Covid-19 testing in the UK lighthouse labs

Posted on July 22, 2020   by Ellie Boardman

Put lots of scientists from different careers stages (academic and non-academic) in the same room in the middle of a pandemic and what do you get? No, not arguments… an absolutely awesome environment! In this blog, having just finished 7 weeks at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, PhD student Ellie Boardman reflects on what it was like.

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Pre-COVID Ellie

My name is Ellie Boardman. I am a 2nd year PhD researcher in Tracy Palmer’s lab at Newcastle University. My PhD research focuses on the Type VII secretion system of Staphylococcus aureus. My training includes developing my protein biochemistry skills including proteomics and x-ray crystallography. I saw the opportunity for volunteering at the Lighthouse Labs through a Microbiology Society email. I was initially hesitant – would this affect my PhD research? Am I going to miss research time by being there? Will I regret going? With the support of my friends, supervisor and university I realised that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. This might be the only time I can put to use my PCR and pipetting skills in a global crisis! So I packed my bags for Milton Keynes at the end of April along with a postdoctoral researcher from our lab – Fatima Ulhuq.

The Lighthouse Lab lifestyle

We all lived in two hotels in Milton Keynes. This quickly helped us feel like a team as we would travel to and from shifts together – not much chance of socialising in a pandemic though! We were split into four teams and worked seven shifts (12 hours each) per fortnight. The shifts were on either days or nights depending on what team you are on. We would do days/nights for four weeks then switch. I was thrust straight into the deep end with a 12-hour night shift. All I can say is an 20:00-8:00 shift makes an after-work beer quite confusing!

The briefing was really quite… well… brief. I quickly came to realise that this was because everything was constantly changing and that we were all learning on the job. This was real time adaptation to the crisis. I ended up mostly on the PCR preparation section. We would take the RNA that had been extracted from the samples and use an automated system to pipette the RNA and PCR reagents into a 96 well plate for it to be passed on to the analysis team. Other nights I would unbag samples ready for my teammates on the automated sample processing section. I also had brief stints on RNA isolation and manual sample processing and a very tough workout one day unboxing samples – the most physically demanding job of all!

The work was repetitive, and the shift pattern was tough! I can’t really say that I enjoyed the work itself. Especially from a mental health point of view, it is difficult to stay positive and motivated when you are barely sleeping, barely exercising and barely see sunshine.

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© Gosia Borkowska

The PCR sub-team or “dream team” as we called ourselves: Dana Thomas, me, Gosia Borkowska and Sarah Montgomery

This brings me on to the people. I guess it’s to do with the fact that we all volunteered for this role, but the atmosphere created at the Lighthouse Lab is like nothing I’ve experienced. I have been lucky enough to previously have worked in two big labs led by Professor Tracy Palmer and Professor Liz Sockett. So I am no stranger to having lots of support from people at different stages of their careers. Despite this, I was not prepared for how wide a range of people I would meet would be. For some reason I was expecting mostly PhD students who were bored of sitting at home like myself, but this is not what I found at all. From undergraduate students to principal investigators, we were all doing the same job. Everyone quickly bonded over late night snacks and poorly packaged samples. As always, there were disagreements about which radio station would get us through the night, but despite the exhausting long nights spirits were really high!

Before we settled into our roles we were trained on different stations, which meant that I met lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds. This means that I now have some great and hopefully long-lasting connections with people from all over the country and from all sorts of jobs. Any doubts I had about whether this job would be worth it were quickly banished because of the people. I have explained my PhD research topic to lots of people and tried to understand their jobs in the early hours of the morning. I have had interesting conversations about my research and about very random topics that I never expected. I can genuinely say I have met some wonderful people and made some great friends, which is not what I expected in the middle of a pandemic. For a young PhD student, I believe these connections I have made will help me immensely in my future career.

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Photo of Team 3 at the Lighthouse Lab, Milton Keynes

Take home message

It was an emotional last day when lots of people went back to their normal jobs. I would like to stress that testing in Milton Keynes is not over by any stretch of the imagination! There are still amazing researchers carrying on, and a lot of new people are being recruited on six-month contracts so that this can carry on sustainably. I highly recommend recruiting anyone who comes out of this lab as they are all fantastic, committed and adaptable. I hope that we can meet up again under better circumstances!

Some of my team members wrote a blog on the Imperial College London website about their experience.
Adrienne Adele Cox gave an interview about her views and summarised perfectly that everyone “leaves their ego at the door”.
Last month, Microbiology Society member Connor Hayward wrote a blog on his time at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab. 
Visit the UK Biocentre website if you are interested in being part of the teams in Milton Keynes.