The COVID-19 headlines have shifted to vaccines and variants, but Concordia's COVID-19 testing lab continues its work. Last semester Concordia University Wisconsin completed about 1,100 COVID-19 tests, and this semester the lab is likely to finish over 20,000.

Concordia’s School of Pharmacy COVID-19 testing lab

This first person narrative told by student worker Meghan Wendling tells the story of the work that the School of Pharmacy – Pharmaceutical Science department is undertaking this semester. Photos show a glimpse of the work inside the lab. Dr. Burlage assembled a team including Dr. Justin Speck, Mrs. Sarah Reams (Pharmacy tech), Dr. Uvi Castillo and a group of trained Concordia students.

Working at the COVID-19 testing lab

Several of Concordia’s School of Pharmacy faculty, staff, and students have been hard at work running COVID-19 tests. The tests they are running come from Concordia University Wisconsin students and staff, including those from the Concordia University Ann Arbor campus. In addition, the samples also include tests taken from outside universities as well including Carroll College and Wisconsin Lutheran College totaling hundreds of samples per day.

The work is still very much forefront for those who unwrap and test the samples. Not only is this work still critical and ongoing, it has grown. Last semester, Concordia completed about 1,100 COVID-19 tests. In the past month, Concordia has already tested 5,300 samples, and is likely to finish 20,000 by the end of the semester.

My COVID-19 testing story – told by Meghan Wendling

My name is Meghan Wendling and I am a CUW pre-pharmacy student.

Twelve months ago, I began working for Dr. Uvidelio Castillo in the Pharmacy building. My work included helping out with lab duties like washing dishes, making bleach solution, and autoclaving trash. Little did I know, I would be using these skills every single day during a worldwide pandemic just a year later.

Since the middle of January, I have worked in the lab under Dr. Castillo, Dr. Robert Burlage, and Dr. Justin Speck processing COVID-19 samples. While this task has consumed many hours in the lab, there are also the normal lab duties that my coworkers and I still complete as well.

A typical day in the COVID-19 lab

At the start of each day in the lab, our first task is to unwrap, sort, and map out each of the COVID-19 test samples. We have roughly between 300 and 700 samples each day. This is one of the most tedious parts of the process. The next step is to actually extract the patient samples.  This might seem a little gross to an outsider, but usually I’m in such a focused mindset that I hardly take the time to think about what I am handling.

After sealing the plate and denaturing it, we often pool the samples. Doing this allows us to process about 575 tests in the time it would normally take to process 96 tests. We add three probes, a master mix, and water to each well before we run them in the PCR machine. This machine runs for an hour before it gives us results. If a pooled sample turns up positive, we then have to run each of those samples again in their own well. This entire process can take as little as three hours, or as many as seven hours, depending on the number of tests we have.

Collaboration and camaraderie in the lab

Recently, we have added a few more students to our team, making it about 10 total students. This is extremely helpful, as we have also been getting many additional samples. This teamwork has strengthened us as a unit, and it helps each individual person because we have the chance to learn from each other. Many of us are in the same classes so it is special to grow with our classmates.

Strengthening Concordia through unprecedented work

Working in the lab environment together doing something that hasn’t been done at Concordia before strengthens the bond that we have with one another. It is also helpful to have many team members so that we can get started early in the mornings and keep it going without pausing throughout the entire day. The fluency of our collaboration helps to expedite the process so we can get results out earlier.

The Concordia difference

While I never envisioned this kind of work for myself as an undergraduate student, I could not be more grateful to have this experience. The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating in so many ways, which is why I am thrilled to work in the lab processing samples. The Concordia University School of Pharmacy has been doing excellent work, with everyone working tirelessly to aid in any way possible.

When this opportunity arose for me, I joined without hesitation because I knew how special this project was going to be. I think this is just one of the many ways Concordia’s mission statement is being fulfilled, as I know I would not be able to do this if I was not at Concordia.

Living out my calling

As a Pre-Pharmacy student, this is such a rare position, but it is one that has only further assured me that a career path in Pharmacy is right for me. This opportunity to serve others during the pandemic is something that I am very proud of and that I am incredibly passionate about. This position is a part of my vocation, and I truly feel blessed to have the unique opportunity to serve in this way.

Sometimes I look back on the past year, and I am blown away by what it has brought me. Throughout the year, I have been quite involved in the COVID-19 process, from screening patrons at a hospital, to performing nasal swabs at a drive-thru test site, to now processing samples in the lab. My engagement stems from my desire to help out in times of need, and I would most definitely consider this pandemic one of those times. The memories and learning curves will stick with me for many years, and this experience is something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Feeling inspired?

Meghan’s story is one example of Concordia students, faculty, and staff going above and beyond to serve their communities. This is what the School of Pharmacy is all about: developing pharmacists “who are servant leaders, dedicated to providing value-based, patient-centered care that improves the health of our communities in rural and urban areas through excellence in teaching, research, service, and practice.”

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