Peter Wegwerth

Mayo Clinic Labs @ Work

Thousands of people in hundreds of different roles work at Mayo Clinic Laboratories. Mayo Clinic Labs @ Work offers a glimpse behind the scenes into this busy reference laboratory, featuring staff from throughout the organization talking about what they do and why they do it.


What's your job title, and how long have you been in your current role?

I'm a developer in the Biochemical Genetics Laboratory within Mayo Clinic's Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. I've been doing this job for about 5 years, and I've been at Mayo for 13 years.


What does your typical day-to-day work involve?

I'm usually in a lab — lab coat, gloves, safety glasses, all that — and I work to develop new tests for the biochemical expression of genetic disorders. It's a lot of hands-on work with chemicals, preparing patient specimens, and operating instruments. When I'm not in the lab, I'm process the data we gather, writing standard operating procedures, and documenting the work we're doing.


How did COVID-19 affect your work during 2020?

Beginning in March, I started to work from home more. Then I was nearing the end of a test development project, and I didn't have anything new coming soon, so I was on a list to be furloughed. But in June, I was redeployed to the HIV/Hepatitis Molecular Laboratory to help with COVID-19 testing instead. The testing volumes were growing rapidly, and they were struggling to keep the lab staffed as the testing needs continued to expand. It was a brand new experience for me. But as a developer, I was familiar with a lab environment, and I could learn quickly what needed to be done, so it felt good to go over there and help out.

After a couple of months, things were going pretty smoothly, but then we found out the testing volumes needed to increase again. At that point, we were processing around 10,000 samples a day. Then it went up to 30,000 samples a day. To give you a comparison, before COVID, 1,000 to 2,000 samples a day through that lab would have been considered high-volume. We were already blowing normal sample volumes out of the water, so being asked to triple that was a big deal.

They needed people to support the newer testing platforms they were bringing up and asked if anyone had experience with the instruments they'd be using. I had worked with some of the automation for the liquid handling, so I volunteered, along with a number of other people, to help get that set up. Normally, to bring something like that fully up to scale would take about six months. In this case, because of the crisis of the pandemic, we rolled with it as quickly as we could, and it was all approved through an emergency use authorization for rapid deployment to get everything up and running. It was a lot of work and a lot of extra hours from everyone involved.


What was the most challenging part of being redeployed?

The uncertainty. Things changed daily — whether it was something with the process that needed to be improved, or an instrument not working properly, or a schedule that needed to shift. It was constant flux to get things to work more efficiently and effectively. Staffing to workload was tricky, too. There would be days that we would receive, with little warning, 10,000 more samples than we were expecting. Or the opposite would happen, and we'd get a lot less than we thought we would. So there were a lot of last-minute staffing changes to accommodate that and use resources well.


What’s something inspiring that you’ve seen in your work during the pandemic?

Despite all the challenges, everybody had a good attitude about it. Everyone came with the mindset, "This is what we have to do." We would do what was needed to get things done. That was inspiring for me personally. Everyone was also very empathic. People would notice when someone was getting burned out and help them shift to a different bench where things were less stressful or encourage them to take a break — people were taking care of each other. Everyone really stepped up.


What do you think you'll remember most about this time in your career?

I think I'll remember how, when it came down to it, with everyone's hard work, things really fell into place. We had the right people in the right places to make it all happen. I'm amazed we were able to do it, and everything came together. There was so much talent and skill at work. Everyone was flexible, and people were so willing to sacrifice, to provide leadership, to find solutions. It was extraordinary.

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Tracy Will

Tracy Will is a senior marketing specialist at Mayo Clinic Laboratories where she covers innovation, specialty testing, and advances in laboratory medicine. Tracy has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2016.