Katrina Co should be packing her bags for a trip to Uganda. As a research analyst and the manager of a laboratory that studies malaria, her duties include routine travel to clinical sites in Africa. Her canceled trip is one of many examples of how the global pandemic has interrupted the work of scientists at Indiana University School of Medicine.
It’s OK, she said. All of their studies in Kenya and Uganda have been shut down by the local government anyway. While local physicians and medical officers continue to ensure that patients receive treatment and—for those in a clinical trial—study drugs, other operations have been halted. And since laboratories at IU transitioned to hibernation in mid-March, local research operations are limited to essential business and personnel only.
That transition leaves just Co and two others to protect their lab’s data and maintain its resources for when things return to normal.
You can't just shut it down.
Co manages the laboratory of Chandy John, MD, whose facility is home to clinical samples used in collaborative global health studies in sub-Saharan Africa. They consist of blood, plasma, serum, DNA, RNA, cerebrospinal fluid, urine, stool, and more from both adult and pediatric patients.
Their hope is to ultimately improve outcomes for the millions affected by malaria and its long-term impacts. But in the meantime, it’s up to Co and her colleagues to protect their precious collection.
“Essential work in our lab includes the maintenance of parasite cultures and thousands of clinical samples spanning 20 years of research in Kenya and Uganda,” Co said. “If anything happens to those samples, our work would be over. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true!”
It’s not a simple task. Each sample must be carefully stored in highly controlled environments, while cell cultures of Plasmodium falciparum—the parasite that causes malaria—is grown in human red blood cells. The cultures are maintained in flasks that precisely mimic the conditions of the parasite in the human body.
The new normal
A few weeks ago, the lab would bustle with as many as 10 scientists at once. Now, Co and her two colleagues stagger their shifts and follow the same guidelines as everyone else—frequent hand-washing, increased cleaning and physical distancing. But according to Co, it’s not unlike working over the weekend.
“It’s certainly been much quieter, and the Canadian geese have gotten more vicious on campus!” Co said. “It’s rare that you see anyone else, but your spider-senses tell you that there are other people in the building.”
Still, she and her team have found ways to keep bonding. They’ve celebrated birthdays, talked newest Netflix obsessions, and have even played charades during a weekly virtual happy hour.
We got this, y’all.
With time, Co said that she is confident things will return to normal. She said she’s proud of the leadership of IU School of Medicine and its many decision-making faculty to prioritize the safety of its employees and the community as a whole. She said that she encourages anyone who is able to volunteer or donate to local efforts in the community.
Co also gave a very special thanks to those on the front lines, “Thank you to all health care workers, janitors, grocery store employees, internet providers, delivery people, and all other essential employees who are keeping us functioning!”
To her colleagues near and far, she simply said, “We got this, y’all.”