by Kelly E. Butler
Outside: Biobank photos by Dr. Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez. Center: PI headshots from Columbia websites
From mid-March to early-June, a team of eighteen CRAC volunteers and fourteen lab technicians diligently pipetted, processed, labeled, and stored COVID-19 patient blood, urine, and nasopharyngeal samples. Led by Dr. Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez and supervised by Drs. Francesca La Carpia and Sebastian Fernando, these dedicated volunteers were working in the Hod Lab to build a biobank of patient specimens to support COVID-19 research at Columbia. As a result of these efforts, Columbia researchers can now gain insight into many aspects of COVID-19 using over 69,000 samples from over 7,000 unique patients. They can also access de-identified medical records including patient age, symptoms, treatment course, and outcome, as well as survey information for each consented patient. As Dr. Cuesta-Domínguez explained, “the biobank’s strength is having a large number of samples. Researchers can select different groups of patients suffering from uncommon diseases, such as inflammatory or coagulation disorders, and study how these conditions affect COVID-19. With thousands of unique patients, the biobank is truly representative of the local infected population.”
The biobank is an invaluable research tool made all the more impressive by its rapid assembly during a pandemic. But, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “nothing worth having comes easy.”
The first major challenge was the lack of a biobanking facility. The Hod Lab and Dr. Danielle Pendrick, DrPH, Associate Director of the Columbia University Biobank, have significant experience managing clinical specimens, so they were able to help Drs. Cuesta-Domínguez, La Carpia, and Fernando rapidly prepare the infrastructure needed for a COVID-19 biobank. Reminiscing about overcoming this initial obstacle, Dr. La Carpia explained how the founding team designed the biobank from the ground up in only a few short weeks: “We had to build a biobank facility out of nothing. In an empty lab, we started organizing the space, workflow, and volunteers. We were working long hours, sometimes even on weekends. The lab space was actually under renovation to become Dr. Hod’s Transfusion Biology Lab. Many thanks to Dr. Hod for putting everything aside and making the space available to the biobank team.”
A second major challenge was obtaining patient consent to include residual clinical samples in the COVID-19 biobank. Study coordinators typically meet face-to-face with patients in the hospital or clinic to explain the research and obtain consent, but in-person conversations were not possible due to patient and researcher safety concerns. Fortunately, Dr. Pendrick, Jennifer Williamson-Catania, MS, MPH--the Associate Vice Dean of the Office for Research--and Sheila O’Byrne, PhD--a manager of the Precision Medicine Initiative--were able to work with Dr. Soumitra Sengupta, PhD and his IT team to design and implement a remote consent system. Though it can be difficult to reach patients and families via telephone after a hospital visit, 96% of successfully contacted individuals have agreed to participate in the COVID-19 biobank. This high participation rate was possible because the study was designed with patients in mind: biobank samples were collected from excess materials remaining after clinical tests, so patients did not have to return to the hospital during this already difficult time.
The high study participation rate meant that hundreds and sometimes thousands of samples needed to be processed each day. To support this large-scale initiative, the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine (CALM) spent hours collecting the precious samples from the main clinical lab, Dr. Cuesta-Domínguez recruited and led a team of highly experienced CRAC volunteers from across Columbia, and the Departments of Pathology and Precision Medicine offered the help of their technicians. With so many community members lending their hands and expertise, Dr. Cuesta-Domínguez noted that ideas to make the sample processing workflow more efficient arose “naturally and daily.” An assembly line process proved to be most effective; some volunteers labeled thousands of vials, and others pipetted for multiple consecutive hours. The team’s streamlined process paid large dividends: In only ten weeks, the volunteers prepared over 20,000 serum, 11,000 plasma, 11,000 blood mononuclear cells, 3,000 nasopharyngeal, 500 cord blood, and 300 fecal samples.
The COVID-19 biobank is already having a significant positive impact. Just as Ms. Williamson hoped when she first helped launch the project, the biobank has become “a bridge for research questions and a tool for many.” Several different labs have already begun COVID-19 research projects using biobank samples, and they are exploring a wide range of pressing topics such as SARS-CoV-2 genetic variation and the impact of the human microbiome on COVID-19 disease course.
Dr. Krzysztof Kiryluk, MD, a nephrologist, is among the researchers working with the COVID-19 biobank samples. His lab specializes in the genetics of rare kidney diseases such as IgA and membranous nephropathy, conditions in which immune dysregulation damages the kidneys and impairs filtration. Earlier this year, his lab published a genome-wide association study (GWAS) in Nature Communications that identified two new genetic loci--NFKB1 and IRF4--implicated in membranous nephropathy.
Dr. Kiryluk and his team were eager to employ their genetic expertise in the fight against COVID-19. There is significant variation in COVID-19 disease course and prognosis, so the Kiryluk Lab is aiming to identify human genetic markers associated with susceptibility to serious complications of COVID-19. Complications of particular interest include the need for dialysis, dependence on mechanical ventilation, and mortality. As Dr. Kiryluk explained, “the genetic analysis is bread and butter for us. We don’t know if common or rare gene variants are involved, so we will use all of the genetic approaches that are available, including GWAS with SNP arrays and rare variant association analyses based on exome sequencing.”
The Kiryluk Lab has already made large strides towards identifying genetic factors associated with severe COVID-19 infection. The team is currently isolating DNA from nearly 3,000 buffy coat samples, which contain mononuclear blood cells and yield high DNA concentrations suitable for genetic studies. Exome sequencing has already started in collaboration with Dr. David Goldstein, the director of Columbia’s Institute for Genomic Medicine (IGM). Once sequencing is complete, the analysis is expected to be “relatively quick” given the team’s expertise in genetics. It is difficult to predict when the research will be published, but Dr. Kiryluk is “pushing for rapid sharing of data and results” and hopes to share his findings publicly as soon as possible.
Like Dr. Kiryluk, Dr. Wendy Chung, MD, PhD is working to identify genetic factors that make certain people particularly ill upon COVID-19 infection. As a pediatric geneticist, Dr. Chung is focused on why some otherwise healthy young people with COVID-19 develop Severe Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a serious but poorly understood Kawasaki-like illness. MIS-C patients present with persistent fever, hypotension, and dangerous inflammation affecting multiple organs. In New York City alone, COVID-19-associated MIS-C has already sickened over 200 children and caused three pediatric deaths. Dr. Chung noted that both virus and human genetics may contribute to MIS-C, but she suspects that MIS-C “is more due to human genetics and the immunological response than viral factors since the virus does not change much.”
