Saluting Frontline Workers in the Lab During the COVID-19 Pandemic | Corning

There's one distinction that Jidong Shan, Ph.D., makes sure every new hire is clear on before they come to work at the molecular cytogenetics core laboratory at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

"We don't do this for the job," she tells them. "We do it for the love."

That mantra has guided Dr. Shan, the director of the cytogenetics core, through her career in genetic research, but it took special meaning in the spring of 2020 — when she and her team answered the call of COVID-19 and became frontline workers during a pandemic.

Answering the Call

In March, the college paused the existing projects in its core lab as COVID-19 gripped New York City. But the hiatus was short-lived. Within a month, the New York City Economic Development Corporation came calling, asking the leadership team at Einstein for support in making liquid viral transport media (VTM), which helps preserve viral samples on nasal swabs, for its COVID-19 testing kits. The leadership team idenfitifed Dr. Shan and her core colleagues as the best candidates to tackle the project.

The Einstein team had never made VTM. It usually provides tools and prepares cell samples for Einstein scientists performing genetic research. But the team took on the task anyway. It adapted workflows, staff and even its lab space, then got to work. At first, the team produced 10,000 tubes of VTM each week. Then 50,000. Then 100,000.

"We just wanted to help, that's all," Dr. Shan said. "We felt like our scientific backgrounds could make a difference, so we said yes and worked through barriers as they came."

Working through those barriers meant switching areas of study and working within COVID-19 protocols and precautions. One by one, the team checked off its to-do list: It moved to a bigger lab space that was more conducive to social distancing. It expanded its hours to include nights and weekends. It explored new supply chain options. They obtained additional hoods and robotic equipment to increase their output. The research lab turned to a full-on factory, Dr. Shan says.

Now, the Einstein team has all sorts of new responsibilities. It makes the material, but it also ships and tracks it, and fields new requests as they come in.

"It really is a team effort," she said. "We have our housekeeping staff out delivering tons and tons of boxes. We have people helping with receiving, purchasing, engineering and other roles while still keeping the environment sterile. Without the support and institutional effort, it would not be possible."

Given the logistics involved in making VTM, staffing has posed a particular challenge. Temporary jobs became more permanent as the team realized that the pandemic would stretch through the summer and beyond. The team hired rotating sets of medical students who helped one term after another.

"At first, we didn't know how long it would all last," Dr. Shan said. "People thought maybe four or six weeks. But even seven months later, we were still producing those same volumes."

Fighting Through Fatigue

The Einstein lab produced 1.5 million VTM tubes, with 1.1 million distributed to roughly 20 hospitals throughout New York City and 400K to their own hospital system, Montefiore Health System. Production recently wrapped up on November 16th. The sleepless nights and long shifts have pushed many scientists to the brink of burnout, but they remained committed during the project, Dr. Shan said. The cause is too important not to.

Through Einstein’s efforts, more than 1 million New Yorkers were able to be tested, which may not have been otherwise possible. Each test can play a critical role in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"We all feel tired," said Dr. Shan. "But once you realize that this is what the city needs, that this is what our neighbors need, you can fight through the exhaustion to do what you need to do to help."

That motivation hits close to home for many lab workers around the world. As COVID-19 cases continue to climb, some frontline workers in the lab have watched their loved ones battle the virus. Some have gotten sick themselves. Medical students switching between the lab and clinic have also seen the effects of their efforts firsthand, Dr. Shan adds.

"They're face to face with COVID-19 patients," she said. "They see so much suffering, and they bring those stories back to us. It helps us all stay motivated in the here and the now of this important work."

Remembering the Moment

It's hard for anyone on the front lines to consider what the world might look after the pandemic abates. Dr. Shan, for her part, will focus on gratitude.

"I'll feel so thankful," she said. "I'll never regret that when the opportunity came, that I took it. That we all did. We all stepped up to help fellow humans in the fight against COVID-19."

After all, she says, it's about the love — the love of doing what's right, and the love of science. And those aren't mutually exclusive.

"Science is very important," Dr. Shan said. "As we add to our scientific understanding of COVID-19, we'll all be much better off. But we also have to focus on speed. When I was early in my career, it would take 20 years to translate the results from the lab to the clinic. With more interest from more young people in the future, I'm optimistic that we can shorten that window together."