I am writing my thesis at the moment so I am trying to find some time on my days off to keep going on this big task.

By Mariam Marai, in conversation with Elaine Quinn, institute manager for communications and education at UCD Conway Institute

Mariam Marai is a PhD candidate and research assistant in the UCD Diabetes Complications Research Centre, based in UCD Conway Institute. From Paris originally, Marai has an undergraduate and master’s degree in virology from the University of Strasbourg, and was employed in both medical research and industry laboratories in France. Four years ago, she relocated to Dublin and began working in Prof Catherine Godson’s research group in UCD.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.