Despite being largely hidden from the public spotlight, the teams of laboratory scientists who test for COVID-19 have proven critical in containing the spread of the virus since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Working with diligence and meticulous attention to detail, these agile laboratory teams are spread across a range of locations to ensure that major political, cultural, and sporting events can safely go ahead while adhering to official COVID-19 protocols.
In the second instalment of our Q&A series with COVID-testing laboratory scientists, we caught up with Kushaby, an associate scientist with Cignpost Diagnostics, to talk about her experience of working in a remote laboratory on a film set.
1) What attracted you to the role?
The pandemic hit when I was in my final months at university. Finding a job as a fresh graduate was quite difficult, so when this role was advertised, it felt like a miracle! Not only was it a way to contribute to the COVID-19 effort, but it also gave me the opportunity to gain a unique insight into the filming process as well as gaining much needed laboratory experience.
2) What does a typical day look like?
The laboratory hours often vary as does the number of samples. Upon arriving at the site, we are presented with the morning’s batch of samples. These can often vary in number depending on how many people are required on set in the afternoon. We immediately start preparing the laboratory as quickly as possible before preparing and running the PCR. We have a very tight turnaround time with little margin for error.
Since it is a team of two, all hands are on deck which means job roles for the day vary. One moment you are preparing samples, the next minute you are doing the admin. It's a dynamic role in such a tight space meaning that you must know your partner’s movements inside out.
3) What are the main challenges of your role?
Being away from home a lot can be quite difficult, especially when the commute is approximately 3+ hours. During winter, it felt very isolating at times. Our production never seems to be in one location for a significant amount of time which presents its own set of challenges, including laboratory deliveries and services.
4) ...and the best bits?
Being able to visit the set is super interesting. I would highly recommend it. You gain an appreciation on the amount of work that is put into a film/programme.
Working for productions also enables us to visit sites that we may have not visited before or thought about visiting. You meet a lot of interesting people, especially when placed into a strict bubble. Having a pint with crew at the end of the day in the sun is most definitely up there as a highlight. I still find it absolutely crazy that I have had the privilege to meet famous actors and actresses.
Working in such close proximity with my senior scientist has meant we have developed a strong friendship and will no doubt continue to be friends long after the pandemic is over.
5) What advice would you give to other lab professionals looking to work as remote testers?
With regards to the laboratory, stay on your toes. Each day presents a new challenge that often is time-sensitive and requires quick decisive actions. Flexibility is also incredibly important. Situations that require mobile testing are often fluid, so you must be able to adapt to changes at short notice.
I cannot stress enough the need to pack warm clothes – layers are always best. Overpacking is better than underpacking because the British weather loves to play tricks on you. Exploring the surrounding areas is also a must. So far, I have been able to hike in the Peak District, visit Stourhead gardens, Wookey Hole, and Stonehenge to name a few.
6) Where do you see the future of on-location testing? Do you think this is a more appealing option for graduates coming onto the job market?
Since the world is still in the grips of the pandemic, I do not foresee on-location testing for events, productions, and travel winding down any time soon. The battle against COVID-19 requires the skills and background that biological graduates provide. Working in an onsite laboratory is an excellent way to gain the experience and skills to bolster your CV.
Additionally, it provides opportunities to network with people in various different fields which other roles may not. The position is very progressive as Cignpost Diagnostics continue to expand at an unprecedented rate.
7) Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
This year, I am off to do an Msc in Bioinformatics and Systems Biology at the University of Manchester. This is something I am truly excited for. In five years’ – if all things go to plan – I will have a PhD in Bioinformatics and/or Systems Biology. I would preferably like to continue to work in clinical diagnostics but on an -omic sequencing basis and/or developing models as an alternative to animal testing.
Taking a leadership role, maybe even running my own laboratory, is the main goal I am working towards. This is something that I hope my education and experiences have fully prepared me for.
Migrating to Australia or Canada is definitely on the cards, too. These are two countries that I absolutely adore and can see myself flourishing in for many years to come.
Kushaby's employer, Cignpost Diagnostics, is a UK Government-approved COVID-19 testing provider that works with a host of global organisations, including the PGA European Tour. You can find out about Synergy's partnership with Cignpost Diagnostics here.
For more insights into the dynamic STEM sector, stay tuned to the SRG blog.
Apply for the latest COVID-19 testing roles
Though mass vaccinations are well underway, the threat of COVID-19 is still very real. As a lab scientist, you'll play a pivotal role in stopping the virus from spreading further. And with remote laboratories cropping up in a range of locations, there are plenty of opportunities to travel and work in exciting industries — from TV shows to sports events and beyond.
If you're a scientist who'd like to play your part, get involved and apply for the latest jobs here.