Showcasing Science

Showcasing Science: The world of medical science

This blog was originally published on Dr Debbie Corcoran’s website, here.

“Medical Science – what’s it all about?” this blog came about a few years ago as a means of showcasing what medical science is about and what medical scientists do, as far too often we are the hidden healthcare profession. The response of our profession to COVID-19 in the past few months highlights what medical science is all about – passion, engagement, development, determination, diligence, commitment, ingenuity, resilience, research, team-work, responsiveness and hard work by the medical science community of scientists, lecturers, and students.

On the 7th of January the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) China, identified a novel coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in a throat swab from an infected patient. This infection was initially called 2019 nCov by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but was renamed COVID-19 (CO- corona, VI-virus and D –disease) on the 11th of February, a name that the world has now become all too familiar with and which has brought the world of infectious disease and viruses into sharp focus.

I am a medical scientist who is currently lecturing in medical microbiology on the Medical Science program in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). Every January when I start teaching the 1st year Medical Science students I tell them I will never cease to be completely fascinated by how organisms so small, such as bacteria and viruses, can have such an impact on human health and the devastating consequences that can result. Little did I know, this year, that there was a pandemic of unimaginable magnitude brewing, a real, living example of what I was teaching and that we would all be catapulted into the eye of this biological storm.

I obviously had a huge interest in this newly emerging infection and was following its progress with keen interest, discussing it with students on a daily basis. In February I, coincidently, completed the part of my 1st year Microbiology module which deals with the chain of infection and preventative measures against infections, such as the importance of hand washing. Again, little did I know how important this simple, effective, procedure would become in everyone’s everyday life everywhere. As a result of what they were learning the students were also very interested in what was going on outside of the college walls, in relation to COVID-19, and could contextualise the importance of what was happening globally. Something we had all been watching develop in China from afar was now starting to spread closer and closer to Ireland and on the 12th of March the Taoiseach announced that schools and colleges were to close that evening at 6pm due to the immediate risk posed by COVID-19.

This closure of the college meant no more face to face lectures or laboratory classes but teaching and learning did continue. Overnight lecturers swapped their familiar offices, classrooms and teaching laboratories for laptops/computers/tablets set up on makeshift desks, kitchen tables, anywhere it was possible in their own homes to deliver their modules to students via the whole new world of remote, online, teaching. While this was and still continues to be very challenging for all we devised emergency contingency plans with our Head of Department which were approved by an internal quality assurance panel. We continued to deliver our modules so that they could be completed in order to accommodate assessments/examinations, placements and projects, so as to minimise disruption to the academic calendar year and to student progression and graduation as much as possible. This has only been possible due to the hard work that all staff have invested, since 6pm on March the 12th, during this unprecedented, volatile, time. If all that wasn’t enough of a challenge some of the medical science lecturing staff have also responded to a call out from the Academy of Clinical Science and Laboratory Medicine (ACSLM), the professional body representing medical scientists in Ireland and are helping out in the diagnostic laboratories. Others are involved in contact tracing, which is being facilitated by GMIT, highlighting the continued dedication of the team to the COVID-19 crisis and public health.

It really has been unchartered, difficult, isolating, territory for all. As lecturers we are realistic that we also face a very challenging future in relation to the delivery of a practical based programme as preventative measures such as social distancing may be here for the foreseeable future. We do not underestimate the huge job that lies ahead which will enable students to meet learning outcomes that were designed for a face-to-face delivery. However as medical science lecturers we are determined not to let COVID-19 get in our way of producing the next generation(s) of amazing medical scientists.

I am also extremely proud of my fellow medical science colleagues who are working in clinical, diagnostic laboratories and research facilities at this time. To me they are the hidden healthcare heroes in the fight against COVID-19 and thankfully more of a light is finally being shone on them due to the tremendous, ground-breaking, work that has and continues to be carried out across the country in numerous Irish clinical, diagnostic, laboratories. Medical scientists are the professionals who have been involved in responding rapidly to the development and verification of assays which allow for COVID-19 infection to be detected in patient’s samples. Medical scientists have been working tirelessly to decrease the turn-around time for test results and to increase the number of samples being processed in what has been a very challenging environment for diagnostic services due to reagent sourcing and the amount of time required in setting up a brand new test for a virus that has only been known to the world in the past few months.

This time of year would normally see medical scientists, lecturers and students attending the scientific meeting, BioMedica, organised by the ACSLM. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this had to be postponed but the ACSLM responded, to these challenging times, by organising and delivering a fantastic suite of diagnostic webinars for the medical science community. This proved to be very popular with attendees logging in from as far away as Mexico and again highlights the resounding determination within our Medical Science community to keep business going as best possible.

I hope this gives you an insight into the fantastic world that is Medical Science and its amazing community of people.

This blog was published as part of our Showcasing Science: Behind the scenes of COVID19 series. Read the rest of the blogs here.

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