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His lab shut down last week by coronavirus precautions like many others across the U.S., Michael Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute, was walking home and wondering how he could still help. A neuroscientist who worked on Zika testing, he created a database with like-minded scientists to connect their skills and resources with people who might need them.

In the five days since he put out his call, 6,000 scientists have volunteered and groups from across the country are signaling interest, from a plea for testing swabs to questions about chemicals needed to process the tests.

Wells told STAT more about his project in a recent conversation, which has been condensed and lightly edited.


What’s your background, and what skills can you bring to the coronavirus pandemic?

My background actually is in neuroscience, working in animal models of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD and autism. When I transitioned to be a postdoc in Kevin Eggan’s lab at Harvard, that was right when the Zika outbreak started. And I’m actually Salvadoran. Most of my family live in El Salvador. So when I joined the lab, I was interested in something I could do that could very quickly, hopefully, help people, people I know. We developed a lot of different technologies that I am now applying back to the study of autism. But nonetheless, I do have the skill sets for testing.


When did your lab shut down, and what does the future look like?

So we were notified this past Wednesday that the lab would be shut down for two months. Maybe one or two people per lab are allowed to come for only a few hours a week in order to do some essential housekeeping, like making sure certain cells are kept alive or making sure the equipment is not broken down. You know, we have a lot of liquid nitrogen freezers, things that have years and years worth of experiments. And we want to make sure they don’t break down. 

I do experiments, but for me, for the most part, the data acquisition is done. If I wasn’t doing this organization work, I would be working on a manuscript right now. But I will be teaching myself data science as tools. I’m doing an online course, just trying to advance myself because I’ll be applying for jobs this upcoming fall. 

People are saying that they’re finding ways to keep busy. We can only do that stuff for so long before it starts to really affect productivity. But I’m 100% on board with this. I think the best thing we could be doing right now is distancing ourselves. You know, this is definitely disrupting a lot of very important projects around the country, but we’re scientists. We’re adaptable. We’re trying to find ways to work around it that’ll be productive. I kind of took over this aspect of trying to be productive by organizing a database that now just hit 6,000.

What prompted you to start this database? 

I was thinking like, OK, I have the skills that are necessary to conduct Covid-19 testing. That’s pretty much run by RNA extraction techniques and qPCR techniques. And so I’m pretty active on Twitter and I’ve seen some calls for scientist volunteers in the Washington area, and in the Bay Area, but I hadn’t seen anything yet in Boston. So my initial intent was to create a list that I could then distribute throughout all Boston.

Then I’m thinking, I might as well make this a national thing, especially since Boston is not going to have problems finding people. Thirteen hundred of these 6,000 respondents are in the state of Massachusetts. We’re set here in Boston finding people and finding the resources that they have to donate to different facilities and that’s included in the database. 

But I’m from Ohio. In the Midwest, you know, the density of institutions and universities is not nearly as high as it is on the coasts. Same goes for the Southeast, in North Carolina, where I started my Ph.D. I really was just trying to make something that could be useful around the country. And so that was the motivation behind it, to try to make a centralized database of this information and then distribute it around the country.

# of scientists in database
Courtesy Martin Henze

How would it work?

I partnered with and in particular, there’s a guy by the name of Kevin Schallert. I have no idea what Kevin’s job is. We’re all just a bunch of people who don’t know anything about each other but we have been in constant communication the past four days through Slack. And so it’s true that we have not only built a database, we’re trying to make it a little more streamlined, more user-friendly for those who are going to have access to it. And we’re trying to distribute this as quickly as possible to those individuals who might be wondering who is going to have access to the eventual piece targeting state and county health officials who would need the database to identify the talent pool in their area so they could quickly, you know, send an email to the 30 people in their ZIP code that have experience with RNA extraction-qPCR technique.

We’re also sharing this at the state level. We are talking to state health officials in Kentucky, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Some of these states are the most interested in the reagents [chemicals needed for testing] that these scientists are willing to donate.  

I mean, it’s been about five days since I posted the Google form. Our primary focus will be obviously to keep building a database, which is kind of neat to start. Let’s start using it. How do we get this into the hands of people in action? Who are the decision makers that can turn this database into action? And what we’ve done right now.

Is anybody else doing this, too?

We have a page we created of ongoing efforts. It’s far more localized. There’s one in New York, one in San Diego, one in Madison, Wisc. This is popping up in different places in the country. Some are focused on different things like reagent aggregation. Some are focused on talent acquisition and getting these people into the labs  to help run these tests. We’re really just hoping to be a resource for all of these different endeavors.

There’s two labs at Yale University looking for swabs and there’s 200 people in Connecticut who have signed up for this, some of whom have indicated they have testing equipment and resources available. You could just take the database, contact these 200 individuals, and ask them a more direct question: Do you have these swabs?

We’re just trying to get this into people’s hands so they don’t have to spend time finding anybody. We’re trying to make it as streamlined as possible so that when we scientists are called upon, we’re immediately available for action.

The really big push right now is distributing the database to decision-makers. If all the database becomes is a resource for each individual community to build their own little team, then I would consider this to be a success.

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