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University Grad Students Step Up To Fill U.S. Coronavirus Testing Void

Mar 29, 2020

Academic science labs around the U.S. are rapidly gearing up to run coronavirus tests for patients in need. They're drawing resources from across campus: technology, chemicals and a formidable workforce — graduate students.

"Normally, when people say they need someone in an emergency, it's not a science grad student," says Katie Cabral, a bioengineering Ph.D. student at the University of California, San Francisco. "But in this case, my particular qualifications are exactly what is needed."

Cabral is volunteering at a new testing center organized by UCSF and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a biomedical research collaborative in San Francisco. Facilities normally dedicated to cutting-edge research are being switched over to coronavirus testing and they put out a call for student help.

"I was at home, just sort of stressing about the world," she says. "Being able to come in and do something tangible to work towards this goal of increasing testing, it just felt really important."

Early efforts by the University of Washington were crucial in expanding patient testing in the Seattle area. Undergrad Peter Ch'en has been volunteering on the 6 a.m. shift at UW Medicine's specimen processing lab, unpacking hundreds of samples.

"Every single day, there's so much news about COVID-19," Ch'en says. "Really being able to participate and do something about it, I don't think it's every day that you get an opportunity like that."

"I am just astounded by the willingness of people to go the extra mile," says Julia Schaletzky, executive director at UC Berkeley's Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases. "We see a lot of scientists working literally around the clock."

Schaletzky is helping set up a testing center at UC Berkeley. The machines for reading patient samples, which use a technology called PCR, are common in some university labs. UC Berkeley professors quickly offered to share 30 of them.

"Technically the challenge was very solvable for us," she says. "That's why we and other academics across the country got into this."

She says around 800 students volunteered to help, so many that they closed the signup list.

Getting government approvals has been a lengthy task, she says, with federal and state requirements changing rapidly. Their effort is relying on donations and other university funding to buy equipment and materials.

"In theory, we should be having funding from the CDC and from the federal government for this," Schaletzky says. "But I can frankly say, from my view in the trenches, it's nowhere to be seen."

But for now, she says the only choice is to do everything they can.

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