In many ways the lab is an unlikely leader — behind the scenes and humble, filled with smart folks who lean more toward the introvert side, shun the spotlight, and who work hard to provide clinical tests to serve others. Such an unlikely leader, in fact, that the lab is often referred to as an “ancillary“ service because our tests are used to support the more patient-facing medical and surgical services typically seen as primary to the organization. Well, look who's in the spotlight now during the COVID-19 pandemic — the clinical laboratory is not so “ancillary” anymore.

Testing has become a pivotal issue to the COVID-19 pandemic response – California had a statewide backlog of 59,500 tests as of April 2, and many Californians want access to testing but can't get it. In his press conference on Saturday, April 4, it was exciting to hear California Governor Gavin Newsom announce a partnership with UC Davis and UC San Diego to create testing hubs throughout the state to increase test capacity. Governor Newsom appointed our very own Senior Director of Clinical Pathology Nam Tran to a special task force that will oversee the statewide testing program. This leadership role for our medical center, laboratory and faculty is an honor and source of pride for all of us.

I think that the clinical laboratory in general – and our laboratory faculty and staff in particular — has emerged as a leader because of all the qualities that have caused us to be overlooked or under-estimated in the past. Our special brand of leadership is derived from our humble nature, our somewhat “nerdy” focus on careful planning and procedure-driven operations, and our patient-centric and client-centric culture that puts serving others first.

Serving other first is what servant leadership is all about -– a form of leadership which I think typifies the type of leadership that comes natural to pathologists and laboratorians. Coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.” The servant-leader derives from “…the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first…. to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served.”

There are many important attributes that characterize servant leadership, and I am grateful to have seen so many examples of these throughout our department as we have prepared and responded to the COVID-19 crisis. Here are just a few:

  • Empathy: It is clear that our pathology and laboratory team never forgets that there are worried and anxious patients and families behind every specimen we receive. This empathy is why our amazing molecular team has worked long hours into the night to validate, troubleshoot and run our new rapid high-throughput Roche cobas 6800 instrument for COVID-19 testing, an instrument that very few hospital laboratories possess. Our entire community is very grateful for the hundreds of tests that we provide daily. We are also grateful for the crisis plan that every laboratory section has developed to ensure cross-coverage if our own team gets sick and can't come to work. Again, our empathy for those that we serve is why we make every effort to provide and maintain essential services for those who need us.
  • Foresight and vision: We are all inspired by a vision of a healthier future and our important role in getting there. The phased multi-platform COVID-19 testing plan developed by Nam Tran and team showed foresight and vision, and succeeded in bringing up testing rapidly, allowed scaling to higher volume, and created back-up for instrument downtime. Nam's plan also included very creative planning for potential shortages of collection swabs (3-D printing!) and media (manufactured in our GMP facility!)
  • Stewardship: Thanks to our CAP-accredited biorepository and IRB approval, we are banking valuable remnant specimens from our COVID-19 patients and sharing with our research partners and collaborators to discover new knowledge. UCD research teams at the Primate Center have already isolated and grown the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Our campus colleagues are already studying the virus to better understand the disease, facilitating development of vaccines and treatments.
  • Flipping fears into opportunity: Clearly, a disease that has overwhelmed entire hospitals in multiple cities, and requires self-quarantine and sheltering of the entire nation is very frightening. But crises inspire new ideas and innovation. UCD has offered many new seed grant opportunities for our researchers. New clinical trials for treatment have also begun. Our transfusion medicine faculty are involved in a multi-center trial with Johns Hopkins and other centers to study convalescent plasma for prevention of infection as well as rescue therapy for the very sick.

April is the month in which we celebrate National Lab Week. Our celebration will be very different than in previous years – no games, massages, or big food events. However, we have lots to celebrate in a very different way – the amazing leadership demonstrated by all during this crisis, new attention and appreciation for what we do, creative solutions and dedicated teammates that improve the lives of the people of California and the world – and meaningful work every day of the year, pandemic or not. Thank you for all that you do.