An interview with technicians sequencing the genome of COVID-19 - part 2

Adam Jackson, 26, is an Advanced research technician at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.  He and his team have been conducting vital work to sequence the genetic material of COVID-19 so that we can learn how it works and how it can be treated. We spoke to him for find out more about his role and what it’s like to be a part of such important work. 


Hi Adam! Before working on the COVID-19 pandemic, what did your job involve day-to-day?

'Before the lockdown I worked primarily on various research projects to grow, maintain and establish cancer cell lines so that they could be studied. 

Why are technicians like you important in the fight against COVID-19?

Currently I am working on a project set up to sequence the genetic material of the virus SARS-CoV-2 from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 – the disease it causes.'

What's 'sequencing DNA'?

To sequence DNA is to figure out the order of the four chemical building blocks - called "bases" - that make up the DNA molecule. The sequence tells scientists the kind of genetic information that is carried in a particular DNA segment. 

'Our aim is to spot changes that happen to the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus over time, and across different regions of the UK.

In our department, we receive the positive samples from clinical testing sites and process them so they can be taken for whole genome sequencing.

Technicians like myself are important, as we have the precision that a project like this needs.  Our experience of working on projects like this means that we understand the pitfalls and potential issues that can arise from processes that must be replicated precisely. Crucially, we know how to avoid the pitfalls. This has been really useful for the new COVID-19 sequencing project as we can raise any potential issues before they come up.'

What skills/attributes do you need to do your job?

'To carry out my job, I need to be able to plan and organise my day effectively because lots of activities need to be carried out, including; meetings, experimental set-ups, and office work.

I also need to be able to follow protocols accurately and efficiently and to find ways in which a process can be improved where necessary. Communication skills are also important, as I talk about my findings in team meetings and with my line manager.

With this new project, whether I’m working from home or in the lab, the same skills are still needed; now more than ever. We have been working to develop systems which can be increased in scale with minimal errors. Because this is so important, really good communication skills have been needed throughout, so concerns can be dealt with as soon as possible.'

What couldn’t happen without technicians like you?

'Without us, the processes in the lab couldn’t be done at a large scale and so would actually cost more money and be more difficult to carry out in the long term!'

What is your current daily routine like? Please highlight what’s different in comparison to what you would normally do?

'Currently my routine is extremely varied, especially depending on if I am working from home or if I am working in the lab. As there are still aspects of the new project that can be improved, the general routine in the lab can be completely different day-to-day and we have to be flexible so that we can adapt to this ever-changing challenge. I would say this is the largest difference compared to what I normally do, because generally it is possible to plan your entire week or month in terms of lab work, meetings or office work deadlines.'

What advice, tips or encouragement would you give to a young person thinking about a technical career and/or a fellow technician?  

'Being in a technical career allows you to learn lots of skills that can be used either inside or outside of the lab, like communication, problem solving, and presentation as well as technical skills. Having transferrable skills like these make it possible to find work in a whole range of fields.

The most rewarding thing about working in a technical role is that over the course of your career you can work on a variety of projects, from cancer research to COVID-19. It has been very important to me to feel like I can help to make a difference during these challenging times.'   

To discover more about what it's like to work at Wellcome Sanger, read Laboratory Technician Apprentice Claire's story 

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