Meet Helen - Technician on the COVID-19 Vaccine Team

Without vaccines, there are many common diseases and illnesses that can prove deadly. The current pandemic has brought this into sharp focus and it is technicians like Helen Sanders, Clinical Trials Research Technician at Oxford University, who are at the forefront of the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. Helen was kind enough to talk to us about how she is helping to make the vaccine happen. #techniciansmakeithappen

Hi Helen! Can you tell us what you do?

I am part of the Malaria and Outbreak Pathogens group at the Jenner Institute so we run clinical trials to test a range of vaccines. Recently I have worked on Malaria, Ebola, Rabies and MERS (another coronavirus) vaccine trials. We receive blood samples from volunteers in these trials and spin them in a centrifuge to separate the blood into layers.  We can then take the white blood cells and use them in an ELISpot – This is one of the techniques we use to see if the vaccine is generating an immune response in the volunteers.  

What are you currently working on, and why are technicians like you important in the fight against Covid-19?

The trial I am currently working on is testing our vaccine (called ChAdOx1-nCov-19) against Covid-19. We are now in phase 3 testing of the vaccine which means half the volunteers get the real vaccine and the other half a placebo (control group). If the majority of cases are in the control group this will show us that vaccine is protective against Covid-19. In my lab we use the blood samples from these volunteers taken at regular time points (Such as 0, 7, 14, 28 days post vaccination) to carry out experiments to understand the type and extent of the immune response.

What skills/attributes do you normally need to do your job? Are you applying them differently in this context?

The 3 main skills I use on a daily basis are: strong attention to detail, meticulous approach to laboratory work and good organisation. When a sample arrives in the lab we check to see what time-point it is and which group it is in (the groups tell us which dose the volunteer has received or whether they have had a booster vaccine). Each group and each time point may require a different experiment to be done so it is important to check this information, especially when we could be receiving over 100 samples from different trials. 

What couldn’t happen without you?

One of my main tasks is checking that we have enough laboratory chemicals for our experiments. Because this is the largest trial we have ever done we have been going through our consumables much faster than usual. Many of the companies that we order from have been working with reduced staff so things can take a little longer to arrive.

What is your current daily routine like?

Our days are more unpredictable since Covid-19 with lots of evening and weekend work due to the enormous numbers of samples coming in each day. However, the day to day tasks are very similar to what I would normally do.

What would you say to either a young person thinking about a technical career?

I definitely recommend becoming a research technician. There is such a wide range of opportunities and fields to work in and you can see how your work is benefiting society. Being a technician is also really fun as you get to work on amazing projects!

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