Celebrating Covid-19’s Unsung Heroes: The Scientists Working Behind The Scenes To Keep The Nation Safe

Intrinsic to the nation’s safety and central to the pandemic response are the swathe of scientists working tirelessly behind the scenes to track the spread of Covid-19

Driven by a desire to support the nation in whichever way they could, thousands of scientists, spanning several disciplines, joined forces in what has been recognised as the largest diagnostics project in British history.

Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) played a significant role in supporting the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to establish the Lighthouse Lab network, as well as creating and running the Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park. The Alderley Park facility alone has tested a staggering 18 million samples for Covid-19.

Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Peter Simpson, took on the task of establishing the Lighthouse Lab facility at Alderley Park, starting with a small leadership team and joined by other individuals from MDC and an army of volunteer experienced scientists from around the UK. Since the start of the pandemic, the facility has rapidly scaled up its testing capacity, to an astounding 80,000 tests per day.

The facility has been Directed by Dr Mark Wigglesworth since July 2020 who recruited a dedicated leadership team for the lab which is now staffed day and night by over 750 employed trained specialists. It has been instrumental in tracking the spread of COVID-19 and helping to  keep the nation safe throughout the pandemic.

As we approach winter, many scientists are marking their year anniversary of working at the lab.

As one of the first interviewees to volunteer her support, Dr Fereshteh Jafari joined the lab in 2020 as a scientist operating the PCR testing machines, bringing over 20 years’ experience in diagnostic settings and gastric cancer research. Within months she was offered a role as a Bioscience Lead.

Discussing her time in the lab, Fereshteh said:

“It’s been a great pleasure working alongside professional scientists from all over the country from Universities such as Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds and Liverpool, along with high-profile organisations such as Cancer Research UK and AstraZeneca.

“The scientists at the labs are an incredibly hardworking, capable, talented and kind team that I’ve been privileged to work with.

“More than anything, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved to help the nation. During the last Christmas break, things became tough as we had a resurgence of the virus and samples were arriving at a rapid rate. Despite this, our team stayed positive and worked hard to process the samples, a real testament to the resilience and dedication of everyone at the labs”.

Colin Rushton, an RNA extraction scientist at the lab, remarked on the staff’s ability to keep going through difficult times:

“No matter how tough a shift may be, staff always kept smiling and remained positive.

“The aspect of my time at the lab which will stay with me is that I was there to help offer my scientific knowledge from the start, and I’ve developed my skillset as a scientist throughout a global crisis.

“To have been a part of such a significant project of national importance is overwhelming, and I’m truly proud to have helped make a difference.”

Another group who gained invaluable experience are the cohort of undergraduate students who undertook year in industry work placements. Moving on from their time at the labs are the “Class of 2020”, a group of 30 students who put their academic pursuits on hold to undertake a year’s placement at the epicentre of a Covid-19 testing facility.

One such student is Niky Moolchandani Adwani and following her work experience, she will enter her final year studying Biochemistry at the University of Manchester. She said:

“The best thing about my placement has been meeting new people from different backgrounds, learning from them, and ultimately being inspired by them.

“I found it impressive to see the amount of teamwork and collaboration that goes on, meaning that the pressure of the role is always shared.

“I feel honoured to have been part of the national testing programme and I’m very grateful to everyone at Lighthouse Lab for giving me this opportunity to make a huge difference in people’s lives. My experience has encouraged me to dream bigger and push towards my goals, which is to contribute to healthcare as well as the diagnostic and regenerative medicine sectors”.

Working on the same shift as Niky is Sarah Hyde, who joined the Alderley Park facility after finishing her A-Levels, as a Laboratory Scientist responsible for running the samples through the PCR Machine. Commenting on her role, Sarah said:

“It’s been a pleasure working with people from such a variety of scientific backgrounds, and I’ve learnt so much, both from the role itself and from the team around me.

“Seeing first-hand how quickly the laboratory grew over the past year, and the massive upscaling of testing we’ve managed to achieve has been incredible.

“The experience has solidified my love for science and confirmed my desire to study Biomedical Science. It’s amazing to think that I, as an individual, have contributed to the success of such an important project.

“I’ve met so many people from many different backgrounds and experiences, who’ve all come together to support the national testing effort. It’s something I will never forget!”

The Alderley Park Lighthouse Laboratory has been testing samples for Test and Trace since April 2020 and was one of the first Lighthouse Labs to commence PCR testing in the UK.

The Lab uses real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which is a highly sensitive test able to detect tiny amounts of the Sars-Cov-2 virus by amplifying the signal from its genetic material. This test is capable of detecting the virus in infected individuals who don’t have symptoms, as well as in infected individuals a few days before they start to show symptoms.

More information on the Lighthouse Labs Network >