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.
-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.