COVID-19 research is already well underway in the Chung Lab. The lab’s COVID-19 team has extracted DNA from around 100 pediatric blood samples and is currently sequencing the genetic material. Using the sequencing data, Chung Lab researchers will conduct rare variant association analyses and identify HLA haplotypes, which in part determine how individual immune systems respond to virus infection. Dr. Chung hypothesizes that different rare gene variants and HLA haplotypes can contribute to MIS-C in COVID-19 infected young people. If this is the case, additional samples from other medical centers may be needed to gather sufficient data on enough patients: “We will have to look at the genetics of kids around the world. As a community, we will come together and share.”
Human genetics likely contribute to the severity of COVID-19 cases, but other factors surely play important roles as well. Dr. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, MD, PhD, an infectious disease expert, suspects that patients’ particular strain of SARS-CoV-2 in part determines their disease course. To begin characterizing the effects of different strains and identify which are most prevalent in NYC, the Uhlemann Lab is isolating and sequencing viral RNA from nasopharyngeal samples. Combined with information from medical records, strain identification will help elucidate whether certain strains are more likely to cause severe COVID-19 symptoms. Moreover, determining which strains are circulating in NYC may improve the accuracy of future contact tracing and--if combined with similar data from many other studies around the globe--could help track the geographic spread of each SARS-CoV-2 strain. Detailed contact tracing data organized by strain could also reveal that some strains are more infectious than others: “Whether some people are infected with more transmissible strains or are just superspreaders is a hotly debated topic. Genomics alone cannot answer this question. We will need detailed epidemiological assays.”
Dr. Uhlemann further hypothesizes that patient microbiomes can impact COVID-19 disease course: “Depending on its composition, the bacterial microbiome may produce a beneficial immune response, produce metabolites that impact viral infection, or modify disease course through some other chain of events.” To start exploring these hypotheses, the Uhlemann Lab is collaborating with Dr. Harris Wang, PhD and Dr. Daniel Freedberg, MD, MS to characterize COVID-19 patient microbiomes based on nasopharyngeal samples. The team is identifying the bacteria in each sample using 16s ribosomal RNA sequencing, a widely used taxonomy strategy that classifies bacteria based on the ubiquitous and highly conserved 16s ribosomal subunit gene. The researchers will then test for statistical associations between specific types of microbiome bacteria and COVID-19 severity.
Drs. Kiryluk, Chung, and Uhlemann are all eager to share their human, virus, and microbiome sequencing data in a central database available to all Columbia researchers. As Dr. Chung explained, “all of the data will be accessible to the Columbia research community, helping bring expertise to bear on pressing research questions.” Other research teams will thus be able to answer a variety of additional questions without the need for additional samples and time-consuming extraction and sequencing procedures. In this sense, the principal investigators’ willingness to share their data allows more knowledge to be developed from each precious patient sample.
All three Principal Investigators also emphasized that their research is a team effort. For example, Dr. Kiryluk noted that “we have a group interested in high impact questions that need to be addressed as soon as possible. That’s why we got together to do this--the CTSA, Dean’s Office, CRAC volunteers, and genetic and clinical coordinators. The CRAC team did a fantastic job, and we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of these things without them.” Dr. Uhlemann expressed similar gratitude for CRAC: “Eldad, Francesca, Sebastian, and Álvaro coordinated so much and have been fantastic. We are very grateful for the resource.”
Continuing the chain of gratitude, Drs. Cuesta-Domínguez, La Carpia, and Fernando all shared their appreciation for the many CRAC volunteers and lab technicians who helped build the biobank. Expressing sincere thanks, Dr. La Carpia became a bit emotional when sharing final thoughts on the biobank: “The biobank leadership team would like to stress that the volunteers have been amazing. They left the comfort of their apartments during a really stressful time, and many have kids and family. Their generosity and commitment to science and healthcare is amazing. They were all so nice and so humble. We couldn’t see their smiles from behind their masks, but we could feel them. I’m so grateful to all of our volunteers.”
Dr. La Carpia also noted that every volunteer was essential. Labeling thousands of vials and delivering lunch may seem like mundane tasks, but they were instrumental in developing the biobank. “Every person in the chain is important. If one link doesn’t work, then the whole chain is broken.” From the patient bedside, through the biobank, and ultimately to publication, Columbia’s broad spectrum of COVID-19 research is a marvel of scientific collaboration.
Together we can combat both pandemics of our time.
Many thanks to Dr. Barbara Noro, Dr. Natalie Steinemann, Ashlea Morgan, Dr. Paula Croxson, and all of the researchers and biobank team members quoted in this piece for their thoughtful feedback on preliminary drafts.
by Ashlea Morgan
When met with daunting obstacles—be it as trivial as blank pages waiting to be filled or as devastating as global pandemics—relatable first reactions are panic and hopelessness.
We are in the midst of two insidious threats to life. One of these, COVID-19, is new. The other, unjust and violent discrimination against Black people, is much older and deeply entrenched. How in the world will we overcome? Our emotions are raw and that can feel paralyzing. But, lives are at stake so action is required. We must respond.
As a result of the dual pandemics, two responses have emerged: (1) a concerted effort of scientists and clinicians at institutions all over the world, including Columbia, working to understand and combat COVID-19, and (2) a movement that has spread across all 50 U.S. states and internationally to call for the end of systemic racism and oppression.
Even as we are impelled to step up, we face challenges. I had apprehensions about joining CRAC and writing this post, but talking with scientists—including Dr. Howie Wu—reminded me that these challenges are universal and can be overcome. In this post, I’ll share three insights I gained, my story of stepping up in both pandemics, and hopefully empower you with the resources to do the same.
1 | It’s us versus no one
Like many researchers, after non-essential lab work ramped down, I wanted to volunteer. But, as a graduate student at Columbia, I was not eligible to volunteer for CRAC projects that most directly benefit Columbia's clinicians and researchers fighting COVID-19 or infected patients. I thought I could not help with the anti-COVID effort. However, as I began looking for other remote opportunities, I found the call for volunteers to join the CRAC blog team.
Given that I had done some science writing before, I figured perhaps I could help. I opened the application and began filling it in. As I finished copying and pasting this link to my work, I paused. I was struck by familiar thoughts. Who am I to think I can do this? I’ve never blogged for the public before.
“If you can’t find anyone better, then I can try.” In his initial application to be the manager of the IRB data management project, Howie too expressed doubt. Dr. Howie Wu is a Columbia postdoc in a lab in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Because the stakes are so high right now and we are dealing with people’s lives, we begin to question if we are the best person. We may think ‘there is someone better...’ Indeed, there are likely better and more qualified people to do any job.
The issue is that they are not here now and we need to get the job done.
