Some of the greatest battles we face as humans are won only when we fight together. From Marie and Pierre Curie’s pioneering research on radioactivity to the huge international team behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and the discovery of gravitational waves, collaboration has been a constant in science.
But in moments of crisis, like we experienced when the pandemic took hold, what does it truly mean to come together to fight for the public good?
We are two scientists with unique backgrounds, motivations and skills, but in the middle of our generation’s greatest emergency, we stepped across disciplines to merge our different areas of expertise to help tackle the immediate issue in front of us — COVID-19.
Our stories begin in two very different places — for Hal in Michigan, with a blue-collar family, surrounded by rows of corn and seas of trees. And across the globe for Fahim, in a small town in Iran, which even today has no piped water.
Our ambitions are also distinct. Hal is determined to make a better way of stopping illegal wildlife trafficking, using DNA testing at scale and in situ to track trade routes. Fahim aims to make revolutionary new biotechnologies.
In 2018, we came together as Schmidt Science Fellows, a community of early-career scientists with a shared vision for what interdisciplinary science can achieve. The fellowship supported us to pivot into a discipline distinct from that of our Ph. Ds. We were encouraged to take risks, push boundaries and be ambitious with our research. We gained the skills and networks to work across boundaries, rather than in the silos that traditional approaches expect us to fit into.
Just days before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States, we were brought together once again for a fellowship gathering in Seattle at Conservation X Labs, where Hal was working with a team to develop a new DNA testing platform. This early prototype handheld device allowed the testing of products to be done on site and by non-specialists to distinguish legitimate from illicit products. We spent the morning helping swab and test seafood fillets.
By the time Fahim returned home to Boston to the startup he co-founded, MitoLab, COVID-19 was accelerating around the world. He began thinking back to that day at Conservation X Labs, curious to know how the device could be used against the coronavirus and what additional assays, or testing capabilities, could be integrated.
We began messaging each other almost every day as we explored how our teams’ respective expertise could come together and soon had calls going between our teams at MitoLab and Conservation X Labs.
If we were going to put our time and resources into this medical device, it meant we would have to put a pause on our other work, potentially risking everything we had worked to accomplish. But with the evident need for faster, cheaper and easier diagnostics to combat the growing pandemic, our companies committed their joint resources to repurpose the Conservation X Labs tool with MitoLab chemistry for COVID-19 diagnostics.
This was no small undertaking. We needed new assay chemistry that would still work with the device’s format but target virus RNA instead of wildlife sample DNA. Conservation X Labs had DNA experts, but could not have made this switch without Fahim’s team contributing rapidly developed COVID-19 RNA assays.
We also quickly realized the need to collaborate on challenges beyond science. A medical device is significantly more costly to develop than a conservation tool. Hal’s team identified a medical device manufacturer to build the device to FDA standards, and, thanks to MitoLab’s connections, we secured a grant to fund the work.
By the end of 2020, we had performed our first tests to verify the device and the underpinning science. We undertook trials with “wet” chemistry and then embarked on the production-ready designs for the device. We are now going through the required approval process for the device and the room-temperature stable assays in our integrated cartridge system, supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health, to bring this device to the market.
We’re not alone in this approach — other scientists are also merging multiple disciplines to tackle pressing problems. Schmidt Science Fellow OJ Watson at Imperial College London combined epidemiology and computer science to produce disease models to help authorities in low- to middle-income countries respond and prepare for further pandemic waves and vaccines. And Fellow Saki Takahashi at the University of California San Francisco worked across disease modeling and molecular epidemiology to produce analyses to inform public health responses.
Our story demonstrates not only the potential for scientific advancement when different disciplines come together, but also offers insights into how we can reform the international organization of scientific training and practice to make this outcome more likely in the future. We were able to draw upon training, networks, organizational commitment and funding that focused on tackling a problem — rather than focusing simply on the discipline itself.
Crises are moments when leaders come together, but we hope it won’t take another crisis for mission-driven interdisciplinary approaches to become more widespread in the months and years ahead.