Rapid COVID-19 Testing, International Collaboration, and a Family Favor

When the COVID-19 pandemic descended on New York in March 2020, Christopher Mason, PhD, knew he was in a unique position to contribute. The Mason Lab specializes in sequencing and computational methods in functional genomics – valuable expertise for addressing an emerging infectious disease. Within days, Chris and his team were helping to analyze patient data, as well as developing new tests and detection methods for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

3d model of coronavirus covid-19

The Mason Lab developed protocols for a simple COVID-19 detection test that requires less time and equipment than common PCR methods. Their subsequent preprint detailing these methods quickly gained widespread attention, and Chris found himself fielding an endless stream of questions and requests.

During the frenzy, Chris received a call from his older brother. Cory Mason is the mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, the brothers’ hometown.

“He said he saw me tweeting about our new test,” Chris says. “Then he asked me, ‘What if we set it up here in Wisconsin?’’

Continue reading “Rapid COVID-19 Testing, International Collaboration, and a Family Favor”

Screen Media in the Time of COVID-19: Should You Be Reading this Blog?

Screen Media. Cell phones. Social media accounts. If you are a parent, you have probably discussed rules of engagement with your children about these things. All of our modern social media platforms are designed to keep us engaged with them by showing us the latest post, the next video or the people now online. Work emails give us notifications when something arrives in our Inbox. Business software platforms like Microsoft Teams send us notifications whenever someone comments in a conversation we have ever been part of. There are many siren signals pulling us toward our screens.

Enter COVID-19, the flu-like illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has already claimed the lives of 210,000 people in the United States, and leaving countless others permanently affected by other long-term health consequences. Spread by aerosol, COVID-19 is most dangerous in places where lots of people congregate in a small area, particularly if they are talking to each other. Consequently, office buildings are empty as many of us work or go to school remotely.

Before COVID-19, if I had a day full of meetings at work, I was running from conference room to conference room, two miles, uphill, in the snow between buildings. Now, a day full of meetings means sitting in front of a computer monitor, trying to figure out how I will get any kind of break between calls. The average number of steps recorded by my pedometer has decreased markedly since March when our remote work started.

Technology has been an incredible blessing during this pandemic—allowing us to continue to work and stay connected with friends and family. Technology is the only way that some people can connect with loved ones in long-term care facilities. It allows students to continue learning through remote classrooms and chats.

But what has been the effect of the increased time spent on screens during this pandemic?

Continue reading “Screen Media in the Time of COVID-19: Should You Be Reading this Blog?”

Using the Power of Technology for Viral Outbreaks

Artist’s rendition of a virus particle.

When the world is experiencing a viral pandemic, scientists and health officials quickly want data-driven answers to understand the situation and better formulate a public health response. Technology provides tools that researchers can use to develop a rapid sequencing protocol. With such a protocol, the data generated can help answer questions about disease epidemiology and understand the interaction between host and virus. Even better: If the protocol is freely available and based on cheap, mobile sequencing systems.

Continue reading “Using the Power of Technology for Viral Outbreaks”

Connecting and Collaborating: How Scientists Across the Globe are Supporting Each Other During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Many research labs around the world have temporarily closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others are experiencing unprecedented need for reagents to perform viral testing. This urgency has led many scientists to make new connections and build creative, collaborative solutions.

“In labs that are still open for testing or other purposes, there’s certainly heightened anxiety,” says Tony Vanden Bush, Client Support Specialist. “I feel that right now, I need to help them deal with that stress however possible.”

Last week, Tony was contacted by a lab at the University of Minnesota that was preparing to serve as a secondary COVID-19 testing facility for a nearby hospital lab. The two labs needed to process up to 6,000 samples per day, and the university lab was far short of that capacity.

Continue reading “Connecting and Collaborating: How Scientists Across the Globe are Supporting Each Other During The COVID-19 Pandemic”

38 Years After First Release, RNasin Protects COVID-19 Tests

A protein first purified and sold by Promega almost four decades ago has emerged as a crucial tool in many COVID-19 testing workflows. RNasin® Ribonuclease Inhibitor was first released in 1982, only four years after the company was started. At that time, the entire Promega catalog fit on a single sheet of 8.5 × 11” paper, and RNasin was one of the first products to draw widespread attention to Promega. Today, the demand for this foundational product has skyrocketed as it supports labs responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is RNasin® Ribonuclease Inhibitor?