What Howie realized and stressed to me was: “no one was going to [do it] unless we do. It’s not us vs. a better, more qualified person. It is us vs. no one.” We who are able now, should try and do the work now.
2 | We succeed more than we fail
As a project manager for the COVID-19 database, Howie worked with a team of other volunteer postdocs to build a searchable database for COVID-19 researchers in collaboration with Columbia University’s IT department. The idea was to find and compile the ongoing efforts in laboratories across Columbia campuses (i.e. CUIMC, Morningside, and ZMBBI) that were engaged in COVID-19–related research projects. The team would then build a database that would facilitate researchers in finding a resource or a collaborator, without duplicating efforts.
“We are highly trained grad students, postdocs, and above,” Howie says. "We are able to do the work. Sure there are people with many more years of experience managing patient samples or building a database, who would probably be more efficient based on their skills. But, we are also skilled and quite capable.” If we made it this far in our careers, he added, “we’ve succeeded more than we’ve failed.”
After just two weeks of work and troubleshooting, an update announced that “the database is now live for administrators, faculty, officers of research, and officers of instruction. We are expanding access to students soon.” They did it and did it quickly! Howie and his team created the database.
“A version of it,” he told me.
3 | 90% is probably good enough
“[We] had to learn on the fly... and if we rewind back and try again, it could have been done better.” This is a common retort, similar to ‘if I had more time’ or ‘if I knew what I know now’. It is probably true, but there was no time and I did not know then. The database works and researchers are able to use it. Howie suggests “90% [of perfection] is probably good enough.” The achievement of succeeding in completing the task is more than good enough.
Putting it together
In reflecting on my exchanges with Howie, something clicked for me.
He shared his experience of doubting whether he was the best person to do the work, but showing up anyways, doing it, and succeeding. It parallels my experiences in joining the blog team and more generally my own academic journey.
I've just turned the corner on my 5th year of Ph.D. training. But, I must confess I’ve always hesitated to proclaim, ‘I’m a scientist.’ Adding the clause ‘as a scientist,’ was a suggestion I received while editing my first blog post to place me in the authoritative writer role. I held back. I would have rather written, “as someone who researches a specific topic in neurobiology (a field unrelated to this post), I have read just a little about serology testing and...” It acknowledges how I feel about my position, but would have shrunk my authoritative voice.
My publications appear on PubMed. I present my work at conferences. I’ve been awarded fellowships. I’ve done scientific research for just over 7 years now. I am not as experienced as a senior scientist, but I don’t need to reach that level before my accomplishments are valid. I am doing science so I am a scientist. And, I am going to go ahead and say, I am a blogger.
The urgency of this moment demands that I don't wait for someone else to write this blog post.
Who and When? | Me, Now
As a volunteer CRAC blogger and a scientist who is Black, I feel a responsibility to address the additional pandemic that is killing Black people and denying them justice. Despite feelings of doubt, my voice has value and relevance, and should join the voices of those who came before and those who will come after me.
The pervasive social systems that condone racial injustice and police brutality are responsible for the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, George Floyd, and far too many Black lives that needed to matter.
I am here now and affirm #BlackLivesMatter.
For me, the intersection of systemic racism and sexism that uphold the status quo in society and academia cannot be disentangled from ‘I don't belong’ moments that grasp me each time I struggle to self-identify as a scientist or blogger.
Questions like “who are you… do you work here?” from a senior researcher while eating lunch alone in the lab’s breakroom made it evident my first year. And, it is clearly evident now during every Zoom call where floating faces of my colleagues plan for and wish we can 'return to normal,' when I don’t.
Our society normally values being productive and profitable over being healthy and safe. The status quo willfully allows overt and covert acts of racism rather than actively fighting oppression. It makes me feel that I don’t belong and I do.
Because of the color of my skin, I find myself facing two global pandemics that disproportionately affect me. But, I am not alone. I've heard fellow Black colleagues, elders, and friends share their private traumas, microaggressions, and stories of brushes with racial injustice.
The public trauma of repeated racial injustice and oppression triggers anyone who has ever had to justify why they are occupying a space to someone who assumes they don’t belong. Adding on to COVID-19-related fears, deep-rooted and painful collective memories are coming back to our minds.
While the grief and pain are not equally shared, the public trauma of the pandemics caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus and systemic racism is witnessed by everyone.
In an emergency situation, when people start crowding around the scene they say to directly point to the person who will run and get help. I felt like I was pointed at, do you?
Who and When? | You, Now
‘I don’t belong’ and ‘I’m not the best person for the job’ strictly because ‘there are more experienced or qualified people’ are thoughts we all have faced at some point in our lives. But, dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism have collided at this moment and require us to act. It’s not ‘one or the other’, but ‘both + and’. Lives are at stake.
During these crises, individuals, like Howie and I, who might have been the only ones able to do the much-needed work hesitated. I would guess many re-think doing the work altogether.
The COVID-19 pandemic is new and the work needed to succeed in its resolution is on the way. The pandemic of systemic racism has vastly deeper roots and efforts have been and will need to be sustained long-term for progress towards a resolution that is still far away.
We have all been a witness to the public grief and trauma of these pandemics. We may initially panic, fear, doubt, or feel hopeless. But, there are tangible next steps that only we can take based on our unique abilities and mosaic of identities—e.g. race, country of origin, education, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and disability status. (scroll down for Resources).
Who and When? | Non-Black Allies, Now
My non-Black allies often express to me, “I can never fully understand” It’s true, but the statement dismisses the opportunity to learn.
My story is that of a Canadian-born Black woman of Jamaican heritage raised and living in the U.S. Talking to me or reading this blog post allows you to learn a little bit about a singular Black story that is a part of a huge collection of Black stories (here is another). But, it is not and cannot give you the full scope of the Black experience.
Keep reading, watching, listening to, and then engaging with Black stories in the same way we are all expected to read, watch, listen to, engage, and know white stories (see publication).
This work is for all of us to do.
Who and When? | All of Us, Now
We are living through two pandemics. I am reaching out to point in your direction and asking you to help (knowing full well that I have three fingers on my hand that point back at me).
We all need to do the work to the best of our abilities, but 90% of perfection is probably enough. Maybe we use the wrong hashtag. Maybe we share a misinformed social media post and now need to edit it (< oops..that one was me).
Don't let this moment pass by without taking tangible next steps: offer up your continued support and step up to take sustained, continuous actions that add to the collective work (scroll down for Resources) Doing the work isn't easy. But, here is what I have learned:
If we own our mistakes, ask difficult questions, do our research, and work collaboratively with other skilled and honest people, we will succeed more often than fail.
