Call to arms

Call to arms

Call to arms

My volunteer story: Polly Machin, a PhD student in the Welch lab describes going from trainee to trainer during her time volunteering at the Milton Keynes Biocentre to analyse swab samples during the pandemic.

Polly Machin

A series of bleak events led to my decision to help process patient samples at the COVID-19 test centre in Milton Keynes. When the pandemic hit and lockdown ensued in March, we were rightly encouraged by Michael Wakelam, our Institute Director, to use our skills and help out where we could. The heart-breaking news about Michael’s premature death due to complications following a COVID-19 infection brought the pandemic shockingly close to home. I got the call from the recruitment team on Sunday 5th April to start the next day and in my head I could not refuse.

I left my close-knit farming family home to live and work in a different city, with the knowledge that I could not return until after my volunteering effort was completed due to the need to protect high-risk family members.

When I arrived on site and joined the 30 or so volunteers congregating outside the warehouse building there was a sense of trepidation and excitement. During the first week, we were trained, and then as the test centre expanded, we became the trainers. This is something that felt unusual as a second year, 24-year old PhD student - to be instructing lab heads, Institute leads and postdocs. Age or position was not discriminated against - we were all working together towards a common goal.

It is hard to describe how dynamic the centre was- the ‘mega lab’ was still under construction when I arrived and we were, instead, working in two smaller labs processing a couple of hundred samples a day and often running controls and validation tests alongside the samples. Eventually we converged into the ‘mega lab’ (a pet name for the large lab that the media ran with after seeing it written on a whiteboard). Each day new volunteers were taken for tours around the lab and we soon moved to a 24-hour format, processing 30,000 samples a day. Five Tecan liquid handling systems were installed and I was tasked with helping to run one. On a good day the robot could work at twice the pace of a manual pipetting team so it was vital to keep them running. During this time, I had to balance writing, submitting and presenting the report summarising the progress I’d made during the first year of my PhD.

I’d like to say everything ran smoothly but the scientists reading this will hopefully be able to relate. If a test had failed, the notification would come through hours after starting the process, so trying to pinpoint the problem was difficult. Sometimes we ran out of consumables such as pipette tips; however, the British Army were often on hand to nip to ‘Argos’ (AKA stores). We had to deal with the huge volume of waste produced each day - I never want to see as many yellow waste bins again! An additional challenge was the variation in how the sample tubes were labelled. You can’t imagine the variations we received! Some samples had to be triaged as the machines can only scan barcodes lengthways. All of the problems that we encountered were quickly and professionally solved by the incredible core team at UK Biocentre, the British Army, Deloitte, or by the volunteer staff, including my team lead Alan McNally. Out of our control, however, was the response from the media who often left us feeling inadequate for not reaching the 100,000 a day target soon enough.

Due to ongoing critical experiments at the Institute, and the two-week isolation period needed before I could return, I had to sadly leave my work in Milton Keynes after six weeks. I am proud to have put my scientific training to use in such a time of need and to have been a part of the united response to the pandemic. As for now, it feels good to be back working towards my PhD again.


Notes to Editors

Press contact

Dr Louisa Wood, Communications Manager, Babraham Institute,

Image description

Volunteers outside the Milton Keynes UK Biocentre. Photo: Maria Rostovskaya.

Additional/related resources:

News, 28 September 2020 Volunteer account from the COVID-19 testing centre

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.