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Monday, May 18, 2020

Women On The Frontlines


Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear lab coats.

The Emerging Viral Threat (EVT) Lab at LSU Health Shreveport was set up and fully functioning in less than two weeks to address the need for faster detection and increased testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. While it was, and continues to be, a real team effort of many people from a variety of specialties to accomplish this undertaking, an essential group of this team are the female researchers.

“Our unique team of women made this vision a reality. They are the true beating heart of the lab,” said Andrew Yurochko, Ph.D. “Without them, there is no way this would be possible. Their effort has been so incredible. As a group, they have worked the longest and hardest hours. They are really the superheroes.”

These 21st century “Rosie the Researchers” are the boots on the ground in the EVT Lab, and their superpowers include building a diagnostic lab in 14 days, expanding testing in Louisiana, and making sure SARS-CoV-2 tests are processed quickly and accurately.

Rona Scott, Ph.D., associate professor and Mingyu Ding Endowed Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at LSU Health Shreveport, has taken on a new role as supervisor of the EVT Lab and is part of a team of 14 people. She is a genomics expert and the “glue” that holds the lab together. “We came together in a time of need and used our skills to fight the spread of the virus in Louisiana. This team of women provided the critical expertise and were essential in getting the EVT lab up and running. Dr. Ellen Friday, director of the Feist-Weiller Precision Medicine Lab, guided us through the validation and regulatory components of diagnostic testing. Dr. Michelle Arnold, assistant professor of microbiology, established lab protocols. Camille Abshire, genomic research specialist, set up the molecular assay and instrumentation. Lisa Latiolais, registered nurse, was on the front lines with her team of nurses getting samples for testing. Drs. Margo Bienkowska-Haba, research specialist, and Kasia Zwolinska, post-doctoral fellow, contributed their prior clinical expertise and were instrumental in the lab design, assay development and workflow. In a short two months, we have processed over 5,000 samples and will continue testing so that our community stays healthy and gets back to work,” said Dr. Scott.

When a specimen comes to the lab, the samples go first into the pre-processing room, where the patient information is entered. Then, the samples move into the “hot” room, where all samples, some with potentially live virus, are manipulated for analyses. Here, samples are loaded into the robot, which they affectionately named “Wall-E.” This is a labor-intensive step that puts the team in contact with possible live virus. Everyone is in full personal protective gear, and have to work carefully and diligently handling hundreds of patient samples with help from the robot in the extraction of RNA. The now-isolated samples are collected from Wall-E and brought to the PCR lab, where the qRT-PCR assays provide the result as to whether the patient’s nasal swab is positive or negative for the virus.

While this team of wonder women is extremely well-trained, moving from their usual research lab environment to establishing diagnostic testing in such a short time frame was a challenge. “The fact that they were able to meet this challenge and adjust so quickly speaks volumes about their character and their skills. LSU Health Shreveport is lucky to have this type of dedicated faculty and staff on campus,” said Dr. Yurochko. “Because of their commitment and attention to every detail, our lab can make sure every report is accurate.”

Like we see in the movies, these superheroes answered the call to help in a critical time of need, but instead of wearing special uniforms and capes, these women wear white lab coats.


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