We need to succeed now.
To Dr. Howie Wu and the members of the CRAC COVID-19 database team: You all succeeded in creating a searchable database to link researchers doing vital COVID-19 research. Thank you for continuing this great work.
To my dear friend who hesitated, but stepped up and made an awesome illustration in record time, Amelyn Ng.
To all those that read drafts of this post, especially members of the CRAC blog team: Kelly Butler, Dr. Paula Croxson, and our leader, Dr. Barbara Noro. Thanks for your ongoing support!
On a wider scale, to those leading the battle against COVID‐19, and to those who are doing the work to advocate and proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter. Keep it up. I cheer for you daily!
To all fellow Black scientists and friends: A special thank you and a tight virtual hug. You inspire me. Stay safe. Breathe and meditate. Take care of yourself. As a friend reminded me: your existence is resistance.
Resources for stepping up during dual pandemics
Tangible next steps to combat COVID-19. Consider joining one of the CRAC projects or volunteering remotely. We need help:
1| At Columbia (If you are here, consider joining CRAC or Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19)
2| Everywhere remotely (There are a lot of other remote opportunities)
3| In NYC and surrounding areas remotely (This is a senior check-in program. Commitment is 30 minutes 1-2x/week via phone. I’m a volunteer caller and like it)
Tangible next steps to combat systemic racism and police brutality. Consider these resources to educate yourself and take action. We need to:
1| Make a public pledge and ask other people and institutions to as well
2| Educate ourselves
Finally, seek resources to protect your own mental wellbeing, whether in New York or elsewhere. To say the very least, we can use the extra support right now.
by Ashlea Morgan
Photos of CRAC serology testing volunteers (Tian, Chris, Barbara, and Rebecca) and lab technician, Magda, while working in Dr. Elhad Hod’s Clinical Laboratory at Columbia. Photo credit to Dr. Wen-Hsuan Wendy Lin and Dr. Chris Ricupero.
How do we know if we were infected with COVID-19 if our symptoms were very mild? Or had no symptoms at all? How do we know whether it is safe to venture out again? As I began to read more about it, serology assays, or antibody tests, jumped out at me as an answer.
Serology assays can indicate whether a person is producing SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and thus possibly able to re-enter public life with less risk of infecting themselves or spreading the infection to others. “We don’t [yet] know to what degree antibodies translate to immunity, but there’s likely a correlation,” Dr. Natalie Steinemann, Chief Project Manager of the CRAC Serological Testing Team told me. Additionally, serology testing could be used to identify patients that qualify as a convalescent plasma donor, that is, someone who donates their potentially protective antibodies to treat those who are still overcoming COVID-19.
With implications as vital as this, I was excited to learn that this antibody testing was already happening at Columbia. In the Clinical Laboratory of the Medical Director of the Advanced Laboratory Medicine, Dr. Eldad Hod, two Columbia M.D./Ph.Ds. in the Department of Pathology volunteered to lead the effort. Dr. Wen-Hsuan Wendy Lin, chief medical resident, and Dr. Sandeep Wontakal, medical resident, developed, carefully combed over, and optimized a highly-sensitive, ELISA-based antibody detection protocol. To ensure the protocol provided consistent results, Wendy and Sandeep carefully ran, then re-ran test samples in 12-hour shifts for five days.
Their dedication and meticulous work kick-started the effort to perform antibody tests on those who are at great risk for exposure to the virus: Columbia/New York Presbyterian (NYP) healthcare workers. As the need to scale up testing arose, CRAC became involved.
As one of the earliest CRAC members, Natalie has seen all the CRAC projects evolve since their start. However, she admitted, the serology testing project was the “coolest thing she’d ever heard of.” Natalie works as a neuroscience postdoc in the Shadlen lab in the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia studying how motor planning affects brain activity during decisions-making. Despite having “held a pipette [only] once in her life,” she saw the potential for serology testing to help society fight COVID-19 and she wanted to be a part of the project.
THE PROJECT BEGINS
Within days of its inception in late March, a solid plan of attack was developed: they would recruit, train, and deploy a crack (CRAC) team of volunteers to perform ELISA-based assays on patient samples, ensure quality control, and serve as a back-up (in case another volunteer couldn’t make it). The team would work together proceeding from one task to the next with perfect timing and pristine accuracy--like on an assembly line.
However, despite the quick start, the project was held up. Questions remained about the availability of resources and institutional approvals. Additionally, clinical assays like the serology test could only be performed by licensed, Clinical Laboratory Technologists who have years of rigorous academic training.
All the pieces began to line up when New York State responded to the pandemic by allowing trained, non-licensed scientists, to perform these tests within a CLIA-certified lab, like Dr. Hod’s lab.
By April 17, the lab had all the reagents, a validated process, and some of the robots to start automating the process. CRAC could now form their team of highly skilled researchers for serology testing.
“Have you ever thought to yourself, ‘I'm so good at pipetting... if only I could save lives and the American economy with my pipetting skills!’ Well... THIS IS YOUR MOMENT,” the recruitment email read. It continued, “This is an extremely serious endeavor… Thus, what we are looking for, more than anything else are applicants of serious character...”
Becoming a member of the CRAC Serological Testing team required potential volunteers to complete online lab safety training and a strict in-person pipetting assessment.
“We were told to show up at the High Throughput Screening core… they wanted to ensure we knew how to use a multichannel pipette accurately,” John Christin, a CRAC Serological Testing volunteer recalled.
“The results from the multichannel pipet test needed to have a [small] standard deviation [in order] to pass the test,” Tian Li, another Serological Testing volunteer,recalled of her experience. Although initially nervous, she drew up the solution to be quantified and placed it on the scale: “It was within the limitations. [Dr. Charles Karan, who directs the core and ran the pipetting “test”] said, ‘You can join [the team]. Good luck!’”
THE TEAM OF VOLUNTEERS COMES TOGETHER
“How many other times have you had people knocking on your door asking ‘Please let me work two 8-hour shifts [per week] for free?’” Natalie told me as she described the volunteers' earnest willingness to help.
Ultimately, 13 senior postdocs and researchers who had 5+ years of molecular training joined the CRAC serology testing team. They include Dr. John Christin, a postdoc studying bladder cancer; Dr. Barbara Corneo, who directs Columbia’s Stem Cell Core at CUIMC; Dr. Christopher Ricupero, an associate research scientist with a neuroscience background; Dr. Tian Li, a staff scientist in immunogenetics; and Dr. Rebecca Delventhal, a postdoc working on fruit fly genetics.
By April 20, the volunteer rotation schedule was set and the volunteers began working in the lab.
