A day in the life: COVID-19 testing volunteer


Mariam Marai is a PhD candidate and research assistant in the UCD Diabetes Complications Research Centre based in UCD Conway Institute. Mariam is volunteering in the recently established COVID-19 testing laboratory in St Vincent’s University Hospital (SVUH).

From Paris originally, Mariam Marai has an undergraduate and master’s degree in virology from the University of Strasbourg. She was employed in both medical research and industry laboratories in France. Four years ago, Mariam relocated to Dublin and began working in Professor Catherine Godson’s research group in UCD.

Tell me about your own research and how it has been impacted by this crisis?

My research focuses on resolving inflammation in the context of the complications that arise in diabetes. We are particularly interested in an anti-inflammatory messenger called Lipoxin A4. This molecule is relatively instable in the body and expensive to make. We work with colleagues in UCD School of Chemistry who designed new synthetic versions (analogues) in order to stabilise this molecule. My job was to help screen around 30 lipoxins analogues in the laboratory (in vitro). I worked with Dr Eoin Brennan on some promising analogues – we tested one in a diabetic mouse model last year to study the potential anti-inflammatory effect of this new molecule in vivo. With the COVID-19 crisis, the Institute is closed so, like all of my colleagues, I have had to stop my research.
Mariam Marai, PhD student

How did you get involved in the COVID testing initiative?

I replied to an email calling for volunteers that was circulated in the Institute. I was trained by Mr Alejandro Garcia (Prof. Patrick Mallon’s group) who helped to set up the COVID-19 lab in SVUH with the help of Prof. Kirsten Schaeffer in the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) and Dr Guerrino Macori and Dr Evonne McCabe (Prof. Séamus Fanning’s group) - all brilliant research scientists.

Describe a typical day in the COVID-19 laboratory.

The samples come from the BL3 (biosafety level 3) laboratory where the virus is inactivated and lysed. We triple check all samples received before on to the extraction and purification of the viral RNA with a high-throughput extractor robot. The reverse transcription step and the qPCR happens straight after this step. We detect the mRNA coding for the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 in the patient samples. When the run is successfully completed, we pass the results to the microbiologists. These steps are repeated for every batch of samples coming through from the BL3 lab. We reached the 1000th test done in the SVUH COVID-19 lab this week (wk beg. 30.03.20).

What is most challenging about this work?

I feel a huge sense of responsibility. The fear of making technical or interpretation mistakes that can have serious consequences on people’s lives is always there when you work under pressure. This is not something we are used to dealing with in a research lab but we rely on each other in the team to proofread everything. Like all COVID-19 test centres, we are encountering difficulties due to the worldwide shortage of lysis buffers, extraction and qPCR kits. Finding new kits, testing and validating them or designing our own primers in a very short period while patients are still waiting for their results is extremely challenging.

Is there one thing you have learnt from this experience that might be of value to you in the future?

I have learnt to work with an automated nucleic acid extractor which I was not familiar with as I have always been doing my extraction manually. I manage my stress better now since adjusting to this hectic hospital setting. The experience has improved my problem-solving skills as well. And, I have met some amazing scientists and doctors here who I am glad to work with.

How often do you volunteer in SVUH?

We work in 3 teams of 2 people, 7 days a week with 1 person on call each day. Each team works 5-6 days a week. We try to have 2 days off but this can vary each week depending on the number of patients and staff being swabbed daily in SVUH.

As a PhD student, how do you balance this volunteering work with your day-job?

It is difficult. I am writing my thesis at the moment so I am trying to find some time on my days off to keep going on this big task.
In conversation with Elaine Quinn, Institute Manager (Communications & Education) on 02 April 2020