Behind the Badge: Lab Specialist Reflects on Work During Coronavirus Pandemic

lab specialist Dawn Dirks standing outside
Dawn Dirks, MS, molecular test development specialist

Our clinical laboratory provides critical test results that help providers gather information needed to treat patients.

Their work is behind-the-scenes, but it is a vital part of patient care — especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, it was our laboratory team members who enabled UVA to begin in-house COVID-19 testing in mid-March.

Dawn Dirks, MS, molecular test development specialist, explains the work our medical labs are doing.

A Q&A With Lab Specialist Dawn Dirks

What is your role and what do you do? What does a normal day look like?

Dirks: My official title is test development specialist for the molecular diagnostics laboratory. I bring new instruments and tests into the lab. This can include:

  • Finding appropriate samples to use
  • Determining which quality control materials will work best
  • Evaluating limit of detection for a given test
  • Tracking results
  • Writing procedures
  • Training staff to perform the new test
  • Keeping track of all of the paperwork required by our regulatory body

The most recent validations done in the molecular/microbiology lab are the new SARS-CoV-2 tests. For me, there really isn’t a normal day, especially lately! I come in each morning knowing which validations are currently underway and which tasks I plan to work on, but things can change very quickly, and often do.

How has your work changed since the pandemic started?

Dirks: My days have become much less predictable lately, because validating the new SARS-CoV-2 tests has been a moving target. UVA, like many institutions nationally, has faced shortages with reagents, equipment, and supplies. It has required us to be creative and flexible in finding solutions.

What is your favorite part about your role? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Dirks: For me, knowing that what we do helps patients get the best care possible is why I do what I do every day. My specific role is a lot of fun, because it is always a challenge, a bit like a puzzle, in terms of figuring out the best way to demonstrate performance characteristics of a new test.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Dirks: I want to express a huge thank you to everyone, not only in this time of COVID-19, but every day. Together, we do good work that makes a difference in our community.

I really want to thank the people in the procurement office. During our whirlwind validations, we needed to order many new and unexpected supplies, often for rush-processing and overnight delivery. They provided exceptional support as we navigated this process, and I am grateful.

This interview was previously featured in a longer article on Connect, our internal news site. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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