“At this moment, it seems like everyone is working together,” Barbara expressed. “It’s how science is supposed to work... It’s absolutely beautiful” and “a reminder of why I wanted to be a scientist... If only it were like [this] all the time,” she joked. Tian echoed this sentiment, “We complement each other... We are really happy to work with each other!”
During the downtime between steps, Chris shared that he also appreciated chatting about science and post-COVID life with fellow antibody testing volunteers as well as the Biobank volunteers who share the space. Tian similarly told me that she enjoys sharing new funding opportunities and research avenues for combating the virus with the volunteers she has met.
Now in early May, the CRAC serology testing volunteers reflected back on the previous few weeks: “One month ago this test didn’t even exist, and now… the science is progressing so fast.”, Barbara told me. Rebecca remarked, “Every day I go, they are changing the protocol a little bit and are beginning to automate the process so they are not relying on a rag-tag bunch of volunteers.”
THE ROBOTS TAKE OVER
To keep the operation running in April, it required 12-13 volunteers to staff the lab in 8-hour shifts, 6 days a week. Now that the robots are up and running, only 2-3 rotating volunteers are needed. Yet, overall the team members were happy to be replaced by automation.
“[If] it means they can run more tests and increase volume... I’m happy to be a cog in the wheel”, Chris insisted.
“A new machine was just delivered and this machine could substitute [for our] volunteer work. Altogether, four machines should be able to do everything from the beginning to the end of the process… When we do it manually we can do just a limited number of samples (maybe 150 per day), but [with] the machine we can do a lot more....,” Barbara said regarding the transition to near full-automation.
“If we can fully automate it… it will eventually provide really valuable information for Columbia as an institution and community,” said Rebecca.
All in all, the CRAC serology testing team has succeeded in processing over 1000 tests per week, and overall ~3000! Although the volunteers will no longer be needed soon, testing of blood samples from healthcare workers has now been established and is expanding to cover the needs of the entire Columbia community (as of May 14th). In thinking about the impact of the project moving forward, the team was hopeful.
“As soon as we are not here”, Chris remarked, “we are freed up to look into other scientific opportunities, like looking into the plethora of patient data building up from the serology testing”.
And as her academic career continues, Rebecca plans to teach her undergraduate students molecular biology from her hands-on COVID experience: “Hopefully they will remember what antibodies are and how to do an ELISA. As scary as the whole situation is, I am trying to focus on that as a silver lining.”
Combined with vaccine development, putative therapeutics, and increased viral testing (saliva tests may help), ramped-up serology testing and research on the role of antibodies is crucial to the global effort to combat COVID-19. Rebecca hopes (as do I) that research such as in situ viral assays with patient SARS-CoV-2 antibodies will be able to give us an answer to how much immunity antibodies provide. But, “a lot more research needs to be done.”
Many thanks to all of those working on the CRAC Serological Testing project (P7): Dr. Natalie Steinemann, Dr. Christopher Ricupero, Dr. Hui Wang, Dr. Irina Sagalovskiy, Dr. John Christin, Dr. Neda Masoudi, Dr. Rebecca Delventhal, Dr. Steve Sastra, Dr. Steven Cook, Dr. Barbara Corneo, Dr. Danielle Tufts, Dr. Ilenia Pellicciotta, Dr. Jaya Sarin Pradhan, Dr. Tian Li, and Dr. Eldad Hod.
I especially want to thank the serology team members that I interviewed: Natalie (@NatSteinemann), Rebecca (@BeckyDPhD), Christopher (@chrisricupero), John, Tian, and Barbara (@cscicolumbia). Also, thanks to all those who edited previous drafts of this post especially Dr. Natalie Steinemann, Dr. Barbara Noro, Dr. Chiara Bertipaglia, and Kelly Butler who read it in its roughest form.
Finally, I was struck by the wholehearted appreciation that each of the highly skilled volunteers had for their fellow volunteers and all those that helped in the ramp-up of antibody testing.
The CRAC Serological Testing team thanks the Director of the High-Throughput Screening Center at CUIMC, Dr. Charles Karan, who prepared and observed all three days of the practical skill demonstrations; and Dr. Wen-Hsuan Wendy Lin and Dr. Sandeep Wontakal, who led the serology effort from the clinical side. As echoed in each of the other interviews, Chris Ricupero said “I feel very fortunate to work hand-in-hand with physician-scientists, [Wendy and Sandeep] each day in this effort. It’s really been a privilege.”
Dr. Rebecca Delventhal is a postdoc in Mimi Shirasu-Hiza’s lab working on fruit fly genetics. Frustrated by the failures she was reading about in rapid diagnostic testing, she thought that there should be a way to get it right. Although she signed up larger national efforts against COVID, many weren’t in her area of expertise. When she heard of the project, she believed 10 years at the bench would be put to good use: “the one thing I can do is pipet really accurately.” She happened to be on campus when she got the recruitment call and responded immediately that she could come in for the pipetting test later that day. She was excited to have quantitative proof of her super accurate pipetting (“Oh, I actually do pipet really accurately!”), but especially she was happy to know that these skills could be useful for combating the pandemic. “Feeling useful helps me.”
Dr. Tian Li is a staff scientist in an immunogenetic lab at Columbia. Her current position is in pathology working with patients’ blood and bone marrow samples. Her conviction was that these are critical and severe times “we must do everything we can” and “we must fight it.” As pipetting and immunology were familiar to her, she could easily adapt her skills to this project. Humbly, Tian stated that she was happy to “contribute [her] small part to this project” and would like to continue volunteering to combat COVID-19.
Dr. John Christin is a native New Yorker and a postdoc studying bladder cancer genetics in Micheal Shen’s lab. He “didn't like being cooped up” at home and wanted to help. John had years of ELISA experience on mouse samples from when he was an undergrad at Hunter College. John was personally struck by the gravity of the pandemic. He flew to Italy in February just as the pandemic was starting there and needed to be quarantined for 2 weeks before returning to the US. Because he started to feel ill at that time, he himself got an antibody test recently. It was negative. But in thinking about how broad the range of symptoms and severity of COVID-19 illness, John points out that the antibody testing can help us know how many are actually affected. “It’s been great to help.”
