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Inside the COVID-19 Lighthouse Lab: Part 1

Two researchers from the FRAME Alternatives Laboratory (FAL) recently volunteered at the Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab in Cheshire – one of three national megalabs testing samples from COVID-19 drive-through test sites across the country.

The Lighthouse Labs have been assembled to ramp up COVID-19 testing in the UK and created through a partnership between the Department of Health, Medicines Discovery Catapult, UK Biocentre and the University of Glasgow.

Two researchers from the FAL responded to a call for volunteers to help with testing at the Lighthouse Labs. In the first of two blogs by the volunteers, FAL research fellow, Razan Al-Momani, explains how and why she decided to get involved in the initiative, and shares her experience of working in the lab.

Razan Al-Momani

In late March, a general email was circulated calling for volunteers to help with the COVID-19 testing at one of the three main sites: Glasgow, Milton Keynes, and Cheshire. I have been inspired by the relentless work of the NHS staff and so this felt like a great opportunity to contribute, even a little bit, and to put all that I have learned during my PhD and postdoc to use throughout these difficult times. At the beginning, the idea of going somewhere new and handling samples that potentially have COVID-19 virus was a little scary, but having the support and encouragement from my lab colleagues and my supervisor gave me the courage I needed.

Lighthouse Lab
FRAME Alternatives Laboratory researchers Syedia Rahman and Razan Al-Momani volunteering at the Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab

I got called to Lighthouse Labs at Alderley Park in Cheshire and some of the volunteers stayed in a nearby hotel with very friendly staff. The work was distributed into six different stations, from unboxing samples to getting the results, in a way that avoided any cross-contamination. I trained and worked at three different stations (processing patient samples, RNA isolation, and master mix preparation). They were very accommodating regarding what station you would like to work in, asking our preferred day, and whether we’d like morning, afternoon, or night shifts, with a maximum of 5 shifts per week. My work consisted of 8 hours shifts up to 5 times per week. The lab was very well organised with protocols that were easy to follow.

It was really heart-warming to see everyone come together and give everything they can to help. A memorable moment was seeing the teamwork between the volunteers, as well as the staff working at the hotel we stayed at. People would jump in to help with whatever they could – you would see the hotel manager driving volunteers to work and the accountant working behind the bar serving food to essential workers. I was fasting when I first started working there and one of the hotel staff would pack me a special breakfast pack so I could break my fast later on.

I crossed paths with so many people I might not have met in my everyday life and made great friends that I will definitely stay in contact with.

It was a privilege to be able to help and I am glad that despite all the fear, stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, I can still look back at it in a positive way. As my FAL supervisor Andy said: “it is always good to be able to make a difference and help others.”

To find out more about the UK Lighthouse Lab network, click here.

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