Centenary students contribute to COVID-19 testing efforts in Shreveport-Bossier City
SHREVEPORT, LA — Iqra Jatoi, a rising Centenary junior from Toronto, Canada, had plans for her summer, which were – unsurprisingly - all canceled. Instead, Jatoi and three fellow Centenary students found themselves working in the new Emerging Viral Threat (EVT) Laboratory at Ochsner LSU Health in Shreveport, preparing thousands of test kits for use in the northwest Louisiana region’s ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent article in The Daily Beast highlights the crucial role that the EVT Lab has played in making COVID-19 testing more accessible in northwest Louisiana, particularly for African-American citizens in areas that have typically been medically underserved.
“When this situation first occurred, I had no clue that I would end up having a contribution in the global fight against this pandemic and virus,” says Jatoi, a biology major with minors in psychology and chemistry. Jatoi is working alongside fellow Centenary students Rachel Paine Loyd, a senior from Benton, Louisiana; Jonathan Okereke, a sophomore from Shreveport; and Emily Sander, also a sophomore, from Omaha, Nebraska, as well as undergraduate students from Louisiana State University-Shreveport.
Dr. Jason Bodily, who is in charge of creating sample kits at the EVT Lab, is an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at LSU Health Shreveport. He and his colleagues in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology found themselves in somewhat unfamiliar territory when the EVT was established in late March.
“The EVT faculty have all had to switch from research science to clinical testing, business management, supply chain management, personnel, public engagement, and community coordination, which is all far outside of our comfort zones,” explains Bodily. “Initially, we were using our own graduate students to do this work, but when the school reopened, they went back to their laboratory research. Because I wanted responsible and intelligent people to do the work, I contacted faculty at Centenary and also LSU-S and asked them to put the word out that we were looking to hire some people.”
Dr. Kathrine Weeks, assistant professor of chemistry at Centenary, was one of the faculty members to field Bodily’s request in early May. Within a few hours of passing along the opportunity to students in the biology and chemistry departments, Weeks had heard back from a handful of students eager to help. They started work about a week later as members of the EVT Lab’s Pre-Analytic/Sample Collection Team.
The Pre-Analytic/Sample Collection Team is responsible for assembling COVID-19 test kits before distribution. The students fill tubes with transport media so that samples can be collected, package swabs and transport media with barcodes and instructions, and then hand over the kits to strike teams to be distributed around the state. The team recently estimated that they are making approximately 10.000 test kits a week, or around 2,000 a day, to keep up with demand from hospitals, nursing homes, and the Louisiana Department of Health.
“We witnessed the demand increase from spike to spike,” says Emily Sander. “We quickly realized that our production of testing kits was a drop in the bucket compared to all the tests that were being produced nationally. Being in the EVT Lab also meant that we were surrounded by a lot of conversation regarding the progression and improvement of testing, and I learned a lot from those conversations.”
Bodily describes test kit assembly as “repetitive but technically important work,” and notes that he has appreciated the way the students worked together to overcome some of the challenges inherent in the process. For instance, it turns out that test kit assembly is actually a bit more physically taxing than meets the eye.
“Filling the tubes could actually be really painful,” repots Jatoi, an observation seconded by her fellow team members. “The tube caps had ridges which would cause our fingers to blister and become numb. It wouldn’t start hurting until we had done about 300-400 tubes, but when we are filling 1000-1200 tubes a day, it got really painful. We started taking turns filling the tubes during the week, so everyone contributed but our poor fingers got a rest.”
Okereke also reported “blisters forming on top of blisters” from the repetitive work, but noted that he is “taking it all in stride” with the recognition that he and his colleagues are part of a much wider effort.
“I think that the most meaningful part of our work is the fact that each test tube we fill with transport media, each test kit that we produce and package, represents a person’s health, wellbeing, and life,” says Okereke. “Although we will never come into contact with the people we are providing these kits for, it is an incredibly rewarding feeling to know that our work is resulting in people taking the necessary steps to ensure the proper treatment and care that they need to make educated decisions. These thoughts help keep me going during a long day of work, and keep me ready and motivated to come in the next day to do it all over again.”
Rachel Loyd describes the experience of working in the EVT in the midst of a global pandemic as “very surreal,” but it has also left her with some very concrete skills and lessons that she feels will benefit her as she enters a busy senior year as a biology major juggling work and family responsibilities.
“I think my summer schedule has helped me learn how to manage my time better, which has prepared me for the busy schedule I will have in my upcoming senior year,” says Loyd. “I also believe that the stress of the increased testing needs that my co-workers and I have felt has helped us all learn to manage stress better.”
Several of the students report a newfound interest in virology and microbiology as a result of working in the EVT Lab, sparked both by their participation in the test kit preparation process and by their access to Bodily and his expert knowledge of the subject. Loyd notes that Bodily has been very intentional in educating their team about the testing process and the lab procedures involved, while Jatoi has learned a great deal from talking to him about the virus and the pandemic. Jatoi has also taken note of the rapid pivot that Bodily and his colleagues have had to make in order to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This experience allowed me to realize that many people have made many sacrifices to help in this global fight against this virus,” says Jatoi. “Our boss, who is a graduate and medical school professor, has had to sacrifice and put his research on pause, just to help us in preparing testing kits for our community. This experience has allowed me to become more aware of how serious this virus is and that there are sacrifices we all have to make to combat it. This coming school year will not look like previous school years as we have had to adapt accordingly.”
As the fall 2020 semester approaches, the Centenary members of the Pre-Analytic/Sample Collection Team are winding up their work in the EVT Lab and preparing to return to the more familiar rhythms of the academic environment – although of course nothing right now is especially “normal.” Alongside the skills and knowledge they have gained by providing some of the essential tools in the local fight against COVID-19, all of the students are walking away with an experience that none of them could have predicted five months ago.
“I feel as if I have received an amazing opportunity by being able to work in this area in the midst of a global pandemic,” says Loyd. Jatoi adds, “When this opportunity came up, I took it with no clue what I was getting myself in to. However, to have a role, no matter how small, is incredible and I am very grateful that I have been able to help my community this summer.”
Okereke describes the changes in his life in barely a year as feeling “absolutely crazy.”
“A year ago, just starting college, I would have never seen or even imagined myself in this role, and yet here I am!,” says Okereke. “It is really rewarding and satisfying to be doing something so impactful and good with my summer break, and I am so thankful for the opportunity that Dr. Weeks, Dr. Bodily, Centenary, and the EVT Lab at LSU Health Shreveport have provided me.”
For more information on the work of the Emerging Viral Threat Lab at LSU Health, visit https://www.lsuhs.edu/research/evt-lab.