Standing by for a surge

(Left to right) Microbiologists Sylena Harper, Hannah Wilson, and Victoria Fitzpatrick, all recent 2020 WSU graduates, pose outside the soon-to-be-opened Global Animal Health Phase 2 building. The trio is responsible for all human COVID-19 testing at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, which assists when testing on the Palouse reaches surge capacity.

If COVID-19 testing on the Palouse reaches surge capacity, it’s on three 2020 Coug graduates to step up and help meet the demand.

Inside the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory on the WSU Pullman Campus, those three new Coug alumnae – Victoria Fitzpatrick, Sylena Harper, and Hannah Wilson – are busy providing laboratory results that could save lives.

Since COVID-19 testing on the WSU campus began last July, the three have been working in shifts to process tests from throughout the Palouse and eastern Washington.

In fact, if your test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus was processed by WSU through its WADDL-One Health Laboratory, it was surely processed by them.

“We’re not doing research, but we’re helping, and it’s nice to be a part of something that’s bigger than me,” Harper said. Harper received degrees in chemistry and biochemistry from Washington State University in May. Like Fitzpatrick and Wilson, her job at WADDL as a Microbiologist is her first out of college, and as an essential frontline worker.

Harper admits, the work can be grueling, and it takes an emotional toll at times.

“I think about people getting these results and lives being changed for better or worse,” Harper said. “Depending on how many people are positive or negative, it can really get to you. We just have to remember that we will get through this if we handle it as safely as possible.”

The team uses real-time polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR, to process a COVID-19 test.

“We take a sample out of the viral of transport media and strip it of everything other than DNA and RNA, so all that mucus is taken out so we can amplify it and determine if the virus’ RNA can be detected,” said Wilson, who received a degree in genetics and cell biology in May.

In general, Wilson said, as WADDL is an overflow testing site, the work ebbs and flows, but the team has seen their share of late nights and early mornings. To date, the lab has tested over 55,000 COVID-19 samples.

“When doing high throughput work, efficiency is key, we can survive without one of us, but we work better together,” Wilson said.

Wilson moved back to Pullman in June after graduating and moving home near Bend, Ore.

Fitzpatrick also moved back to Pullman from her hometown outside Seattle.

“As a recent graduate, the job market wasn’t great and we were told to expect not to work for a little bit,” she said. “It was a sad time, but this job was a way for me to contribute at a time that was really hard on people.”

In addition to Fitzpatrick’s first time working in a lab setting, the team said the job helped build troubleshooting, critical thinking, team-building and hands-on lab skills.

“The whole process we do every day is nothing like I’ve ever done before,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re in dark times; there’s not a lot you can do about it. I’m just happy us three can be there to help in some way.”

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