Dr. Barbara Corneo, who works in the Stem Cell Core in the Black building at CUIMC, wanted to use her expertise too. When the shelter-in-place orders went out, the core had to hustle to quickly finish experiments and save what they could to prevent any major losses. She was at home working on administrative aspects of her job, but still wanted to help her colleagues and patients. Although she states she was fearful of performing any patient-facing projects at the hospital, her precise pipetting skills and background in stem cell research allowed her to be a good fit for the project. Given the possibility that antibodies could confer some immunity, she was excited to work on the team. “If I can help patients and my colleagues at Columbia, I thought why not.” Barbara herself received an antibody test at a different site and hoped to be positive in order to donate her plasma, but given she grew up in Europe during the Mad Cow Disease outbreak she doesn’t think she would be able to. Even when normal life returns, Barbara wants to continue helping as a volunteer to combat COVID-19.
Dr. Christopher Ricupero is an associate research scientist whose background is in neuroscience. He came into Columbia to do stem cell biology with a focus on neurogenetic disease modeling in the Center for Dental and Craniofacial Research. When the center was ramped down in March, he (relatably) found himself over-consuming news and grew concerned about undetected community spread especially with the testing issues in the country. Inspired by the doctors and nurses, he felt he needed to help out and because of his expertise, he felt he could jump into projects to help on the serology testing team. Although it was “the wild west” with regards to rapid, diagnostic antibody tests’ sensitivity and specificity, he grew excited by the opportunity to help work with the Hod lab utilizing a more specific, ELISA-based antibody assay. He emailed the CRAC Serological Testing Chief Project Manager, Natalie Steinemann, even before the volunteer sign-up was posted. “I wanted to get hands-on… If I can help people get back to work safely, that’s what I want to do.”
by Paula Croxson
We’ve all read reports of hospitals being overwhelmed, and over-tired medical staff who are themselves getting sick even as they work to treat patients and save lives. For the volunteers who were asked to go into hospitals and provide on-site assistance, the decision to go in was overshadowed by the very real risk of just going into the hospital environment during a pandemic.
CRAC volunteers were asked to sign up for shifts at New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital, a small community hospital at the northern tip of Manhattan, serving north Manhattan and the south Bronx. The work involves handing out scrubs to medical staff when they arrive for their shifts, so that they can keep their street clothes for the journey home, and not bring any possible infection onto the street or the subway. Usually medical staff get their scrubs from an actual machine, exchanging them for a token they get back when they return them. In the chaos of the response to COVID-19, the demand for scrubs went up, and donations of fresh scrubs came flooding in, creating a need for people to help hand them out, quickly. That’s where the CRAC volunteers come in.
“I just wanted to help. Do something. I can’t be a nurse, and I can’t be a doctor, but I figured there would probably be tasks like stacking shelves. As long as I could take off the burden from them, I was happy to do what I could.”
In her everyday life, Dr. Erin Black is a radiochemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, studying the movement of elements like carbon and iron in the ocean to understand our influence on global climate change. “I’m a trace metal chemist. I wear gloves, I wear full Tyvek. We go into a clean room. With trace metals, you can’t get dust anywhere. In theory, it’s different, but there are similar principles. I don’t touch my face, I don’t do that stuff.” Erin had been volunteering for Meals on Wheels during the pandemic before she saw the call for volunteers to go into the hospital, but knew she couldn’t do both because Meals on Wheels serves a vulnerable population. Even though she wouldn’t be interacting directly with patients, she would still be entering hospitals where many or all of the patients had COVID-19.
Like many of us, Erin weighed the decision with the help of a family member. “I talked to my sister. It’s not ludicrous, to go into a hospital, right?” For those of us who are young, healthy, and live alone or with someone else who is healthy, the statistics are on our side. Erin decided to go for it. “If the hospital workers do this every day, and they’re committed, then I can do it twice a week.”
Dr. Halle Dimsdale-Zucker is a neuroscientist who usually studies the brain and memory using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and machine learning techniques. Halle was in the early stages of collecting data for her postdoctoral work when Columbia ramped down research. “What does it mean to be an fMRI researcher when you can’t bring in participants to scan?”
When Halle received the email about volunteering at the hospitals, she did a risk assessment with a friend who runs some of the ICUs at Columbia to ask what it was like. “If you’re there, you’re very likely to get exposed,” her friend told her. But she knew that her friend took on that risk for himself, so she considered it, even though she had never seen herself working in healthcare. “I played out two scenarios in my mind. Either I say no, and I live with the intense guilt of knowing someone needed my help and I didn’t give it, or I say yes and it’s something I’m scared of, or I potentially get sick, but I will know that I did everything I could have done.”
Essentially, the volunteer work at Allen is a retail job, pairing and folding scrubs and handing them out as the medical staff arrive. Some of them just grab their size and go, but others want to request their preferred fabric, a matching set, the color they like. It’s a little disorganized, and some sizes run out before others - medium is always scarce - and sometimes it’s tempting to be impatient. “Who really cares?” mused Erin. “Yes, technically it doesn’t matter; we’re in a pandemic. But there’s probably so much they’re dealing with that day, and if I can help them find something with pockets, or in a particular color, it’s something I can do to make the interaction more positive.”
Left: The scrub station at New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital Photo credit: Paula Croxson. The photo appears blurry because the photographer keeps her phone in a Ziploc bag while on-site for safety. Right: Volunteers staffing the scrub station. Photo credit: Erin Black.
“You could notice the whole mood in the hospital change when you could give someone the color scrubs they wanted.” Halle told me. “I could see everyone’s spirits lift. And I thought, I can make that happen.”
“What’s really hard, is that you can’t smile.” Erin quickly realised that the role is more than just handing out the scrubs. The volunteers are among the first faces that the medical workers see when they arrive on-site, where they pick up their clean scrubs from a makeshift shop front set up on the second floor. She compared it to working on the field sites where she usually carries out her research. “They’re on nights, they’re in a bad mood. Just smiling can really shift morale. What’s hard in the hospital is that everyone has a mask on, or multiple masks, and maybe a face shield.” Even though her surgical mask hides her mouth from view, Erin found other ways to make the human connection; smiling with her eyes, laughing, and talking to the staff. One nurse stopped by just to talk after losing a patient.
Like so many volunteers, Erin was nervous the first time she had a shift; many of the volunteers started during the peak. She didn’t want to take her mask off to drink water, or touch the door handle in the bathroom, even though she wasn’t working in the ICU or the patient rooms. But the anxiety became lower with each shift, the feeling of familiarity and the sense of being useful. That sense of, “Ok, I did something.”
Halle was amazed at how quickly she had to adapt. “Everyone was so normal - there were six of us in an elevator. That’s not social distancing!” She realized that it wasn’t always possible to keep to best practices. Still, volunteers are given PPE: scrubs, a surgical mask and a plentiful supply of gloves on arrival and safety is a priority whenever possible.
