Full Interview: Processing 35,000 COVID-19 Patient Samples In 3 Months With Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez
By: Hannah Lin (CC '23)
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez, and I am an associate research scientist in the physiology and cellular biophysics department. My research focuses on the interaction between the bone marrow microenvironment (specifically osteoblasts, cells of the bone) and hematopoietic stem cells in the context of leukemia. In my lab, we have a collaboration with a clinical researcher at Columbia and we biobank bone marrow cells from patients with leukemia.
You’re the founder of CRAC (Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19). Could you talk about how you came up with the idea?
This is going to get personal. As a member of the LGBTQI+ community who was born in 1981, I have lived all my life with the HIV/AIDS pandemic in mind. When I heard that there was another pandemic hitting a vulnerable population, I felt like I needed to step up and do something.
So when we got the notification from the university saying that we had to ramp down research (we were not able to perform any research if it was not related to COVID-19) I thought that most researchers like me would have “free time” (in our weekly schedule, 50% of our time goes to new experiments and 50% of the time is analyzing results, attending seminars/meetings/conferences, and other non-experimental work) to help with coronavirus testing, as this relies on PCR, a routine molecular biology technique.
This was my idea when we started CRAC: organizing a group of researchers that would be willing to help in testing for the virus. I sent an email to Dean Goldman and other officials of the medical center, and got a very good response. There were a lot of regulations regarding testing, since you need to be clinically validated for all these things. There were also a lot of regulations about researchers on visas performing clinical or diagnostic work. About one week after we launched the group and started recruiting volunteers, we started getting calls from different departments and levels of administration at Columbia asking for help in different capacities. I learned that the pathology department was starting a biobank of COVID-19 patients on campus and because of my lab experience, I thought that I could help and so I was deemed the leader of the biobank project.
Could you explain what biobanking means?
Biobanking is processing and cryopreserving (storing collected samples in freezers at -80 degrees) so that researchers can access these samples and perform research to gain insight into unknown aspects of the virus and the diseases that it causes. For example, let’s say we have one tube with 10 milliliters of blood of a COVID-positive patient. What we did was pipette different components of this blood (serum, plasma, mononuclear cells) into different tubes (in lab jargon, “aliquot”) and then store them at -80 degrees.
You started on March 31st, when New York was in the peak of the pandemic. What did you have to do to get this off the ground, and did you face any setbacks during that time?
The first thing was finding a space. This was achieved by Dr. Hod’s lab. He was actually going to move his lab to another location, and when this happened, he decided to use his new space as the new COVID-19 lab. In this space, not only have we been collecting the samples and preserving them, but also the serological assays validation, one of Dr. Hod’s projects that CRAC also helped on.
After the space was chosen, the next thing we needed to consolidate was the workflow. For this, I was working with Dr. Francesca La Carpia and Sebastian Fernando, the two main people in Dr. Hod’s lab who have been supervising the volunteers. I shadowed them for a day and a half to see what was needed, and this helped me understand what the requirements were for the people I had to lead.
A lot of challenges arose after I started recruiting people, the first one being biosafety. Not only were we asking people to leave their homes and families, we were also asking them to be in front of samples that had the potential to transmit the virus. What we did and what we thought was the best idea was to divide the weekly schedule in four hour shifts so that every volunteer would only do four hours a week: a single exposure on just one day for just four hours. We were able to do this because CRAC had, at that point, almost 500 volunteers, so it was easy to find a big group of people with the proper training and expertise. Our project started with 8 volunteers, and eventually we expanded to 18 working in the morning and afternoon. Not only was the aim to reduce possible transmission, but also to reduce burnout from a task that is very, very tedious. We used racks of 81 tubes that had to be “aliquoted” into 2 or 3 cryoboxes, so it’s basically a robot task.
Those were the initial challenges that I faced as the manager of the group. We’ve been providing all the necessary PPE, and we take great pride in the fact that, as of today, no one has developed symptoms or gotten sick. In the beginning, I was really scared. I’ve had a lot of sleep problems thinking that someone could get sick because of their work in the biobank, and I am really glad that no one did.
