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STEM roles collaborating to tackle Covid-19 (part 1)

  • 14 June 2020

STEM Roles Collaborating to Tackle Covid-19 (part 1)

With end of year approaching for many graduating students in the fields of STEM, understanding roles available can be confusing.

WITS executive committee member and founder of Treacy Healthcare Consulting, Susan Treacy writes:

Soon after St. Patrick’s Day, I was grabbing a break away from work to home-school my three children. Coronavirus was taking a further hold and molecular pathology testing for Covid-19 topped the agenda of every country affected and every news outlet. Together with tracking and tracing, testing emerged as a vital piece of the puzzle in trying to somehow see the effects of this virus and control its spread. Antibody testing followed closely behind molecular testing as a companion to help bring us back to some version of our ‘old normal’. Home for me has felt particularly close to the efforts. As a biomedical scientist who moved from the bench over 15 years ago into commercial roles in healthcare, and with my husband in the same field, I’ve seen my family, friends and colleagues fighting the good fight in pathology labs and diagnostic organisations daily.

Going from zero Covid-19 testing capacity in such a short space of time to 20,000 daily presented many challenges. Despite the fact that 70% of clinical decisions are made from diagnostic results, pathology has often been low in priorities for funding and development - some of the instrumentation needed didn’t exist in hospitals. In a short space of time, it was now imperative for areas of diagnostics to collaborate effectively to ensure molecular testing was rapidly made available to the healthcare system. In observing the enormity of the task involved in rapidly ramping up testing, while in the depths of a global pandemic, what struck me that day and since was the cliché ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.

In an unprecedented way, STEM employees have been working together, collaborating in very challenging circumstances to deliver solutions to help in this fight.

Organisations in healthcare have been moving at breakneck speed and efficiency to get Covid-19 testing off the ground both in the infrastructure around lab testing and the laboratories themselves. All of this has had to be done while adhering to high quality standards and ensuring above all, that the results were correct and the patient and system could rely on the data.

With end of year approaching for many graduating students in the fields of STEM, understanding roles available can be confusing. It also struck me that day that the coronavirus offers an opportunity to better understand some roles for STEM disciplines, where they fit in the landscape and how these roles interact with each other in a clinical setting. In addition, there are many commercial roles alongside these that are generally held by STEM graduates. This two part piece will hopefully give you a flavour for some of them.

Starting With R&D

There are many places I could begin to talk about what is involved for Covid-19 testing. For the purpose of this article, I’ll start at R&D and manufacturing, and end with a patient result reaching the clinician. From the moment Covid-19 was identified R&D input was vital. Scientific, regulatory and marketing teams in R&D diagnostic companies began the mammoth task of researching and developing high quality, reliable, accredited kits to use for testing in pathology laboratories. These kits needed to then go through the many steps to get approval such as CE marking and FDA approval. This required a concerted effort by these teams and had to be done much quicker than normal without compromising on protocol or quality. You can find out more about R&D roles at www.gradireland.com.

Manufacturing for diagnostics

Manufacturing is the stage in which the laboratory instruments, the consumable kits and applicable software to run the Covid-19 tests are made, validated, quality checked and sent to market. Companies would normally have engineers and employees working on-site ensuring a certain amount of capability for instrument manufacture but global demand meant that capacity was just not sufficient. As well as the need to manufacture unanticipated volumes of kits and reagents, the manufacturing of instruments within organisations also had to be scaled up in order to assist healthcare systems around the world. This increase was exponential and presented many challenges. It required competent, effective, cross-functional teams of scientists, effective production engineering and strong leadership from managers (usually with STEM backgrounds) to deliver on multiples of their normal production. If you’re interested in these roles, there are many manufacturers of diagnostic equipment and tests - see www.imsta.ie for more.

Part 2

In part 2 we will continue with the processes involved to get Covid-19 testing up and running and highlight the roles available for STEM graduates in diagnostics.

Susan's profile is on LinkedIn and she tweets at @susan_treacy.