Categories: Sanger Life22 April 20224.3 min read

Contamination control and walking with dinosaurs

Laura joined the Sanger Institute just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK and has helped to improve the Institute’s genomic surveillance work. She has also worked on the UK Biobank project to read and assemble the whole genome sequences of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Tell us about your day job at Sanger

I support operational teams in establishing and maintaining quality standards. My role is quite varied – I look at the management of things like training for staff, equipment management, verifying scientific data and standardising processes, all to ensure that our science is of the best quality that it can be.

How did you join Sanger?

Prior to joining Sanger, I worked at Anglian Water for nine years in their accredited water testing laboratory. I started off in technical lab roles - testing drinking and waste water - before moving into quality management. Then this role came up at Sanger, which fitted all of my experience and presented an opportunity to further develop my career.

I joined in May 2020, which was quite an interesting time to move jobs! My role wasn’t intended to be anything to do with COVID, initially, and I interviewed before the pandemic hit the UK. It was more about establishing a quality management system in core operations.

The pandemic pushed all that aside, so the first thing I did was to come in to the laboratory and observe the sample processing steps for the COVID-19 surveillance pipeline. By its nature, the process is highly sensitive to contamination. I therefore reviewed the lab environment and the controls in place to prevent contamination, identified opportunities for improvement, and established a protocol for investigating quality control issues. When quality control failures occur, we are able to identify the source of the problem through investigation, which allows us to effectively direct our efforts towards fixing that problem. It can be something as simple as adjusting the settings on a piece of equipment to avoid sample splashing. For example, Senior Staff Scientist, Naomi Park worked with Colin Barker, an engineer, to create a station for manual removal of plate seals to avoid jostling.  Through a cycle of continuous improvement, the quality control fail rate has been dramatically reduced, even in parallel with large increases in sample throughput.

Since then, I’ve been primarily supporting the COVID-19 surveillance lab teams, but I have also been doing some work on the UK Biobank whole genome sequencing project.

Processing COVID-19 samples

What’s your involvement in the UK Biobank project?

I got involved a few months after I joined Sanger, establishing protocols for investigating and resolving issues, but also contributing to the management of our relationship with UK Biobank.

Process efficiency and maintaining strong relationships with the people we’re providing the data to are key.

How is your time split now between working on COVID-19 surveillance and UK Biobank?

It has been a 50/50 split, depending on what’s going on in the labs. The COVID surveillance project was never anticipated to be so big - when I joined it was a few thousand samples a week that were being processed, but it went up to 64,000 samples a week.

I now have a team, with dedicated resource for the COVID-19 surveillance project. UK Biobank is also now finished in terms of sample processing, so I am turning my attention to core operations. We have learned lots of lessons from these two projects, which can be applied to our core work.

My day-to-day will be supporting Sequencing Operations, and I’m currently working on the development of a Quality Policy for wider Scientific Operations.

Sequencing laboratory at the Sanger Institute

What’s the most exciting development in your field from the last ten years?

Quality management software. A lot of our processes are manual, with a lot of paperwork and manual sign off. Lots of different companies now offer this as a software, which takes away that admin element of what we do.

Can you tell us about your work with the Technician’s Commitment?

I’m a Chartered Scientist, so I’ve been doing a lot of work around professional registration. I’ve done some presentations to explain how you become registered and chartered, and have helped others do the same.

When I arrived at Sanger, I was the only person with that status, so couldn’t say no when I was asked to lead the effort! It’s been great to help others with their career development and professional status, and do something at work that hasn’t been strictly about my day-to-day job.

What’s the most overused word in your team?

Quality. Unsurprisingly.

If you could travel to any period in history, which would you pick?

I find dinosaurs fascinating. I’d love to go and walk with dinosaurs, providing they wouldn’t eat me.

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