Volunteer account from the COVID-19 testing centre

Volunteer account from the COVID-19 testing centre

My volunteer story: Maria Rostovskaya, a senior research scientist in the Reik lab, Epigenetics research programme, shares her experience of volunteering at the Milton Keynes Biocentre for COVID-19 sample testing.

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The COVID-19 crisis brought a feeling of uncertainty and fear for the future to everyone. However, for me, a laboratory-based stem cell biologist, it also added frustration over not being able to use my skills to help the situation. I could stay at home working on computational analysis without much damage to my project, but I could not escape a bitter feeling that at that moment my skills were needed much more to fight the crisis.

Life changed in just one day with the heart-breaking news that our Institute Director, Michael Wakelam, died from complications related to a suspected COVID-19 infection. We all felt utter shock and disbelief. By an extraordinary coincidence, just two hours later another email arrived, with a call for volunteers to work at the National COVID Testing programme in Milton Keynes. There were no doubts about what to do. This sense of duty to contribute was even stronger because one of the last Michael’s emails to the Institute was to encourage us to join volunteering programmes to fight the pandemic.

From signing up to being called up
Things moved quickly once I’d applied to help. In less than 24 hours after my application, I was contacted and asked to arrive at the Milton Keynes Biocentre the next day and stay there for few days for training. On 2nd April I packed my suitcase and did not unpack it again for the next two and a half months.

Establishing and scaling up testing
The testing programme began in the second half of March with the announcement of the government’s goal to achieve 100,000 tests per day by the end of April. The Milton Keynes centre was up and running in just two weeks. The first group of five volunteers arrived on 27th March; I was among the second group to start. It was exciting to witness how this testing centre was built from scratch, in an empty hangar space, using equipment donated by research institutes while they were locked down. There was an amazing pulling together of effort, including the British Army who helped with the logistics, Amazon who agreed to deliver the test samples for free, and all the volunteers. By the end of April, about 200 volunteers worked in the programme, including undergraduate and PhD students, post-docs, junior and senior group leaders, from all over the UK – Cambridge, Oxford, London, Bath, Leicester, Sheffield, Nottingham and many other places.

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The centre operated around the clock with volunteers working in 12 hour day and night shifts. The momentum was phenomenal and due to the drive and devotion of the whole team, we could see the testing capacity increasing. In the early hours on 9th June, the centre passed 1,000,000 samples processed in total.

Looking back
It was an extraordinary period in my life, living half time in Milton Keynes and half time back home, doing 12-hour shifts COVID testing, still working on the projects and grants, and supervising students of all my colleges from home on so-called "days off". For the first time in my life my skin peeled off my hands from pipetting all day long. For the first time in my life I had to take painkillers to relieve the aching in my finger joints from opening tubes all day long. I was driving back and forth on empty roads between Milton Keynes and Cambridge, passing the signs saying "Essential travel only" and thinking that all I want is for this pandemic to be over.

It is reassuring to watch how life is slowly returning back to our cities, step by step. It makes it feel as though the effort was worth it.

I served my last shift on 12th June. I felt extremely emotional to say thank you and goodbye to the amazing people I worked with, who all became like a big family. I am grateful to have been part of this unimaginable experience, which has definitely changed me and which I will never forget.

Notes to Editors

Acknowledgement
Parts of this article were first published in the newsletter of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Maria Rostovskaya is a research associate.

Press contact
Dr Louisa Wood, Communications Manager, Babraham Institute, louisa.wood@babraham.ac.uk

Image description
Header image - Volunteer researchers processing samples at the Milton Keynes Biocentre.
Top inset image - Maria Rostovskaya
Second inset image - Reseachers celebrate the milestone of processing 1 million samples

Additional/related resources
News, 6 May 2020 The Babraham Institute’s contribution to the COVID-19 response
News, 1 April 2020 Michael Wakelam 1955-2020

About the Babraham Institute
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.