Devonte O’Neil felt exhausted. The senior biology major was processing a record-high volume of saliva samples as an intern in Illinois State University’s SHIELD Illinois coronavirus (COVID-19) testing lab during January’s Omicron surge. But he couldn’t help but smile while pulling away from a local elementary school with another vanload of vials for testing.

“I saw the kids, and that’s why we’re doing this—so that kids can go to school. We’re doing this so ‘Little Johnny’ can go hug his grandma this weekend. We’re doing this so, hopefully, life can move on,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil is the only undergraduate intern within the entire SHIELD Illinois system. He is also among 30 Illinois State undergraduate students from various majors who are paid to process samples in the on-campus COVID-19 testing lab. The students work alongside 12 full-time technicians plus dozens of students responsible for staffing collection sites and transporting samples using university vans.

Launched in early 2021 by Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Dr. John Baur and technical director Kim Garris, Illinois State’s lab is part of the SHIELD Illinois network and conducts PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests on saliva samples from the University community along with local community colleges, school districts, and employers such as electric carmaker Rivian—with more than 3,000 employees.

woman using a pipet in a lab
Lab technician Miranda Gonzalez uses a pipet to prepare saliva samples for testing in Illinois State’s SHIELD Illinois COVID-19 testing lab.

During Omicron’s peak in January 2022, ISU’s lab operated from 6 a.m.–4 a.m. each weekday to process as many as 13,600 tests daily and a record-high 55,000 in one week, according to Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology Dr. Paul Garris. Garris has served as the University’s COVID-19 testing coordinator since last May. The lab typically operates weekdays from 6 a.m.– 2 a.m. and processes around 30,000 tests each week when students are on campus, with a 24-hour—or less—turnaround time for results.

“We do a very accurate and efficient job of testing for the COVID virus, and it’s largely because of our team of undergraduates,” said Garris, noting that having an “army of undergraduates” to prepare samples for analysis is unique to the ISU lab and prevents logjams when large numbers of samples arrive. He also credits Kim Garris, who directs lab operations, and Julie Barnhill of the President’s Office, who manages Illinois State’s collection sites, for maintaining a smooth process.

The process

Vials containing saliva samples are sealed in a bin and driven in a university van by student workers from collection sites to the lab, located in Illinois State’s Science Laboratory Building. The space was formerly a teaching lab for microbiology before it was converted into a COVID-19 testing lab based on SHIELD Illinois specifications. SHIELD Illinois is the University of Illinois System unit that provides testing across the state using the innovative saliva-based test developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Upon arrival, student processors place the vials in a hot (200 degrees Fahrenheit) water bath to deactivate the virus, making it safe to analyze the sample without risk of infection to lab personnel. Student processors then scan the vials into the computer system and prepare them for analysis. A robot that scans vials and removes their lids can be utilized when the lab is processing a high volume of samples.

woman working on lab equipment
Senior biology major Hanna Paton monitors the Gilson Pipetmax, one of three pipetting robots in Illinois State’s SHIELD Illinois COVID-19 testing lab, as it pulls 85 samples for testing.

Technicians—or one of four pipetting robots—transfer each sample into a 96-well plate and mix in a buffer solution that stabilizes the viral RNA. After combining four plates into one well plate that holds 384 samples, technicians mix reagents into the samples for testing, and the well plate is fed into one of the lab’s three PCR machines. The well plate also contains several controls to confirm reliability of results.

The 384-well plate is placed in the PCR instrument, and over the next 66 minutes, the PCR attempts to amplify three genes specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Technicians interpret the results and certify them to be released and posted to online patient portals. Positive samples are saved for genomic sequencing to identify variants such as Delta or Omicron, and negative samples are disposed of as biohazard waste.

Valuable experience

Already interested in pursuing a health care career, senior biology major Megan Cross felt compelled to contribute her developing skillset to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I just saw how horrible it was then, when it first started, and I wanted to do something about it,” Cross said.

In April 2020, as a sophomore, Cross received a temporary license to work as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) for a nursing home near her hometown in the northwest Chicago suburbs. While the world locked down, Cross donned personal protective equipment (PPE) to care for residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s. After returning to Illinois State’s campus in the fall, Cross joined the University’s COVID-19 testing lab as a student processor.

“I thought it was a great opportunity because I am a science major and I wanted to continue to help out with the pandemic,” Cross said. “I thought this would be a perfect fit.”

“I thought it was a great opportunity because I am a science major and I wanted to continue to help out with the pandemic.”

Senior biology major Megan Cross

Cross has worked in the lab since its inception and is gaining real-world, hands-on experience. While she hopes to eventually become a nurse, Cross plans to pursue a job within a medical lab following graduation this spring based on her positive experience in Illinois State’s COVID-19 testing lab.

“I like being in a lab, and I like doing research and things like that,” Cross said. “So, this lab definitely provided a great opportunity that not a lot of people can do.”

O’Neil started as a student processor with Cross, and now as an intern, he gets to practice using the PCR machine with samples that have already been analyzed by technicians.

“This is my opportunity to see what it’s like to work in a professional medical laboratory,” said O’Neil who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in cancer biology. “I’ve learned the process of everything and how every machine in the lab operates.”

Paul Garris said the lab has created a “phenomenal opportunity” for undergraduate students while serving a need within the community.

“They are learning skills that make them marketable, gaining experience that makes them marketable. and I think they can feel good about contributing to a good cause here,” Garris said.

Team effort

woman standing in a lab wearing a mask
Kim Garris serves as technical director in Illinois State’s SHIELD Illinois COVID-19 testing lab, locating in the Science Laboratory Building.

From student workers to lab technicians to Illinois State staff from various areas including Student Affairs, Information Technology, Human Resources, Facilities, and the President’s Office—Garris said, “It really took a huge team to pull this off.”

Garris continues to balance his work as a faculty researcher with his leadership role in the COVID-19 testing lab which has processed more than 773,000 samples since opening last March.

“I don’t really have time to reflect much, but I know I will once it’s all over,” Garris said. “I’m sure I’m going to look back and be very proud of what’s been accomplished here.”