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Passion for pathogens: meet the medical scientist testing for COVID-19

Alumni News

From a young age, Jess Bordessa was fascinated by the human body, especially how it defends itself against invading pathogens. Now, the laboratory medicine graduate is testing for the virus that has overwhelmed around the world.

Jessica Bordessa

To date, more than nine million COVID-19 tests have been conducted in Australia. While less than one per cent of tests have returned positive, testing is crucial to controlling the spread of the virus and ensuring affected patients are quickly traced and treated.

Within the sterile confines of a diagnostic molecular laboratory in Perth’s Fiona Stanley Hospital, Bordessa and her team have been working around-the-clock to test swab samples collected from COVID clinics across Perth.

“Once the swab arrives in our laboratory, the sample is registered into our system and the patients’ details are checked as part of the pre-analytics,” Bordessa explains.

“The sample is then prepared by snapping the swab into a transport medium, which maintains the stability of the virus. The transport medium is loaded onto an instrument that extracts nuclear material (RNA) of the virus, if present. Viral RNA is then amplified to a level that may be detected via polymerase chain reaction [PCR].”

The Therapeutic Goods Administration considers PCR the ‘gold standard’ method for diagnosing COVID-19 because it’s highly accurate and may detect the virus before a person shows any symptoms. It requires complex equipment and trained scientists like Bordessa to ensure tests are done correctly and are not contaminated. While complicated, PCR allows for multiple testing, meaning many people can be tested at once.

A colourised electron micrograph of a cell heavily infected with COVID-19 particles. Image credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, US.

A colourised electron micrograph of a cell (green) heavily infected with COVID-19 particles (purple). Image credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, US.

Bordessa says this testing has ensured the efficacy of contact tracing and highlights the important role of medical scientists in managing the pandemic. It’s a role she says is equally trying and rewarding.

“Working in a laboratory where each test result can have a huge impact on a patient’s health in terms of disease progression and outcome makes me feel like what we do here is really meaningful,” she reflects.

“The challenge is keeping up with the demand for COVID testing while also performing the routine testing we conducted prior to the pandemic.

“But it’s allowed all of us to grow as medical scientists by taking on new responsibilities and developing new skills in the management of COVID-19. It’s also enabled me to work with various companies in the development of their tests and see a different side to medical science.”

Bordessa says her degree in laboratory medicine gave her the industry skills she needed to meet the demands of her job.

“The emphasis that Curtin places on practical skills throughout the degree has been invaluable to me, particularly when working with blood-borne viruses and COVID samples.

“The correct techniques instilled from the very beginning have ensured I am handling these samples in a way that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the test result, while also protecting myself from potentially infectious material.”

While her work can be challenging, for Bordessa its appeal lies in unravelling the complexity of the human body at a biomolecular level, and learning about the microscopic particles that can either harm or heal us.

“All the work behind the scenes, plus liaising with other health professionals, can have a massive impact on a person’s life. Playing a part in this is what makes this career in laboratory medicine rewarding.”

If you are interested in a career as a medical scientist, Bordessa encourages you to do your own research and explore your career options.

“Before commencing your degree, my best advice would be to attend Open Day at Curtin and speak to lecturers about the many different disciplines available in laboratory medicine and the career paths they can offer.

“Also, throughout your degree, take the time to consider each discipline and what field really interests you.”

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