Putting COVID to the test


Two Biotechnology – Health graduates, Sarah Marttala ’18 and Valentina Vera ’18 put their skills to work in infectious disease research.

By Meaghan Drury ‘12

For the entire world, it’s been quite a year. One for the history books you could say. For two graduates, it’s been a year of opportunity to put their education, skills and passion to work in new ways.

Biotechnology – Health graduates, Sarah Marttala ’18 and Valentina Vera ’18, both employed by The Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton in the Infectious Disease Research Group, work in medical research with a focus on viruses.

Since mid-2020, both Sarah and Valentina have worked on the COVID-19 screening project focused on residents and staff in homeless and congregate living settings in Hamilton, Ontario.

Sarah has been an instrumental part in the implementation and the diagnostic testing of specimens collected through the project, ensuring positive individuals could be isolated from others quickly. “Since COVID became a thing, I’ve been testing swabs,” says Sarah.

This testing includes using robotic techniques that allow for screening of large numbers of specimens for COVID-19 developed in Dr. David Bulir’s laboratory and currently used in numerous clinical labs across the province.

Valentina, hired for lab work just as the pandemic was beginning, found a passion for patient-facing roles, doing active recruitment for various research projects. “Going in I thought I would be doing a lot of research, which I still do, but our team has also been really focused on helping these shelters,” says Valentina. “Me and one of my co-workers helped by completing the swabbing when nurses were recalled to their home roles.”

Both Sarah and Valentina’s work helped curb the spread of infection throughout congregate living facilities in the city.

 

“When I show people our lab, they are impressed by our robotics and automations. I love that I get to do this.” – Sarah Marttala ’18

 

While in her third year of the Biotechnology program, Sarah started working for a biotech company through a connection of Professor Dr. Tiffany Leighton. After the company dissolved, Sarah was “adopted” by the lab’s team as they quickly recognized her aptitude and high skill level in the world of science. “I was lucky enough to have this opportunity with Dr. Leighton and get into the research field in biotechnology,” shares Sarah. A field that is very competitive.

She feels privileged to work in this exciting field. “Research is always changing and always improving. You’re not doing the same thing every day,” she says.

Prior to joining The Research Institute, Valentina worked in doctors’ offices and clinics, which allowed her to combine both her love of medical work and connecting with people. “When I discovered bio-medicine or medical lab sciences, seeing the mix of patient interaction and helping others, while also doing laboratory work, that interested me a lot,” she says. She’s continued to pursue this interest in her current role.

When beginning her studies at Mohawk, Sarah really appreciated that the teachers made the subject approachable and outlined the various industries students could pursue upon graduation, like food, research and so much more. “I thought it was cool because I didn’t know what I wanted to go into at the time,” she explains.

 

“This pandemic has made me realize how much there is to learn. To appreciate your time, and how you spend it, and who you spend it with. It’s important. I look forward to continue to learn from my colleagues here.” – Valentina Vera ’18

 

Comparing the lab to her college education, Sarah shares, “my expectations have been exceeded. 100 per cent. I never thought I would get to do something so cool.” She continues, “When I show people our lab, they are impressed by our robotics and automations. I love that I get to do this.”

Looking back on the past year, Valentina says, “It was a wild time” as they were adapting to new safety protocols and changes.

She came into a fast-paced working environment that she found a bit intimidating at first. Especially as they were one of the only research teams permitted to continue working while other projects were put on hold, for resources to be diverted to combating COVID-19.

“The group was very welcoming though and they took the time to make sure I was comfortable with different procedures that were put in place,” she says. “The past year has been a whirlwind of learning.”

Sarah, who has worked for the lab for over three years, has been helping to monitor for COVID-19 in wastewater, in addition to the congregated living work that has been a priority.

“This pandemic has made me realize how much there is to learn. To appreciate your time, and how you spend it, and who you spend it with.”

According to Valentina, some work outside of COVID-19 testing has continued, such as a project focused on C. diff (Clostridioides difficile), a bacteria that causes severe diarrhea and colitis in those infected.

Before COVID-19, their team mostly worked with viruses—contracted to test samples for specific research projects. Their work includes many experiments related to different infectious diseases such as testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and examining how to make tests more efficient or reach a larger population. “I’m not necessarily designing the experiments but I’m helping with implementing them and following them through,” explains Sarah.

Looking ahead, both Sarah and Valentina appreciate the opportunities that they have had but also the perspective the pandemic has given them personally and in their careers.

“This pandemic has made me realize how much there is to learn. To appreciate your time, and how you spend it, and who you spend it with. It’s important,” says Valentina. “I look forward to continue to learn from my colleagues here.”

Sarah is using her Mohawk credits to fast-track in her studies at Queen’s University, enrolled in the Health Sciences program. She is currently taking the program full-time, while continuing to work.

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