Halle also told me how an unexpected benefit of volunteering at the hospital has been meeting new people. Not only the medical staff, but also the other volunteers, researchers from fields as diverse as stem cell research, sex and gender studies, and esophageal cancer research. “It has given me this real sense of community and really valuing basic science research, just thinking about all the other beautiful research that is happening. I never expected to have that experience.”
The volunteers are the first people that the medical staff see when they arrive at Allen, and they are also the last people they see before they leave, tossing their dirty scrubs into a green linen bag as they go. The staff are tired, already on the phone with loved ones as they briskly walk to the elevator. But all of them have a moment for the volunteers, and to say, “Thank you.” One brought a volunteer a shiny red apple because she found him a scrub top with pockets. Another danced for joy when he got the color combination he wanted. Face masks can’t hide the humanity here.
Thank you to Dr. Barbara Noro, Dr. Chiara Bertipaglia and Kelly Butler for their thoughtful feedback and edits.
by Kelly E. Butler
Photos by Dr. Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez
Since late March, the Hod Lab has been building a biobank of COVID-19 patient specimens to support SARS-CoV-2 research at Columbia University. When COVID-19 cases were rising relentlessly in late March, CRAC posted a call for volunteers to help the Hod Lab process the growing number of samples. In just two weeks, dozens volunteered to fill fifteen biobanking positions. For the past month, the volunteers (led by Dr. Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez and supervised by Drs. Francesca La Carpia and Sebastian Fernando) have been diligently transporting patient samples, de-identifying specimens, labeling cryovials, and aliquoting serum, plasma, and blood mononuclear cells.
These are all simple lab tasks that I have performed as an undergraduate just beginning to dip my toes into the deep waters of scientific research. I was thus surprised and impressed to learn that the volunteers serving as temporary lab assistants are actually advanced scientists. The team collectively has 16 masters degrees, 13 PhDs, 1 MD, and around 100 years of lab experience.
Dr. Gwennaëlle Monnot--who holds a PhD in Cancer Immunology--is among the biobanking volunteers. A member of the de Jong Lab, she typically studies the immune mechanisms of atopic dermatitis, an allergic skin disorder. She recently published a Science Immunology paper that proposes a novel mechanism for how T cells drive allergic responses to oily, non-peptide substances. Despite being an advanced immunologist, Dr. Monnot was more than willing to step away from her flow cytometer and volunteer as a lab assistant: “My first thought when I see a problem, or a crisis, is always “What can I do to help?” I joined the biobank effort because I felt like my PhD skills would be put to good use.”
Like Dr. Monnot, Dr. Alberto Bartolomé is an accomplished postdoctoral researcher and member of the biobanking team. He was named a Naomi Berrie Fellow in Diabetes Research in 2014 and continues to advance the field by studying Notch signaling in pancreatic beta cells. Even if it means taking a break from complex in vitro and in vivo models, Dr. Bartolomé is committed to using his research skills to fight COVID-19: “I was happy to see the CRAC initiative, where some of my skills could be helpful. The massive biobank that CRAC is helping to build will be priceless for ongoing and future studies, which will surely provide much needed answers that will be translated into clinical practice.” Even though he has several years of experience, Dr. Bartolomé is still gaining a new perspective from participating in the biobank effort: “Working in the biobank is a new and very enriching experience for me. I'm used to working with samples from mouse models, but now every vial represents a real person.”
Jiani Liang, a labmate of Dr. Bartolomé and experienced technician, expressed a similar eagerness to contribute her research skills: “I joined the biobank because I thought my skill set in molecular biology was best suited for this project. I hope COVID-19 research will be more accessible with the biobank.” A budding young scientist looking towards the future, Ms Liang noted “that science will come out stronger and more motivated after this crisis.” (I certainly share this hope and optimism with Ms. Liang.)
Also a skilled technician, Kalle Liimatta is another member of the biobanking team with over six years of lab experience and multiple publications about infectious diseases. She volunteered to join the biobank team despite being personally affected by the pandemic: “It seemed likely that my mother had contracted COVID-19, and I was conflicted about whether I should stay here to help or return home to take care of my family. I ultimately signed up for the biobank because being able to conduct research with samples from actual patients is important for learning more about the virus. My mother has since tested negative, thankfully.”
Dr. Eddy Wang--who has PhD in Dermatology and Skin Science and over 25 publications--also volunteered despite difficult personal circumstances: “COVID-19 has forced me to be an ocean apart from my wife since the first outbreak in Asia. Like most people, many of the plans for our personal lives have been put on hold now due to this uncertain time. I told my wife that even though I cannot be at the frontline helping the patients, I would do my best to contribute to the fight so that we can have our lives back--corny, but true!” Even though Dr. Wang has mastered multiplex immunofluorescence and advanced high-throughput sequencing techniques, he is still happy to label tubes and pipette samples to help combat COVID-19: “I joined the CRAC-Biobanking team because it is most relevant to my past lab experiences. I understand the importance of preserving the precious biospecimens, which may be the key to developing treatments or vaccines that will benefit everyone.”
Dr. Marta Galán-Díez also has family overseas but finds solace in employing her lab skills to fight COVID-19: “Family and friends are far away, and the fear of loved ones getting sick with the current travel restrictions is quite difficult. But I’m trying to stay optimistic and focus on work as much as possible. CRAC makes me feel that I’m at least trying to help a bit amongst this horror.” Dr. Galán-Díez’s commitment to focusing on work has garnered her much to be proud of in her career: She holds a PhD in Molecular Biology and received the ASBMR Young Investigator Award and a Mandl Foundation Grant for her leukemia research. Nevertheless, she is particularly proud and thankful to be aliquoting and labeling COVID-19 samples: “I am very grateful and happy to be part of the biobank team. The organizers’ response and leadership have amazed me.”
Simon Guillot--who holds a MS in Nutrition and plans to pursue a PhD--finds similar comfort and motivation in contributing his lab skills: “Being part of CRAC has helped me stay proactive, keeping me focused on an urgent and important matter. I am grateful to be part of such a team, trying to help as much as we can to find a way to get past this crisis.” Mr. Guillot also shared how CRAC has solidified his commitment to earning a PhD: “This trying time has helped me rethink my priorities and pushed my endeavors to pursue my career in this field.”
Like Mr. Guillot, Dr. Jaya Sarin Pradhan is thankful to be part of the biobanking team. Despite holding both a MD and a DMD, she is happy to be serving as a temporary lab assistant: “I wanted to use my background in public health and medicine to help with the COVID-19 pandemic in any way that I could, so I am very grateful for the opportunity to be part of CRAC.” Dr. Pradhan helped develop a tumor biobank with the Manji Lab, so she has many skills that are particularly relevant to the COVID-19 biobanking effort.
