The emergence of COVID-19 and the resulting pandemic changed many aspects of our lives, from how we interact with others to how we work. These changes were felt across every industry, including research laboratories. Tony Moody, MD, and his lab at Duke University faced a series of complex challenges as the team shifted from research into COVID-19 testing, expanded to accommodate the new workloads, and relocated to a more appropriate space, all while maintaining testing output and pandemic restrictions.
The Moody lab and Duke Human Vaccine Institute
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Moody, a professor of pediatrics and an associate professor of immunology at Duke University, focused his lab’s research on understanding B cell responses during infection, vaccination, and disease. Moody is also the director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) accessioning unit and biorepository. Researchers at DHVI develop novel vaccines and therapeutics for a wide variety of diseases while the biorepository acts as a shared resource core that processes and stores samples from both human and non-human primate studies to support DHVI’s research. The biorepository currently houses roughly one million samples from the vaccination studies performed at DHVI.
To help ease the managerial strain and assist with vaccine research, Thad Gurley, MS, was brought on as senior research laboratory manager and assistant director of the accessioning unit and biorepository. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Gurley started at a small pharmaceutical company before moving to work with GlaxoSmithKline in the clinical virology group. After receiving his master’s in microbiology and immunology, Gurley continued researching vaccination by joining the Moody lab in 2006. “Since starting in Tony’s laboratory, I have been performing cutting-edge vaccine research,” says Gurley.
Growth and changing priorities
The accessioning unit and biorepository have grown extensively in the last five years, from being able to process and store around 15,000 samples in 2017 to handling more than 75,000 in 2021. However, the growth of the Moody lab and biorepository has manifested in other ways as well. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for testing centers capable of handling the sudden massive influx of COVID-19 tests, the Moody lab shifted from a purely research facility to launch a COVID-19 testing program in August 2020. Specifically, the Moody lab shifted its focus to the reception, accession, pooling, and storing of nasal swabs, adding an increased workload to the lab and Gurley. “While we pivoted to COVID-19 testing, my other roles didn’t diminish,” says Gurley. “I stayed busy leading the lab team, accessioning unit and biorepository team, and COVID-19 testing team.”
To accommodate these new workflows, 20 additional staff were hired to work two shifts. This change also demanded major managerial adjustments. “I realized six months into the testing program I needed to identify first and second shift team leads as I could not manage a team across two shifts well,” says Gurley. “I was able to identify one team lead from each shift who stood out and now they have been in the team lead position for one year.”
“Since starting in Tony’s laboratory, I have been performing cutting-edge vaccine research.”
Fortunately, many of the expertise and skills in specimen accessioning, pooling, and storage from the previous work done by the Moody lab could be used for this new project. This knowledge facilitated the transition and as a result, the Moody lab has tested more than 950,000 nasal swabs since the start of the program.
Gurley attributes the success of the COVID-19 testing program and growth of the lab and accessioning unit and biorepository program to the strength of their team and the lessons learned during the past two years, saying: “There have been tough times on the staffing end the past two years, but I’m really proud of the teams we have put together in the lab, accessioning unit and biorepository, and COVID-19 testing team.”
Moving during a pandemic
The challenges caused by the pandemic weren’t just limited to staffing and testing. When the Moody lab was contracted in 2021 by the NIH to work on an influenza vaccine, it soon became clear that they would need more laboratory and biorepository space. Physically re-locating from Duke University main campus to the Duke Research Triangle Park campus in July 2021 was a herculean effort that demanded moving a vast amount of delicate equipment as well as numerous cold storage units. “We worked with a moving company that used two trucks that allowed us to plug in the cold storage units, so we never lost power during the move except for the brief time the units were being moved from the lab to the truck. We moved 60 cold storage units over three days and did not lose a freezer during the move,” explains Gurley.
Communication, delegation, and trust are keys to success
In the face of these seemingly overwhelming obstacles, the Moody lab learned one valuable lesson—clear communication between teams and delegation of managerial duties were needed to effectively take on the various challenges they faced. “One thing I’ve learned over the past year is the need for task delegation to the team leads within each group that I lead,” Gurley says. Delegation requires trust, however, and that isn’t built overnight. To address this, Gurley set up weekly team meetings to foster better communication about what had been done and what each team was planning for the next week. “Good communication builds trust and once that trust is gained, delegation of tasks should be quite easy.”
“There have been tough times on the staffing end the past two years, but I’m really proud of the teams we have put together in the lab, accessioning unit and biorepository, and COVID-19 testing team.”
Between a massive shift in focus, an increased workload, physically relocating, and the restrictions of a pandemic, the Moody lab has accomplished its goals thanks to effective management and good communication. With an eye to the future, Gurley is optimistic, saying that: “While the past two years have been extremely difficult for our team, I was really able to grow as a leader and look forward to leading the teams as we look to the future.” Whatever challenges await ahead for the Moody lab, they are confident that the lessons in delegation and management learned during the pandemic will help them adapt and overcome.