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In the trenches at Northeastern’s coronavirus testing center by day, hitting the books at night

Eduardo Sanchez, a general supervisor at the Life Sciences Testing Center at Northeastern University's Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts on Oct. 15. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

BURLINGTON, Massachusetts – By the time that Eduardo Sanchez heads to work in the morning, he’s already been up for hours—reading and preparing for the discussions, quizzes, and tests he takes as part of a master’s program in biotechnology at Northeastern. 

But he won’t touch that classwork again until after 11 at night, after he ends his shift as one of the scientists who ensures Northeastern’s Life Sciences Testing Center runs like a well-oiled machine to process thousands of coronavirus tests on a daily basis. 

Sanchez joined the Life Sciences Testing Center in July as a lab technician, and was soon promoted to be one of the supervisory scientists in the lab. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Sanchez, a general supervisor in the lab—and a former research chemist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—has been part of the team of scientists there since before the testing center began operating at the university’s Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts. 

In July, when Sanchez joined a then-four-person team as a lab technician, the systems and instrumentation that sustain the lab today were still being  designed. Then they needed to be validated in order to acquire the licensing that would allow the lab to conduct the diagnostic analysis and process the human samples necessary to test for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. 

Now, nearly 10 weeks into its operations, and thanks to the determination of Sanchez and other scientists with experience working in other clinical laboratories, the state-of-the-art facility has been the engine of an ambitious testing operation that has allowed Northeastern’s campus in Boston to re-open—and remain open—this fall. 

The lab’s molecular testing has produced results that are more than 99 percent accurate at detecting the coronavirus, enabling scientists to spot positive cases of COVID-19 early and reliably—whether someone has symptoms or not. That, in turn, has enabled the university to isolate people who test positive, trace their contracts, and prevent an outbreak.

With the lab in full motion, Sanchez was promoted to take on the leadership role of a supervisory scientist who focuses on training new members of the lab and on optimizing its operations. What was a four-person team just months ago now consists of nearly 70 scientists. And the facility is growing, with an added room full of new scientific instruments that Sanchez and other scientists are calibrating to be part of the lab.

Sanchez focuses on training new scientists joining the lab, as well as on optimizing its operations in order to produce accurate and reliable results. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The ‘other facets of science’

For Sanchez, working in the trenches during a global public health crisis was a natural choice. In 2018, he finished a five-year fellowship as a research chemist at the CDC in Atlanta, where he contributed to a large, national study on potentially carcinogenic compounds within human blood samples. 

Before that, as an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, Sanchez had fallen in love with chemistry. He was drawn to the CDC, he says, because of its ability to translate research into solutions that can benefit people worldwide. 

“Once I got to the CDC, I started seeing there’s all these other facets of science,” he says. “Global public health is really important, and associated with that is all the science behind it.” 

After a short stint at a medical laboratory near Atlanta, Sanchez decided to take on a slightly different challenge and pursue a career in biotechnology. The field, he thought, was brimming with opportunities for versatile researchers in areas such as proteomics, therapeutics, and genomics. 

When he was accepted into Northeastern’s master’s program, Sanchez began to look for jobs near Boston. But the job hunt didn’t go well. The pandemic, which brought the entire world to a halt, also caused many labs to freeze new hiring. 

When a recruiter reached out to Sanchez in July, asking him if he would be able to join Northeastern’s team to take on the ambitious goal of building a clinical laboratory from scratch, he didn’t think twice about it. His girlfriend, whom he had met in the CDC labs, was moving to Boston, too, to pursue a master’s degree in public health from Boston University, where she also joined a team of scientists testing for the coronavirus.

Northeastern's Life Sciences Testing Center consists of nearly 70 scientists who are experienced in handling human samples and who are skilled in the techniques needed to prepare and conduct the molecular analysis that can detect genes from SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Now, as a rising scientist in a field that’s firmly in the public eye as the pandemic evolves—and as a leader in a lab that aims to safeguard the health of thousands of people during a record-setting public health crisis—Sanchez says he feels the same passion he discovered as a chemist. After all, the entire field of biotechnology boils down to improving life all around the world, a goal that also aligns with the overarching goals of science, he says.

“This is like we’re on the cusp of it,” Sanchez says about his role at the Life Sciences Testing Center. “Because we have to do a diagnosis today that helps prevent other people from [getting infected], it’s an immediate impact.”

A natural leader

Jared Auclair, who directs the lab, says this outlook is one of the many reasons he hired Sanchez and scientists like him. In the early weeks leading to the regulatory inspections that would determine whether the lab would be approved as a coronavirus testing center, Sanchez emerged as a strong leader. 

“The most important thing for me, as a person who is, at the end of the day, responsible for what’s happening in the lab, is that those aspects are linked together in such a way that I trust Eddie’s scientific and personal judgement 100 percent,” Auclair says. “I trust in his scientific judgment and his judgment to deal with people, and in motivating the team.”

Sanchez says he is aware that an entire community on the Boston campus relies on the accuracy and consistency of the lab, and is devoted to making sure everyone in the team stays focused on the importance of their work. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Work in the lab can be tedious and highly technical, demanding long hours and efficiency. That means scientists must sustain an intense level of focus that Sanchez is careful to foster. 

“These are patient samples, these are individuals,” Sanchez says. “You don’t want to assign someone accidentally as a positive, or even the reverse. You don’t want to have a false negative, and have that person be actually positive and have an outbreak.”

When the lab was still ramping up its procedures, before it operated at full capacity, Sanchez leaned on his scientific intuition to resolve a critical issue, Auclair says. An accidental oversight in an important step of the diagnostics process that helps detect the coronavirus’ genetic material led to an abnormally high number of positive results. 

Sanchez identified the problem as a faulty step in the process of preparing the samples for molecular analysis, and re-ran the analysis. All those samples came back negative, Auclair recalls. 

“That’s one of the main reasons that I have so much trust in his abilities and his judgment, because that intuition, that gut feeling, is there,” Auclair says. “I’d like to think that I also have that, but I can’t be in the lab all the time to engage, so I need people who can do that.”

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