Scientists Turned Volunteers
Soon after the pandemic reached Boston, a group of researchers from Tufts School of Medicine and Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences started talking about what they could do to help. Their own labs had to halt their activity, but they still had lab skills they could put to use.
“Here were all these highly qualified people available,” said neuroscientist Jamie Maguire, a Kenneth and JoAnn G. Wellner Professor. “There just needed to be some way to put them in the pipeline.”
Calling themselves the Boston Biomedical Rapid Response Team, after a similar volunteer effort in New York City, they started reaching out to organizations that might need their skills. That’s how six of them began volunteering for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, at the State Public Health Laboratory in Jamaica Plain, helping prepare samples from suspected COVID-19 patients so they could be analyzed for signs of the virus.
In addition to Maguire, the volunteers are Marta Gaglia, assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology; postdocs Trina Basu and Tate Tabtieng, GBS19; and Ph.D. students Lea Gaucherand, GBS22, and Maria Iuliano, GBS23.
When Maguire first got in touch with the state laboratory, “they were incredibly responsive,” she said. “They really worked with us to figure out what we needed in order to get properly trained.”
After completing the environmental, health, and safety training, some of it online and some onsite, the volunteers started four- to six-hour shifts at the lab several times a week, each person handling hundreds of samples each shift.
The volunteers were a definite boon for the lab, which was racing to process about 35,000 specimens in March and April, said Tracy Stiles, the lab’s microbiology division director. The eighteen employees in her operation were working fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, all while wearing hot, uncomfortable protective gear. “The Tufts team was tremendously helpful to our staff, taking on important tasks to help us meet the challenge of conducting thousands of specimen tests every day. Their help was invaluable.”
Decked in layers of protective gear including masks, shields, gowns and gloves, the volunteers inspected, labeled, catalogued, and prepped the samples—mostly taken by pharyngeal swabs— beneath biohazard hoods. They divided many of the samples, sending a portion to the Broad Institute in Cambridge, which was helping with testing, and reserving a portion for future study, which may include genomic sequencing.
Gaglia said volunteering in the state lab gave her a view of the coronavirus fight different from the one she typically takes as a microbiologist. “The kind of science we do is fairly basic science—it’s very abstract,” she said. “And this was a much more practical problem: How do you process enough samples?”
In the short term, this is the lab work that is needed, she said, and she’s glad to contribute to it.
“The long-term research is important,” she said. “A lot of people are working very hard to get there, but it will take time for us to get good drugs, to get good vaccines. In the meantime, there are more practical, basic concerns, like how do we get testing done?”
Maguire said that some of her colleagues at the School of Medicine are on the front lines, helping patients, and she knows this is not the same. “But if there's some way that we can help out even in a small way—I think all of us are really just happy that we can feel like we're using our skills in benefit people during an unprecedented pandemic.”