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Image of Dr Jennifer Hirst working in a laboratory
Using robotics increases the number of COVID-19 test samples that can be processed at the same time.

The biochemist COVID-19 testing volunteer

What is it like volunteering in a COVID-19 testing lab? Jesus College Fellow, Dr Jennifer Hirst tells us about her experience.

In April 2020, the University of Cambridge joined forces with AstraZeneca and GSK to create the Cambridge Testing Centre, boosting the UK’s COVID-19 testing capabilities through innovation and cutting-edge technology. Part of the largest network of diagnostic testing capability created in British history, such a big enterprise needs a large and highly skilled workforce.

Hundreds of volunteers were recruited and trained from across the three organisations to get the Centre up and running, including University researchers. Each volunteer stepped forward at a time of national crisis with their own reasons for wanting to contribute to the COVID-19 testing programme. Jesus College Fellow, Dr Jennifer Hirst, is a clinical biochemist and one of the many who stepped forward to help.

We recently interviewed Jennifer about her volunteer role, what she has been doing and what she will take away from the experience.

How did you get involved in the University's work to combat COVID-19?

Initially I felt helpless during early lockdown, especially hearing about the various sacrifices people were making. The majority of my normal work can only be done in a laboratory and there was little that I could do or achieve while it was closed. There was a similar feeling from many of us in the research community. A call went out early in lockdown for anyone with molecular biology skills to sign up as a volunteer . It wasn't entirely clear what this might entail, but like many other people in my position I readily signed up. I was one of over 100 experienced University of Cambridge volunteers called up to staff a new testing centre opening at the beginning of May on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. The centre is at present wholly staffed through 200 volunteers from across the three organisations, all trained over several weeks in May. During August to September there will be a transition from volunteers to full time paid staff, and I will return to my normal work in September. I hope to be involved in the training of the new staff that will take over my role.

What does your work on COVID-19 involve?

The centre was needed to increase the capacity of testing in the UK. This was an essential part of the planning for the UK coming out of lockdown so that people could get back to some sort of normality, in the knowledge that there was a support network for robust, fast, precision testing for COVID-19. The 200 volunteers work in three teams that focus on different stages of the test. My role is specifically in the scaling up of the numbers of samples so that we can test about 380 samples in one go, and then running that actual test, known as PCR - polymerase chain reaction, which detects the presence of viral RNA in samples.

Has your work on COVID-19 given you any insights you can take back into your own research?

I've never worked in an environment like this one before. This is an area known as diagnostics and it is quite different from my normal research environment. By it's very nature it is very repetitive, and the stakes are really high as you are handling patient samples. It's the first time that I have worked with handling large number of samples at any one time, and the first time using the robotics that help us to handle this number. I think that maybe I'll think about my own research on a different scale, and maybe in the future will think how I might incorporate robotics in a more ambitious, large scale project.

What has given you the most joy or satisfaction in your work on COVID-19?

The most interesting parts have been to see how the centre has worked to find new ways to increase the capacity of testing using automation and robotics. The particular step that I operate utilises a series of robots that do the job of pipetting about 380 samples in one go; a process that might have taken me 30 minutes only takes minutes.

I've also really enjoyed working together with scientists from across different University departments and industry partners AstraZeneca and GSK. Although we are all trained in research we have very different backgrounds, bringing subtly different experiences to the job. Having said that, the day-to-day work we do is constrained by the detailed protocols that are a necessary part of diagnostics - there is no room for creativity as there would be in normal research - but it is interesting to see how individuals are still able to bring slightly different ways of doing things. Working together for the last two months has allowed us to fine tune how we work, and there is a real comfort in being a 'well oiled' machine as we become more efficient and stream-lined.

From a healthcare and research perspective, what do you think are the big lessons this pandemic has taught us?

It's been very rewarding to see just what can be achieved in a short space of time. There has never been a partnership of this scale between the University of Cambridge with two pharmaceutical companies. It really shows what can be achieved when academia and industry put their heads together, pooling their ideas, aspirations and resources. I really hope that after this pandemic is over we can utilise this new way of working and apply it to finding new therapies and treatments for many other diseases. My big hope is that the lessons learnt here could be applied to accelerate treatments and therapies for rare diseases.

What are you most looking forward to doing - professionally and personally - when your work combating COVID-19 is completed?

I've been working from 3pm until midnight at the testing centre and miss having evenings to relax with my family - having dinner together and then watching old 80s movies with my daughter, taking my son out to practice his driving and then enjoying a G&T.

Professionally, I am keen to get back to my research, though there won't be normality there for some time. From October I take on the role of one of the Welfare Tutors at Jesus College and I really hope that I can make a difference to our new and returning students, perhaps uncertain what this new 'normality'  will look like. I'll be ready to support them in whatever ways they need.

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