NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) — According to Dr. Eric Skaar at Vanderbilt, biomedical research can sometimes look a lot like it does on television: scientists move liquids around, run experiments and try to make discoveries. It's a very hands-on profession that necessitates working in a laboratory. That's difficult to do when you're ordered to stay at home. Just ask Clare Laut and Andy Weiss.
Laut was born and raised just outside of Detroit, Michigan. She got her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University. Since 2016, she’s been in graduate school at Vanderbilt University, working toward a Ph.D. in Skaar’s lab.
Laut could see her Ph.D. on the horizon. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came on like an avalanche, essentially freezing her progress. Whereas she would normally be working in the Skaar lab with Weiss, running experiments and applying for jobs—she wants to work in the biodefense field in Washington, D.C.—the pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home orders put a pause on all of that.
“Anyone not doing critical COVID research at either the university or the medical center right now is under stay at home orders,” said Dr. Skaar, who is the Director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation (VI4).
“Almost every day we’re home, we’re delaying graduation by at least one day,” Laut explained. “Graduate students cannot be on campus, so none of our experiments can move forward. And they can’t be done at home for obvious biosafety reasons.”
Weiss is in a similar situation. He is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Skaar’s lab, studying the bacteria that causes staph infections. Though Weiss, who is from Germany, already got his Ph.D. at the University of South Florida, he is hoping to pay his education forward and teach the next generation of scientists. That’s difficult to do from home, too.
But instead of sulking about in their homes, worrying about their career trajectory possibly being derailed by COVID-19, the two scientists decided to use their problem-solving skills to help guide Nashville through this pandemic.
“We were in a situation where we literally had hundreds of Ph.D. level scientists who were asked to shut down, and immediately, as you can imagine, there was a lot of energy of, ‘Well, how can we scientists do something to help?’” Skaar said.
Laut and Weiss were able to organize over 150 scientist volunteers from across the Vanderbilt campus to support the diagnostic and research labs that are processing samples of the novel coronavirus. Skaar commended the pair’s altruistic efforts.
“They didn’t have to do that,” Skaar said. “They could’ve sat at home and watched Netflix and waited for this to pass. Instead, they decided to do this and it’s had a massive impact on Nashville’s ability to deal with the pandemic, and nobody really knows that they’re doing it.”
The volunteer effort is vast. Laut says she has massive spreadsheets and calendars where scientists who are allowed on campus can sign up to work in labs to do viral testing for positive COVID-19 cases. “All of the volunteers we have going in are medical center employees who are in some ways being just reassigned to the clinical diagnostic labs and the clinical research labs,” Laut said. Someone who normally researches cancer or an auto-immune disease, for example, has now pivoted to the microbiology lab to do the viral testing.
This includes people like Dr. Alain Gobert, a Research Associate Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt. He recently joined the Center for Mucosal Inflammation and Cancer. Because of the efforts from Laut and Weiss, he has also volunteered by processing COVID-19 test samples.
Skaar said the new network of volunteers is basically a “high-level temp agency.” Those who aren’t allowed on campus still wanted to help, though. Laut and Weiss realized people could help volunteers who were in the labs by taking care of everyday necessities like childcare, grocery shopping and even walking dogs.
“When we send a call out for a new job, it’s within minutes that everyone jumps on these calendars and fills them up, willing to go in and work with these samples that could contain [the novel coronavirus],” Laut said. “We understand that takes a strong bit of bravery, so we really appreciate all of their courage and their willingness to help us do this.”
“At the end of the day, Clare and I just organized this whole effort, but the volunteers are the people that come in at night, that sort thousands of samples to be tested … and they are really such a valuable resource for the whole Vanderbilt community,” Weiss said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
Skaar said when someone gets a Ph.D. in biomedicine, what they’re really getting is a Ph.D. in problem-solving. That has certainly been Laut and Weiss’ experience. And while good news is in short supply these days, Skaar said the re-mobilization of scientists and volunteers really helped the medical center deal with the initial rush of coronavirus samples once testing increased.
Early on in the pandemic, Laut and Weiss started to hear about how many samples the labs at Vanderbilt were receiving without any comparable increase in manpower or resources.
“We wanted to try to get them some assistance so they can continue to run the tests so that Nashville has the testing ability that would be necessary to keep up with the population,” Laut said, “but also give these people who are courageous in their own right a bit of a break and an opportunity to rest and take care of themselves.”