Standing by for testing surge

Sylena Harper, Hannah Wilson, and Victoria Fitzpatrick.Inside the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) on the WSU Pullman campus, three recent Coug alumae—Victoria Fitzpatrick (biology), Sylena Harper (chemistry and biochemistry), and Hannah Wilson (genetics and cell biology)—are busy providing laboratory results that could save lives.

Since last July, the three have been working in shifts to process COVID-19 tests from throughout the Palouse and eastern Washington. To date, the lab has tested over 55,000 samples.

In general, Wilson said, WADDL is an overflow testing site, but if your test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus was processed by WSU through its WADDL-One Health Laboratory, it was surely processed by them.

“We’re not doing research, but we’re helping, and it’s nice to be a part of something that’s bigger than me,” Harper said. Like Fitzpatrick and Wilson, her job at WADDL as a microbiologist is her first out of college, and as an essential frontline worker.

The work ebbs and flows, but the team has seen their share of late nights and early mornings. Harper admits the work can be grueling, and it takes an emotional toll at times.

“I think about people getting these results and lives being changed for better or worse,” Harper said. “Depending on how many people are positive or negative, it can really get to you. We just have to remember that we will get through this if we handle it as safely as possible.”

The team uses real-time polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR, to process a COVID-19 test.

“We take a sample out of the viral of transport media and strip it of everything other than DNA and RNA, so all that mucus is taken out so we can amplify it and determine if the virus’ RNA can be detected,” said Wilson.

“When doing high throughput work, efficiency is key, we can survive without one of us, but we work better together,” Wilson said.

Wilson moved back to Pullman in June, not long after moving home near Bend, Ore., after graduation in May.

Fitzpatrick also moved back to Pullman from her hometown outside Seattle.

“As a recent graduate, the job market wasn’t great and we were told to expect not to work for a little bit,” she said. “It was a sad time, but this job was a way for me to contribute at a time that was really hard on people.”

The team said the job has helped them build troubleshooting, critical thinking, team-building and hands-on lab skills.

“The whole process we do every day is nothing like I’ve ever done before,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re in dark times; there’s not a lot you can do about it. I’m just happy us three can be there to help in some way.”

Top photo: (Left to right) Microbiologists Sylena Harper, Hannah Wilson, and Victoria Fitzpatrick, all recent 2020 WSU graduates, pose outside the soon-to-be-opened Global Animal Health Phase 2 building. The trio is responsible for all human COVID-19 testing at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, which assists when testing on the Palouse reaches surge capacity.

By Josh Babcock for WSU Insider