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MicroGen Diagnostics staff receive multiple samples that need to be tested for a variety of infections. The staff has been testing an overload of COVID-19 samples since the virus was present in Lubbock.

Testing for COVID-19 is a task that has posed multiple challenges for healthcare workers across the country. For some Texas Tech Health Sciences Center alumni, this testing has provided an experience like no other.

The staff at MicroGen Diagnostics, an infectious disease molecular lab, works to test different samples they receive for infections. With the presence of COVID-19 in the area, members of the lab are working longer hours to test the overload of samples that is sent in throughout the week from different medical institutions.

Some of the lab’s staff members, who got their start as molecular pathology students at the Tech HSC, are using their educational experiences to tackle this pandemic.

Celina Pecos, general supervisor and molecular technologist at MicroGenDX, said she graduated from the Tech HSC molecular pathology program in 2018. Since graduation, she has only worked at MicroGenDX.

“I would say that the HSC does a really good job of preparing all us molecular techs in that you see the difference between a hire that’s an HSC grad versus somebody who hasn’t done a lot of molecular work,” she said.

The Tech HSC has prepared her for the different protocols that will be utilized in a lab and has given her the ability to learn new tasks quicker, Pecos said. With the presence of COVID-19 in Lubbock, she said the lab’s staff was taken aback but still are motivated to get the job done.

“Not everybody gets to experience this,” she said regarding being able to test samples during a pandemic.

Even though the days are longer due to the influx of COVID-19 samples that need to be tested, Pecos said there is still excitement from this experience she never thought she would have gotten, whether as a HSC student or when she started at MicroGenDX.

The staff typically tests samples, whether it be from medical institutions from the United States or other countries, for different infections by extracting the bacterial DNA and running it on a specific panel, Pecos said. Regarding COVID-19 testing, the staff, who is taking extra precautions, extract the viral RNA from the COVID-19 sample, and if the sample tests negative for COIVD-19, they will reevaluate it to ensure it is not a false negative.

“We are, normally, a staff of 12 that processes 300 normal samples,” she said. “So, what happened is we have seen our normal sample load decrease, so not as many people are going to the doctor for a wound or an earache.”

Although, Pecos said the lab anticipates the COVID19 sample load to increase.

Dealing with this overload of samples and the pandemic in general is something Traylor Moses, general supervisor at MicroGenDX and alumnus of the Tech HSC molecular pathology program, said he did not think he would experience.  

Because the lab is known for 24-hour turnaround time on testing results, the overload of samples, which seems to increase more and more, has been a challenge, Moses said.

Regardless, Moses said testing for COVID-19 has been an unexpected experience for a different reason as well.

“But knowing that I can test for it, and testing however many people we are a day and hopefully trying to provide some benefit or relief to them, that’s way out of my mind of what I thought I would ever do,” he said.

In addition to skills being utilized in the lab, the Tech HSC may provide alumni other experiences that could be beneficial in their field.

Kelissa McCullar, molecular technologist at MicroGenDX and alumna of the Tech HSC molecular pathology program, said she also works as a lab teaching assistant at the Tech HSC. Attending the university and being a teaching assistant has helped her develop different skills that have been beneficial throughout her career.

Tech HSC professors and even the Lubbock Health Department have been reaching out to certain alumni who have experience to help with the testing, McCullar said.

“It’s good that they have a good alumni pool to actually grab people from,” she said.

Regardless, McCullar said the Tech HSC has prepared her in different ways for testing samples, whether it be normal samples or testing for the unexpected COVID-19.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “But it makes me feel really good that I’m able to do something directly to help out with this whole process.”

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