RNA is notoriously vulnerable to contamination by RNases. These enzymes degrade RNA by breaking the phosphodiester bonds forming the backbone of the molecule. To say that RNases are everywhere is barely an exaggeration – almost every known organism produces some form of RNase, and they’re commonly found in all kinds of biological samples. They’re easily introduced into experimental systems, since even human skin secretes a form of RNase. Once they’re present, it’s very hard to get rid of them. Even an autoclave can’t inactivate RNases; the enzymes will refold and retain much of their original activity.

RNasin® Ribonuclease Inhibitor is a protein that has been shown to inhibit many common contaminating RNases, but without disrupting the activity of enzymes like reverse transcriptase that may be essential to an experiment. It works by binding to the RNase enzyme, prevent it from acting on RNA molecules. This is important for ensuring that RNA samples are intact before performing a complex assay.

Continue reading “38 Years After First Release, RNasin Protects COVID-19 Tests”

Working from Home: Finding Productivity in this New Normal

During this time of adjusting to a new normal, one of the most difficult things that I have had to get used to is being productive in my own home. Work from home (WFH) days are embraced by some people and not by others. For me, transitioning from working in an office and school setting, to working at-home and completing online courses, has led me on a search for answers about how to get the most out of my day. After creating a productive at-home work environment for me, I wanted to share some of my findings with you.

Here are some of the tips that I have found useful:

Section out a portion of your home for work only.

When I first started working from home, I moved room to room working wherever I felt most comfortable. I soon found this affected my organization and time management, so I started keeping all my work in one area. Now, as I sit here writing this post, I know where all of my work is, and I also know that when I walk out of this area I can ‘power down’ my mind knowing I no longer have to do work.

Power off your electronics when not working.

Continue reading “Working from Home: Finding Productivity in this New Normal”

Getting a PhD in Sweatpants: Guest Blog by Dr. Susanna Harris

Today’s blog is guest-written by Susanna Harris, who recently defended her PhD thesis at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.


I just defended my PhD. Nearly six years of blood, sweat, and tears, most of which were cleaned up with Kimwipes while sitting at my desk in a laboratory facing out towards the UNC Chapel Hill football field. Nearly six years of work, all summed up in a handful of slides. Nearly six years of work, explained to my friends, family, and colleagues – a moment I had dreamed of since the fall of 2014.

What I hadn’t dreamed of? That I would be sitting at my small desk in the corner of my room, with no present audience aside from my snoring dogs. That there would be no dinner celebration that carried into a night of fun along Franklin Street. That, unseen by the viewers of my defense, I would be wearing sweatpants as my name changed from Ms. to Dr. Harris.

Pictured: The audience for Susanna’s thesis defense.

Why did I wear sweatpants when I could have worn literally anything in my closet? Because I think it’s hilarious. I believe this situation will end and we will walk away with memories and lessons learned from an extremely difficult time in the history of the world. I want to walk away with one more ridiculous story to add to a long list of “What even was that?” tales from grad school.

Working towards a PhD is hard at any time; let’s not pretend this pandemic isn’t making things even worse. I was fortunate in many ways that my advisor had already moved our laboratory to a new state in 2019, allowing me to adjust to meeting through webcams and working from home before the pandemic changed the lives of all North Carolinians. This has given me a unique perspective to tease out which problems come from distance working and which are the result of Safer-At-Home orders. Based on my experiences, here are a few tips, tricks, and words of warning.

Continue reading “Getting a PhD in Sweatpants: Guest Blog by Dr. Susanna Harris”

Just Keep Swimming: How the Wisdom of a Blue Cartoon Fish Can Inspire Us Amid COVID-19

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger Karen Stakun, Global Brand Manager at Promega.

Wise words from a forgetful blue fish are uniting Promega employees during these trying days. Initiated by our VP of Operations as a rallying call to employees and reinforced through a kind gesture from the Hollywood writer and director who dreamed up the fish, I invite you to join Promega as we “Just Keep Swimming.”

