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Blugold leads Mayo Clinic research team developing COVID-19 tests

| Judy Berthiaume

Working under pressure takes on a whole new meaning when you’re overseeing a team charged with developing a test to detect the virus that’s causing a worldwide pandemic.

Fortunately, a UW-Eau Claire graduate and the Mayo Clinic team she oversees was up to the challenge.

Sara Lassila, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from UW-Eau Claire in 2005, is a test development supervisor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Earlier this month, Lassila’s team developed a test that can detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The Mayo Clinic test provides patients with their results within 24 hours, far faster than the several days to a week typical of COVID-19 test results across the U.S.

“We now have a capacity to perform a few thousand tests a day, which is incredible,” Lassila says.

Even more incredible, Lassila says, is that her team was able to develop the test in a matter of weeks instead of the months it usually takes to complete this kind of project.

“It is an amazing feeling to know that you were able to develop and deliver a test in under four weeks,” Lassila says. “This is unprecedented, and it was quite the accomplishment to achieve. Test development typically takes on the order of several months to complete.”

Lassila, who has worked for Mayo Clinic since graduating from UW-Eau Claire 15 years ago, currently supervises and manages test development activities within the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology specifically for the divisions of Clinical Microbiology and Transfusion Medicine.

“I’m always proud but never surprised to learn that Blugolds are among the people helping to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems,” says UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. “Sara’s hard work and leadership are literally helping to save lives during a worldwide pandemic.”

This spring, development of the test was approved by Mayo Clinic leadership to be done as quickly as possible, Lassila says of her team being directed to work on COVID-19.

A development team was quickly established, which included some people who already were looking into developing a test on a research use basis, Lassila says. Their new charge to develop a test and submit it through the FDA Emergency Use Authorization process meant that many more resources were needed, she says.

“We began meeting daily to organize ourselves and divide up the work among each other more than we typically do for a test development project,” Lassila says. “It was very exciting to lead the project efforts and it was wonderful to have such a great team to work with.

“Everyone truly jumped in and worked together extremely well given the pressure to deliver. Between the members of the group, someone was working almost all the time and putting in over 12-15 hours of work daily, including on the weekends.”

Lassila and her team now are working to optimize their testing to accommodate different situations as the needs arise.

For example, they are working to determine how to continue testing when the viral transport media used for specimen swab delivery are undergoing nationwide shortages.

“We are definitely being even more creative in coming up with solutions to these unique issues,” Lassila says.

While her work is challenging, Lassila says there is no place she would rather be than at Mayo Clinic working to solve complex problems.

She’s grateful, she says, that UW-Eau Claire helped her get there.

“I really loved my time at UWEC,” Lassila says. “The campus is beautiful, but I went there because they had the major that I wanted to pursue — biochemistry and molecular biology. I favored chemistry in high school but came to enjoy biology more once I was in college.”

During her time at UW-Eau Claire, Lassila worked as an undergraduate student researcher alongside Dr. Julie Anderson, an associate professor of biology and director of the Health Careers Center.

The knowledge and experiences she gained by working in Anderson’s research laboratory are among the reasons she was hired by Mayo Clinic right out of college, Lassila says.

“I learned so many things during that time that were beneficial to me getting my first job at Mayo Clinic,” Lassila says. “I really believe that the actual lab experiences I had at UWEC was one of the reasons I was hired.”

For decades, UW-Eau Claire has been a leader in student-faculty research, encouraging and supporting research collaborations in all academic programs.

As result, Blugolds learn the research process, but they also gain important problem-solving, communication and other skills that help them be successful in their careers.

“Sara’s incredible work at Mayo Clinic reminds us of what can happen when we offer bright and curious undergraduate students opportunities to work on real-world problems alongside faculty mentors,” Schmidt says. “Thanks to her work in the classroom and in the research lab, Sara left UW-Eau Claire with the kinds of knowledge and skills that are helping her thrive in her career.

“Given her work on COVID-19, we all now will benefit from her expertise and leadership.”

Shortly before she graduated from UW-Eau Claire, Mayo Clinic offered her a clinical laboratory technologist position, Lassila says.

Two weeks after she earned her bachelor’s degree, she was working in a lab in Rochester, Minnesota.

“I really loved science and the thought of getting paid a salary to work in the lab without going to graduate school right away was especially appealing ,” Lassila says, noting that over the years she has served in a variety of roles supporting the clinical laboratory at Mayo Clinic.

Hopefully, Lassila says, her success will inspire other Blugolds with a passion for science to follow a similar path.

“Do whatever you can to get involved with actual research lab experience," Lassila says of her advice to current and future Blugolds. “It will definitely benefit you in the end.

“My time at UWEC and now at Mayo Clinic have been exceptional. I encourage anyone to consider both these opportunities if they have the chance.”

Photo caption: Sara Lassila, who earned a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from UW-Eau Claire, is a test development supervisor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Her team developed a test that can detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.