Published: 22 May 2020

Two of Surrey's students are working at the UK's largest Covid-19 testing laboratory

Diana Dakik and Shannon Leetham are juggling their studies with shifts at the largest Covid-19 testing laboratory in the UK.

Diana Dakik and Shannon Leetham are working at UK Biocentre – one of three “mega-labs” that have rapidly bolstered the nationwide testing programme.

The laboratory, on the outskirts on Milton Keynes, was the first of three Government-funded Lighthouse labs, supported by an army of staff and volunteers from across academia and industry. As PhD students focused on immunology and virology, flatmates Diana and Shannon were quick to sign up for 12-hour shifts, three to four days a week.

Diana describes a typical day: “There is a four-stage process to the testing which starts with ‘unbagging’ the samples into a 96-well plate – a process that involves a great deal of ‘witnessing’. The plates of samples are then processed by a sequence of other teams and robotic machines to analyse genetic material for presence of the virus. It takes less than eight hours from start to finish to get a result.”

Diana and Shannon felt that it was important to put their scientific skills to good use by supporting the national effort during the pandemic. They explain: “We became scientists to help people – and the greater global community – by tackling pathogens.”

"Being part of the testing effort makes us feel proud to be scientists."

Diana particularly enjoys working alongside people from a variety of backgrounds, from pathologists and PhD students to professors and undergrads. The shifts are hard work but she is relishing the experience, saying: “Working in a laboratory is very intense and repetitive. If the machines encounter any issues, it can quickly pile the pressure on. Yesterday was a great day because I was promoted to Section Lead. This will give me leadership experience in a high-pressured environment – something I wouldn’t have otherwise had at this stage in my career.”

The “mega-labs” are taking pressure off the UK hospitals’ own laboratories, which Diana is proud of. She says: “Even the hardest days are still good days because you end your shift with a sense of satisfaction that every test you have processed will give someone somewhere an answer, as well as identify crucial trends for the benefit of society. Even though we are small cogs, everyone counts. A lot of the staff at the lab feel that they have a moral obligation to be there. It’s satisfying work and I feel proud of what Shannon and I are doing.”

So is it scary working a shift with tens of thousands of Covid-19 swabs? “Our personal protection equipment (PPE) is really good and the cleansing processes are thorough. It’s comforting to know that this testing has been going on since March and no workers here have tested positive for Covid-19.”

If Diana had to choose one highlight from the last few weeks, what would it be? “We find lots of notes included in the home tests – notes that say things like 'Thank you for everything you’re doing' and 'We really appreciate this'. That’s always really lovely.”

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