Working in a COVID-19 Lighthouse Lab on placement

In response to the global pandemic declared in March 2020, the UK government set out to develop the largest diagnostic network in the country’s history. This network is made up of labs with the sole purpose of testing human samples for the presence of COVID-19.

Samples are received at the labs from regional test centres, care homes, hospitals and home test kits. The results feed into the nationwide test and trace programme. They were given the name ‘Lighthouse Labs’ due to the role of fluorescent lights in the qPCR workflow used to test the samples.

University of Manchester Biology student Iona Glidden is currently on placement at the Medicines Discovery Catapult Lighthouse Lab in Alderley Park, Cheshire. Here she discusses her experience so far and how she feels its set her up for the future.

Getting involved

I wanted to help contribute to the national effort against the virus. It offered an opportunity to see, first-hand, the importance of science and how it’s at the forefront of overcoming the many challenges we face.

When the job first appeared, I actually wasn’t sure whether I was qualified enough and it took me about a month to convince myself to apply – I’m so glad I did.

I had to submit an online application form and was then offered a phone interview. After that, I participated in a three-day intense training course. We had to pass each day to prove that we were competent. Whilst it was quite stressful, I’m grateful they took the time with each of us to ensure we knew exactly what we would be doing before we started the job.

Challenging work

It can be very stressful at times, and the sheer number of samples coming through is a grave reminder of the severity of the pandemic, however, my colleagues are always there to help me through. Their support and energy gives me faith in humanity again!

It’s a great example of how much can be achieved if we all work together. I can’t believe that six months ago none of us knew each other. It’s been hugely inspiring to work alongside so many talented scientists with a wide range of backgrounds.

Everyone’s stepped up to the challenge, often performing roles outside of their comfort zone, but not letting that stop them. Everyone’s constantly learning and adapting to the ever changing situation. It reminds me of that quote; “don’t let perfection be the enemy of good”. Start now with what you’ve got.

To allow the lab to be open 24/7, we work shifts of four days on and four days off, 6am-3pm one week and then 3pm-midnight the next. The constant change in sleep and work patterns is definitely a challenge but at least the coffee machines are well used!

A blue gloved hand holding a negative Covid PCR test in front of a medical document

Working during a pandemic

It has been an interesting experience as there are a lot of protocols that must be followed, such as staying distanced from colleagues at break time. They took some getting used to, particularly wearing a mask all the time. It has been an amazing opportunity though and it fills me with pride to be contributing to the national effort.

Our days vary depending on where we are assigned for that shift. There are seven workstations and not everyone is trained on the same ones.

WS0 is unboxing, WS1 is unbagging samples and putting them into 96 well racks ready for pipetting. Everyone is trained on this as it’s the most labour intensive part of the workflow. WS2 is RNA extraction. WS3 is preparation of PCR plates. WS4 is combining the RNA extraction plates and PCR plates. WS5 is running the plates on PCR machines. WS6 is data analysis.

I really enjoy being on the PCR side as you can see the results coming through. It’s nice to see the direct impact the work we are doing has.

Invaluable experience

Having industry experience as an undergrad is invaluable. I think it’s critical to expose yourself to different environments and situations whilst you are young. You have no long-term commitments so there is less pressure on it turning out well. I think it helps you to narrow down what sort of role you might enjoy in the future.

I definitely feel more confident about spending time in the lab for my final year project, having a basic understanding of how to conduct myself, etc.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities outside of the day-to-day work, like talking to first year students about what it’s like to do a placement. The biggest thing its shown me is that I don’t need to be scared to step up to challenges, there are always people available to support you and help you accomplish far more than you think you can!

Woman in face mask performing scientific test in a lab

Celebrating success

The School of Biological Sciences hold an annual event celebrating the work of its members. This year the theme was Celebrating achievements over the last 12 months and during particularly challenging times and my team were asked to present. Alongside my fellow placement students Joe Turner and Anjali Sivaram, we shared our experiences working at the labs.

It was a huge honour as we were the first undergraduate students in the events history to be asked to speak. We covered the background of Lighthouse Labs, the workflow used to process samples and the impact the work has had on society.

We were working on the day of the conference, so we pre-recorded our presentation to make sure we weren’t leaving our shift group short-handed. I thought it would be easier to pre-record than perform it live – I was wrong. I didn’t realise how tough it is to record yourself speaking. My editing skills were certainly put to the test. I don’t know how YouTubers do it.

We got lots of virtual applause and many staff went out of their way to personally email us. The comments were lovely to receive and continue to give us a good boost during a tough shift. Lighthouse also recognised the achievement and included it in their monthly newsletter. Ultimately, we wanted to highlight the incredible work our colleagues do, so it’s been nice to be able to draw attention to them and give everyone the recognition they deserve.

Looking to the future

I’m not 100% sure what I want to do after university, but I have loved directly helping people. My rough plan is to do a Master’s abroad somewhere and then continue travelling and taking whatever opportunities present themselves. Hopefully no more global pandemics though!

Overall I have greatly enjoyed the experience. Not only have I developed my laboratory skills and general confidence working in a clinical lab environment, my ability to collaborate with others has progressed hugely.

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