Dr. Meghan Bucher--who recently completed her PhD in Neuroscience--is equally grateful to be part of CRAC and eagerly volunteered despite acclimating to NYC in the midst of a pandemic: “I moved to NYC at the beginning of January 2020. I barely had time to adjust to living in a new city and starting a new job before the pandemic hit.” Though her first year in NYC is certainly not going according to plan, she is motivated by everybody’s efforts and grateful to be able to contribute: “The response at both the city- and university-level is inspiring. I feel extremely privileged to have the opportunity to make a difference by participating in Columbia's COVID-19 effort. The Columbia community's response to refocus and dedicate their time and effort to COVID-19 has been inspiring and motivating, and I believe it has put us on a path toward success.”
Despite having years of experience and numerous accolades, all of the biobanking volunteers continue to be humble enough to assist with simple but extremely important tasks. In other words, they have stepped up in the fight against COVID-19 by intermittently stepping down from their advanced research positions. The volunteers are certainly working below their inspiringly high skill level, but their significant lab experience undoubtedly increases the team’s efficiency. Undergraduates like me can pipette liquids and label tubes, but not with the precision and speed of somebody with years of lab experience (I’ve conducted many procedures alongside my lab mentor and can assure you that he pipettes at least twice as fast as I do.)
The combined expertise of CRAC’s biobank volunteers is already paying dividends: in just four weeks, the team has processed thousands of patient samples and generated over 15,500 vials--enough to support numerous COVID-19 research projects, some of which are already underway. I write this in awe of the biobanking team’s humility, skill, dedication, and kindness, and I have never been more proud to be a research student at Columbia.
Thank you to Dr. Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez, Dr. Barbara Noro, and Dr. Paula Croxson for their thoughtful feedback on preliminary drafts of this blog.
Note: Some quotations have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
“Don't be afraid to reorganize to fit your needs. Keep what's working, fix what's broken. Be nimble and move forward.”
- Dr. Kenneth Olive.
As the reach of COVID-19 has grown to engulf most countries worldwide, the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in the City of New York is experiencing a series of familiar difficulties in dealing with this pandemic: emergency rooms crowded with patients, medical professionals being redeployed from their specialities, shortages of basic PPE (face masks, shields, gloves, and gowns), and clinical needs dominating over basic research efforts.The acute needs of our clinical colleagues at the Medical Center have sparked a frenzy of volunteer support efforts, including those organized by the teams of Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19, CRAC. The key message is that the collective expertise and creativity of our community, coupled with the redeployment of available resources, is a powerful tool for tackling complex problems.
Below are some key points your research and medical institutes can implement to develop a quick and effective response to this pandemic.
Engage the leadership and administrative infrastructure already in place
Remember that research institutions have many skilled workers who can use their expertise to fulfill novel tasks. Establishing multidisciplinary teams will improve the likelihood of a creative and efficient solution to a specific problem, while providing an outlet for your skilled colleagues. Throughout this process, buy-in from Columbia University administration, especially the Irving Medical Center, has proven incredibly helpful.
Best practices to recruit your workforce
Work with your Medical Center/Hospital leadership to develop policies that clarify which type of personnel can be recruited to help in case additional needs and tasks arise that cannot be satisfied by existing personnel, and what mode of employment will be utilized.
Questions you want to answer early on:
Diagnostic and serology testing
These are essential procedures that, if put in place early on, will allow to monitor the health and safety of at least your community:
COVID-19 related research database
As most basic research at your Institution has likely already ramped down, focus on developing an up to date, institution wide COVID-19 related research database. This database will avoid duplications of efforts and enhance efficiency. Include information that will be needed later to foster collaborations between different Departments and Organizations, and make sure you also maintain a comprehensive list of equipment, workforce aides and expertise available to support the COVID-19 active laboratories
Samples from COVID-19 patients are going to be invaluable to fuel both present and future COVID-19-related research:
"Our story": how we got it together
On March 18th, 2020 Dr. Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez, an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, sent out a call for volunteers - Columbia postdocs were asked to offer their experience, laboratory skills and knowledge to help expand testing and thus slow the spread of SARS-Cov-2. 150 volunteers responded in just two days time. Since then, Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19, CRAC, has grown to over 550 volunteers. We are a group of Columbia University postdocs, graduate students, faculty members, and administrators who connect available volunteer researchers, personnel, and resources with efforts that aim to better understand how to fight COVID-19 and/or support our health care community. Our teams of skilled experts tackle projects such as:
We don’t try to supplant official efforts, but rather support them. Each project assists a faculty or administrative director who has the appropriate expertise, administrative oversight, and infrastructural resources to tackle COVID-19. Finding key leaders with strong managerial skills and time availability is of paramount importance. This strategy keeps our volunteers safe and leverages the full capacity of our University resources. We started with a bottom up approach: we first determined the needs of our epidemiologist, immunologist, and public health professionals, etc. and then supported each need by recruiting highly skilled volunteers and experts. We are now at a stage where people from the Columbia community, experts and creative thinkers alike, reach out to us so that we can swiftly assist in building a network of administrators and scientific collaborators who can speed up the launch of the project and enhance the likelihood of success.
As a founder or a member of such effort, you have the privilege and the responsibility to make your organization equitable and strive for inclusion and accessibility for all. Aim for gender balance and include all voices, also the ones who are traditionally underrepresented. To reach these basic goals, cast your net wide: don’t just rely on the people you know, but draw on the vast human resources of your university to fill every volunteer position. Then, have your Personnel Officers follow up with brief phone interviews before onboarding new volunteers.
The CRAC structure hinges on two divisions: Projects & Operations.
-Post 5: If not now, when? If not us, who? Perspectives on Stepping Up During Dual Pandemics
-Post 4: Answering the call: CRAC Serology Testing Volunteers Join the Fight Against COVID-19
-Volunteer Profiles: An opportunity to “meet” some of the serology testing volunteers
-Post 3: The human scrub machine
- Post 2: Biobank volunteers process 15,500 samples
- Post 1: The CRAC organizational structure
Covid-19 has changed what matters.
The CRAC team was born as a grassroots response to a pandemic none of us has experienced in their lifetime. CRAC has now grown into a community of like-minded postdocs, students, faculty, and administrators, from across Columbia University - a diverse and inclusive ecosystem of talented individuals with a simple goal: support projects to address what matters now, the fight against covid-19.
These are the stories of how the CRAC ecosystem has evolved and continues to adapt to bring life to efforts that became bigger than the sum of their parts. These are also the stories of single individuals who continue to inspire others with their unheralded efforts.