The project ended June 5th, and your team collected 35,000 samples, which is just amazing. Was it always going to be a 2 month project?
From the CRAC perspective, we were an emergency response team. We had to assemble this infrastructure in a record amount of time because we either did this or we lost these samples. And these samples are gold. My PI has always been very vocal about the value and worth of patient samples, so I knew we really had to push to get this going and get it off the ground.
Apart from the 35,000 samples, which is amazing, we donated 423.5 hours of work. This speaks a lot about the people that I’ve been working with: they’re not only great scientists, but getting to know them personally has been really touching. The fact that they were willing to get out of their apartments and do this really speaks a lot about them and it makes me proud to be part of this research community.
What are you focusing on now, and what lies ahead in the future for you?
Apart from the biobank project, CRAC has been running another 22 projects. Other volunteers have been helping with the serological assays validation; another group was assisting New York Presbyterian Hospital with scrubs distribution, and helping build the two field hospitals that were running during the peak. There’s another group organizing the weekly COVID-19 symposium for Columbia researchers and guest researchers. That group is still working, but most of the projects are already completed. There’s still an ongoing discussion on what CRAC is going to be doing.
As for me, I’m ramping up my own research because I’m in my fourth year of postdoc here at Columbia and I’m about to submit my story. I need to finish a couple experiments. I’m really looking forward to going back to this “new normal.”
You were a co-author of an op-ed earlier this year calling for Columbia to increase pay for postdoctoral and associate research scientists. Can you talk a bit about that?
Yes, I’ve been helping to organize the postdoc and associate research scientist union at Columbia. I think we can all agree that postdocs are the backbone of research at Columbia. We bring a lot of value, prestige, and money through funding in grants. I think it’s as much as 1 billion dollars every year. If you look at the salary ranges of our peers in the New York City area, we are, without any doubt, the researchers with lower salaries. We’re only asking to have fair salaries and fair compensation that allow us to live in one of the cities with higher cost of living. It’s as simple as that. We’re asking for comparable compensation to other institutions in New York.
This really impacts the quality of our research because many of us, at some point, have had to worry about paying rent, childcare or medical bills, and this really takes our focus out of our research. So fair compensation and increased benefits for postdocs at Columbia would have a very positive impact for postdocs so that we can focus on what really matters: our experiments and projects.
How is COVID-19 now affecting your efforts to fight for fair compensation?
The union and the university signed a no strike-agreement when we got recognition for the union. We have spent 16 months in negotiations over our conditions, and the deadline was April 9, I believe. The peak of the pandemic was exactly at that time, so bargaining was extended and we still are in this process. It has impacted us in the sense that we should already have a contract by now. The university has made some advancements in the negotiations, but we feel like they haven’t really moved in two core aspects of our demands. One of the them is compensation, and the other is a timely grievance procedure for bullying, harassment, and all sorts of discrimination.
Note: Since the date of this interview, the union has reached a tentative agreement. Read more here: https://columbiapostdocunion.org/contract-negotiations/cpw-uaw-status-negotiations-2020/.
To end with some optimism: what gives you hope for the future?
I am very optimistic. Maybe I’m too optimistic to be a scientist! [laughs] I’ve seen really good things during the response to the pandemic. I think that science is definitely changing. We have seen way more collaboration and cooperation instead of competition. We have seen many research groups joining forces, collaborating, sharing reagents, plasmids, and all sorts of resources. My hope is that this will not just be for the pandemic and that we will be able to learn from this experience to really push science forward in a more collaborative way.
As for the outpouring of solidarity from all the researchers that we recruited, we had more than 700 people that were willing to do anything, from labeling tubes to folding scrubs—we’re talking about people who have been doing science for more than 10 years and have a lot of experience. I think that really speaks a lot about our researcher community and the commitment that we have to science and society at large.
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