Are we within spitting distance of simpler Covid testing?

28 Oct 2021

Image: Jack William Daly

Putting his sci-comm skills to the test, Jack William Daly explained the benefits of a saliva-based test for Covid-19 at FameLab Ireland.

For his PhD, Jack William Daly is studying bacteria in the human microbiome at APC Microbiome Ireland, the Cork research centre focused on the role microbes play in health and disease.

But with disease caused by viruses, not bacteria, currently crowding the world’s thoughts, Daly decided to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic for his presentation at FameLab Ireland, the science communication competition.

In his three-minute talk, Daly highlighted the advantages of Covid-19 testing using saliva – and it’s not just that you can avoid a close encounter with a nasal swab. Science Foundation Ireland-funded research into the effectiveness of this method of Covid testing is ongoing, with universities such as Daly’s own University College Cork taking part. This research explores the advantages that can be gained from rapid testing and self-reporting, and will inform the development of an early warning system for future Covid outbreaks.

‘These tests could give us a real fighting chance against Covid-19’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

The most inspiring moment for me was the first time I undertook proper self-directed research in a lab. Personally, I felt that most of my undergraduate programme was theory based. I rarely got a chance to implement the information I was being taught and therefore didn’t retain much of it. I felt I was dragging my feet through my whole undergrad.

Then, in the fourth and final year of the course, we undertook our final-year research projects. Suddenly I was enamoured. That wide-eyed look I once had towards science was reignited. All information I was taught became relevant again as I was using this information directly. I loved it immediately and have just carried on with it since.

How was your experience with FameLab?

It has been a great experience all round! I decided to take part as I am very interested in science communication and generally have great fun with it. Also, I have an unhealthy obsession with people listening to me and/or liking me. Offer me a platform and you will soon witness my complete unabashed takeover of said platform.

How would you sum up your FameLab presentation?

By now, we are all far too familiar with the test for Covid-19. A long swab inserted through the nose to tickle your brain. This method of sample collection, while very effective, is a brutal experience that few enjoy. Not to mention the issue with healthcare workers that risk infection as you pull down your mask to get swabbed.

My talk is on the advent of a far more attractive sample collection method: saliva. No more nasal mining, just spit into a tube and you’re golden!

Why did you choose to focus on Covid testing for your presentation?

I feel it is incredibly relevant as we are still living through a pandemic caused by Covid-19.

Also, I wanted to bring attention to these great studies. I encourage everyone to check if there is a local saliva-based study you can take part in. Most universities in Ireland are performing these now, with UniCoV in UCC making great progress.

By participating in the studies, we can offer more data that facilitate widespread roll-out. These tests could give us a real fighting chance against Covid-19.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in science communication?

Being satisfied and proud of the content I have created is a big obstacle for me. Imposter syndrome is rampant in academia, and I find that invades my thoughts when preparing something for public consumption.

In terms of overcoming it, I just reiterate to myself that I am much better at communicating science than performing science. Also, if no one is genuinely going to like what you have created, then you better make sure you had fun while doing it!

What common misconceptions about science would you like to correct?

The biggest misconceptions held by the public are generally because of improper reporting on scientific discoveries.

A scientist will rarely say “X causes Y”. They are much more likely to say, “In our limited study, we observed that elevated levels of X may cause a deviation in levels of Y.” They acknowledge the limitations of their study and are aware that their findings may not be concrete.

But then some local newspaper has a massive headline announcing, “Boffins prove without a shadow of a doubt that drinking pints of X can cure your mother’s Y!”

Through years of doing this, the public has become more removed from the scientific process and that will just keep generating more misconceptions.

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