Those words were uttered by Dory, a blue tang with short-term memory loss, in the 2003 animated movie Finding Nemo. Now a classic, it tells the story of Marlin, an overprotective clownfish, who searches the ocean for his missing son Nemo. Dory is his sometimes-unwelcome companion. Desperate to find his son, Marlin grows exhausted and begins to feel defeated, but Dory will not let him give up. Her motivation is simple yet potent. “Just Keep Swimming.”

Setting the Scene

As COVID-19 was emerging in China, Promega began scaling up manufacturing in January to meet the growing global need for testing products. As epidemic became pandemic, and demand quickly became unprecedented, we moved swiftly to increase capacity and add more shifts at our Madison manufacturing facilities, all while ensuring the safety of our employees.

All of this takes dedicated people, especially those on our operations team, working long hours in an atmosphere of global uncertainty. Dedication is in abundance at Promega, as every employee feels a deep commitment to humanity’s struggle against this disease. However, Chuck York, our VP of Operations, says he began seeing the team struggle with the never-ending increases in demand. Despite record product totals, it could be demoralizing for a group that prides itself on always being able to deliver what customers need.

That’s when Chuck recalled one of his family’s favorite movies. “I love the never-give-up aspect of Finding Nemo and in particular the net scene.” Toward the end of the movie, Dory and several other fish find themselves caught in a fishing net. With Nemo’s help, the fish realize they can turn Dory’s mantra into action. They keep swimming together in the same direction and break free of the net.   

“I wanted the team to focus on what we could control, doing all we can each day to keep product flowing. And we were and are doing an outstanding job of that. I also hoped to lighten the mood and bring a smile to peoples’ faces. Our ‘net’ is the ever surging COVID-19 demand, but eventually we will overcome if we just keep swimming.”

Continue reading “Just Keep Swimming: How the Wisdom of a Blue Cartoon Fish Can Inspire Us Amid COVID-19”

Earth Day 2020: Celebrating Nature During A Pandemic

Since Wisconsin issued a Safer at Home order on March 25, I have been leaving my home exactly once a week. Every Tuesday morning, I drive to a small town outside of Madison to spend an hour monitoring a nest of bald eagles. I’ve been volunteering for Bald Eagle Nest Watch since the beginning of the year, and three weeks ago I got my first look at two newly hatched eaglets. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found that my time at the eagle nest is a wonderful relief from the stress of the pandemic and the confinement to my home.

I’m not the only person escaping to natural spaces for relief during the widespread lockdowns in response to COVID-19. Parks have been filled with people taking daily walks and enjoying fresh air when there are few places indoors they can safely go. Besides encouraging many people to visit local parks and forests, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many complexities of humanity’s relationship with the environment. The severe drop in human activities has resulted in decreased air pollution, as well as fascinating changes in wildlife behavior. However, the pandemic is also an important reminder that the environmental impact of human activity has drastic consequences for global risk of infectious disease. This Earth Day, it’s the perfect time to pause and examine how the COVID-19 pandemic and the natural world are influencing each other for better and for worse.

Continue reading “Earth Day 2020: Celebrating Nature During A Pandemic”

The Cytokine Storm: Why Some COVID-19 Cases Are More Severe

coronavirus

Blog Updated on June 16, 2020

One of the biggest outstanding questions of the COVID-19 pandemic is why symptoms vary so much among patients. Some patients have no symptoms at all; some symptoms are mild, while others are extremely severe. Among the more severe cases, a common pattern of disease progression happens like this: A patient gets through the first week with some signs of recovery—then suddenly they rapidly deteriorate. In some cases, they go from needing just a tiny bit of oxygen to requiring a ventilator within 24 hours.

This pattern, often seen in young and otherwise healthy patients, has baffled doctors. What causes these patients to suddenly crash? Research now suggests that the patient’s own immune system may be to blame. It’s called cytokine release syndrome—also known as the “cytokine storm”.

Continue reading “The Cytokine Storm: Why Some COVID-19 Cases Are More Severe”