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Featured Apprentice Story


When COVID-19 pandemic was declared and the UK went into lockdown, Paige Orwig was part of a team of Drug Metabolism Pharmacokinetic (DMPK) scientist’s whose work was considered by the government to be essential research for cancer research and as such, when lab work was required scientists made the exceptional effort to continue to visit the site and carry out their work under extraordinary circumstances. Paige’s role initially remained unchanged while she was continuing her current responsibilities in Absorption, Distribution Metabolism and Excretion (ADME), however due to social distancing and the stay at home mandate a lot of her work became very isolated, yet she continued to produce high quality work.

In April 2020 it was announced that AstraZeneca, GSK and the University of Cambridge would be collaborating to build a lighthouse COVID-19 testing lab. Paige immediately volunteered for this opportunity, willing to put her time, effort and expertise into the fight against this global pandemic. Paige joined the Cambridge COVID-19 Test Centre (CCTC) during the initial phases where the facilities were still in the process of being transformed into the scientific leading centre it became. The Cambridge COVID-19 Test Centre was an immense feat set up at the beginning of the pandemic and successfully developed from scratch within a matter of weeks, and which by September 2020 was able to conduct 22,000 tests per day.

Paige was assigned to the sample preparation department within the CCTC. This role included delivery, unpacking, racking, pipetting, and inactivation of live samples direct from patients, all under a very high-pressured environment. Due to the nature of the live virus of the clinical sample’s scientists worked under strict adherence to Standard Operating Procedures of utmost importance and dealing with ambiguity during their shifts. The COVID-19 UK government strategy utilised Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing, this includes RNA extraction, and PCR amplification, both of which are biological techniques that were entirely new to Paige.

Paige quickly took this opportunity working within this new environment surrounded by scientists from 3 different organisations with a broad range of expertise and experience to learn hands on what these techniques were and how to run the experiments in the lab. Within her main role in sample preparation Paige quickly established herself as an organised, professional and extremely capable scientist and within weeks was assigned as deputy team lead for her sample preparation room. Paige’s supervisor described this decision as a natural consequence of Paige’s initiative and leadership to train new volunteers who joined the team late.

When the sample preparation team set up the automated sample preparation process, the only one in the UK at the time, Paige quickly picked up the procedure and again volunteered to help with any validation work. Once the automation was up and running, Paige was appointed as the automation lead which involved full superuser training and supervision of three scientists. As further volunteers joined, Paige trained both manual and automation processes. She was very understanding and patient when new starters were nervous, whilst always sticking to the SOP and safety measures.

Through all this Paige was a constant source of positive attitude, despite the intensity and high-risk nature of the work she was part of. Not only was this work a completely different scientific environment to that of her usual DMPK group, but her whole life was altered by this volunteering move. The nature of diagnostic testing during the pandemic meant patient samples needed to be tested around the clock, 7 days a week. Paige’s volunteer shift moved her working days from a standard 9-5 Monday to Friday, to a 3pm – midnight shift over Saturday – Monday, almost a complete reversal of her time. Not only did Paige take this entirely in her stride but she thrived.

Paige adjusted her study time around her shift pattern to utilise the most productive periods while maintain a consistent approach week on week, and through all the adversity was successful in her Chemistry Foundation Degree in Chemical Sciences at the University of Kent as well the SIAS Laboratory Scientist Level 5 Apprenticeship with a distinction. Paige also enabled herself to be available during select working hours to aid with DMPK work she had left behind and take part in meetings and critical DMPK work.

Paige’s enthusiasm and positive attitude was a huge asset when working these unsociable hours to motivate the team to work to the best of their ability and her resilience to keep this going through a shift pattern during a countrywide lockdown was an inspiration to those around her. Once the testing centre began to recruit from a new partner, Charles River, and the nationwide return to work process began Paige was instrumental in the training of new staff to a high standard over a very short period. Paige then transitioned back into her DMPK role seamlessly and was able to apply her newly developed training skills with new starters in the department and showcase her leadership with a key role in the running of one of our main internal assays. In addition, Paige picked up additional assignments when she returned to DMPK to cover the work of another team member who remained at the centre enabling crucial business continuity within the DMPK department as projects got back on track post lockdown.

Paige’s exceptional and voluntary support of the Cambridge COVID-19 Test Centre shows her passion for science and improving the lives of patients across all disease areas. Paige quickly became an integral member of the team at the test centre and her hard work posed as an inspiration to those who followed her within the CCTC, as well as her colleagues and fellow apprentices on her return to AZ, exemplified by her being interviewed for an article on apprentices fighting COVID here. Paige developed several new skills during this unprecedented secondment, both scientifically learning new techniques such as RNA extraction and PCR analysis, but also operational skills through her deputy lead role in the lab and leadership responsibilities which will support her career beyond the apprenticeship. Her work and dedication were essential to the success of the CCTC and as such the ability to test patients and members of the public for COVID-19 enabling people across the country including her AZ colleagues to return to their workplace, and importantly feel safe in the professional and personal lives.

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