The automated liquid-handling robot is large enough to claim a 12-foot-by-4-foot expanse of lab table space in its unexpected home in UVA Health’s West Complex. Last summer, University of Virginia assistant biology professor John Campbell and his neuroscience lab’s team were customizing the Hamilton Company machine and its pipetting arms for ongoing, funded research projects in their own lab space.
Their projects explore the circuitry of the vagus nerve – a cranial nerve that carries a wide range of signals from the human digestive system and organs to the brain, and vice versa. The robot was playing a central role in the lab’s discoveries about how the vagus nerve controls the digestive, cardiovascular and immune systems.
When UVA decided to welcome students back on Grounds for classes last fall, though, the move was accompanied by the recognition that in an ongoing pandemic, the University needed to dramatically improve its ability to test students, faculty and staff in order to quickly identify COVID cases and to limit potential outbreaks. So, when the Department of Biology’s chair, Deborah Roach, emailed faculty to ask whose research lab might have a large-scale liquid handler that the University could use to scale up COVID testing efforts, Campbell offered his.
With a pair of oversized googly eyes affixed to its front panel, the lab’s robot is playfully referred to now as “Rosie,” a nod to a line from Paul Simon’s song, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” (“Goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona …”) Rosie now operates six days a week, with two shifts of lab workers processing as many as 3,500 saliva samples a day, in what used to be an empty space on the fifth floor of the Old Medical School Building. That’s more than twice as many vials processed daily by lab workers last semester, when UVA processed fewer than 1,500 saliva samples most days before Campbell’s robot was reprogrammed and came online in February.
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