UNE alum helped lead development of rapid COVID-19 tests
For the last seven years, Lauren Ashley Rogers, B.S. ’09 (Psychobiology), has worked on the bench at Abbott Diagnostics as a research scientist developing rapid diagnostic tests for viral infections like influenza and strep throat. But, in 2020, as the novel coronavirus pandemic surged, the University of New England alum and research and development supervisor at the company’s Scarborough location had a new task: creating rapid tests for COVID-19.
UNE News reached out to the Billerica, Massachusetts native about her role in developing Abbott’s rapid tests, which can produce results in as little as 15 minutes, and about her 12 years of work in the biotechnology field. Her answers have been edited for length and/or clarity.
What was your role in developing the rapid COVID-19 tests?
For me, the most important thing about my job is knowing that I’m doing meaningful work and making a difference in the world. This past year has really shown me how critical the work we do really is.
Since the pandemic began, I have had the opportunity to help develop two rapid COVID-19 diagnostic tests for Abbott.
Last March, just before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, my colleagues and I helped with the development and launch of the portable, rapid molecular COVID-19 test for our ID NOW platform. For this project, I was on the bench with the team working to help prepare the test for review by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and get it to the people who needed it most. I’ll never forget the moment when I learned that we had done it: we had created a test that could quickly and accurately identify this novel virus. It was so emotional and incredibly reassuring that I am doing work that I not only love, but that matters.
When we launched, the ID NOW test for COVID-19 was the first rapid molecular test of its kind to give results in as little as 15 minutes, which was a game changer in the early stages of the pandemic. In July, I was asked to help with the late-stage development and launch of the BinaxNOW COVID-19 test, a rapid antigen test that only costs $5, doesn’t require any additional equipment, and can be produced at mass scale.
How did your education at UNE prepare you for the work you do?
My time at UNE prepared me for my work in two key ways:
First, UNE showed me how to fully devote myself to my passion of science. My freshman year was a big adjustment for me in terms of the coursework compared to that of my high school experience. I spent a lot of my high school years playing sports, and that provided many skills and life lessons I’m still grateful for today, but I hadn’t quite honed in on my studying skills by the time I arrived at UNE. It was clear early on that, if I were going to graduate in four years with a bachelor’s degree, I was going to have to study harder than I ever had before and stay committed to my dreams of becoming a scientist. UNE had a great learning assistance center and many study groups that I was able to take advantage of, and it was an incredible help.
Second, my senior year internship with Ian Meng, Ph.D., professor of physiology, really helped me get my feet wet with what it would be like to work in a lab setting — and, of course, I loved it! I had such a great experience researching medication overuse headaches and the role of trigeminal sensory processing that I ended up working full time for a few years in Dr. Meng’s lab post-graduation. Had it not been for my internship leading to full time employment right after graduation, I think it would’ve been much more difficult for me to find a job during the 2009 recession. I am forever grateful to UNE for providing the stepping stones that got me to where I am today.
Has the pandemic impacted your views on your chosen career?
This year has felt incredibly surreal — almost science fiction — but also has given me a sense of pride in knowing that our team performed heroic tasks in impossibly short time frames to get people the tools they needed to slow the spread of a deadly virus. We accomplished in the span of months what typically takes a few years. It has absolutely reaffirmed my decision to work in this field by seeing firsthand how important this kind of work is for people around the world, including those closest to us.
Is there anything else you wish to say?
This pandemic has highlighted the need for science to lead the way if we want to be effective in the fight against COVID-19. I am so grateful and appreciative of the incredible scientists I have had the opportunity to work with through these challenging times. When you end up spending more time with your team at the bench than your family with a global pandemic going on around you, you gain a closeness with your team that I’ve realized is invaluable and immeasurable.
I hit a turning point in my career in March when I was working on the COVID-19 tests and the reality of the situation was setting in. I knew this was why I had pursued infectious disease and I was ready to help Abbott and our country in any way that I could. It was definitely unnerving, but having my team with me and on the same page about what needed to be done was everything.
The ID NOW and BinaxNOW teams banded together unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of, and that closeness that paired with our passion for science changed the course of rapid diagnostic testing during the COVID-19 pandemic.