The Moving Experience of Students Combatting COVID: Anu Singh-Cundy

By Frances Badgett

It almost didn’t happen. Biology professor Dave Hooper was out on a run when he saw a friend, Dr. Greg Wolgamot, a pathologist at Northwest Laboratory. Dr. Wolgamot expressed his dire need for lab technicians to help process the influx of COVID tests—the only tool that existed against COVID at the time. Hooper mentioned that Western had whole classrooms of highly trained students and capable faculty who could do the work. A beautiful partnership formed.

Training lab technicians can be time-consuming. Luckily, Western had many students educated to perform the testing process required by Northwest Laboratory. With help from Hooper’s colleague Anu Singh-Cundy, associate professor of biology, Western faculty and students studying chemistry and biology pulled together in a community effort.

“As COVID hit in March 2020, it was a shock to those of us in molecular biology and related fields. We were itching to do something to help,” says Singh-Cundy. “I knew that if I had samples, I could test them within a couple of days.”

The process for testing, called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), is the same process Singh-Cundy teaches in her Methods in Molecular Biology lab class (Biology 324).

“Our students needed just a few of hours of training and they were ready. They were applying techniques they had learned in my class,” says Singh-Cundy. “I went from teaching them to seeing them performing these tasks in a real-world environment. They really rose to the occasion and understood the importance of the work they were doing in addressing a global health crisis. It was moving.”

She noticed that as students processed the COVID tests, the hesitancy and nervousness sometimes apparent in the classroom melted away.

“I see them in the classroom, and they seem a little unsure of themselves. They hesitate because they are afraid of making a mistake. But not at Northwest Laboratory. They understood what was at stake,” she says. “They were so professional. I was so proud of Western.”

Student and faculty shifts rotated all night. Singh-Cundy didn’t work during the week because of her teaching schedule. She went to work on weekends after she had finished grading, making for long days. As soon as she had enough students for Northwest Laboratory, she stepped back from the work and focused on teaching.

“I drove home at three in the morning when everyone is asleep. With the moonlight and quiet, there’s a poetry in the city at night,” says Singh-Cundy.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Northwest Laboratory ran low on testing supplies and lab equipment. Singh-Cundy and her colleagues realized that they had plenty of pipette tips and other supplies at Western. They sent over what they could spare, and Northwest Laboratory was able to continue its work without stopping.

“What I realize in this,” says Singh-Cundy, “is how our community has been tested, and how lucky I am to live in this city, and in this part of the country, and in this country. I feel now our community can handle anything. It’s a lesson that came at a heavy cost, but we all pulled together with a sense of purpose.”

In gratitude for the students and faculty members’ hard work, and to honor the partnership between Western and Northwest Laboratory, Dr. Greg Wolgamot donated $10,000 to the Cell and Molecular Biology program to support graduate research