Working Inside a COVID-19 Research Testing Lab: From the Point of View of Sarah Bisesi

While you have probably heard of the conception of the high-capacity COVID-19 research lab built within just 10 days by various PHHP faculty, staff and students, it is likely you have not been able to get a glimpse of what it is like to work in a COVID-19 lab.

In this interview you will hear from Sarah Bisesi, Head Analyst of Eppendorf epMotion at the lab, and Dr. Sabo-Attwood’s lab manager.

Sarah Bisesi working with the Eppendorf epMotion robot in the COVID-19 lab. (Credit: UF Health Communications)

What does working in the lab look like during a global pandemic?

It is a little strange working in the lab while most of the country is trying to work from home.  It is great to feel like you are helping in some way.  This lab couldn’t run with one or two people and we have a lot of great scientists involved.

At what point did you hop on the lab team- before, during, or after its conception?

I knew I would be involved from its conception, though the Lednicky lab was starting slowly before I was hands on in the process.  I began by helping Julia Gibson, Dr. Lednicky’s lab manager, start writing protocols and help unpack supplies.  Then I was here for training on the robot with the Eppendorf tech on March 21st, and helped work out the kinks in the robot run in the days following this training.  This involved many phone calls and text messages with the Eppendorf tech.

What does your job entail as part of the team?

I am the head analyst of the robot (Eppendorf epMotion). We are using it to extract RNA from the samples.  I work at least four shifts a week running the robot.  The robot analysts receive a 96well plate full of inactive samples from one of the lysing analysts.  We set up the robot with the sample plate, reagents and pipet tips, then let the robot do its job.  Each full plate of samples goes through about 720 pipet tips. So throughout the run you have to replace the boxes of pipet tips and empty the bag of used tips.  When the run is complete the result is another 96 well plate full of RNA.  This is passed to the PCR analyst on duty to set up the RT-PCR. 

Since I am the head robot analyst, I train new robot analysts as needed. I also adjust the protocol if needed and make sure all of the robot analysts knows what is going on.  I know the RT-PCR step as well and am familiar with the PCR machines, so I also end up answering questions from members of the PCR team, especially when they first start.  I am also at the lab outside of my four robot shifts doing any other little things Julia or one of the supervisors, asks me to do.  Whether I am making sure supplies are stocked in the lab, organizing samples in the freezer, or autoclaving the many bags of biohazard waste, it is easy to stay busy in the testing lab.

The Eppendorf epMotion robot (Credit: UF Health Communications).

How many hours do you work a week? Has that changed since Alachua County has begun to hit its “peak?”

I probably work an average of about 30 hours a week.  Each week varies.  It depends on how many samples we get and what time they arrive.  Sometimes certain sample arrival times results in some waiting time between robot runs which results in a longer shift.

How has your previous work at UF and the College of Public Health prepped you for this pandemic?

As a lab manager for the Sabo-Attwood lab, I have experience with RNA extraction and PCR.  My usual position also gives me experience working with others, training students in the lab and managing lab supplies.  I don’t have much experience working with viruses but the good thing is most molecular work is the same. It doesn’t matter if the RNA came from animal tissues or from viruses the processing is the same once the harmful virus is inactivated, and the lysing analysts take care of the inactivation part.

To read more about the COVID-19 lab’s conception, please visit the UF Emerging Pathogen’s article by DeLene Beeland here.

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