Cracking Down on COVID-19

April 13, 2020

In a span of just a couple of weeks, Kenneth Olive, PhD, has galvanized a team of volunteers—primarily students, postdocs, and staff scientists—to assist with the surging COVID-19 response across Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). Labeled Columbia University Researchers Against COVID-19, or CRAC for short, the effort has garnered nearly 400 volunteers and established a 20-person management team, Slack space, website, and Twitter. CRAC has already activated numerous projects ranging from supporting clinical efforts to science research and data management to logistical support.

“There are so many across our campus who are working overtime to meet the challenge of this pandemic,” says Dr. Olive, a member of the Precision Oncology and Systems Biology research program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and associate professor of medicine at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “We felt that even though we aren’t on the front lines of patient care, as researchers, our expertise and skillsets are a valuable resource that could be tapped into in a number of ways. The idea behind CRAC was to pool our collective expertise and develop a streamlined process to deploy it across areas of need.”

Among its ongoing projects, CRAC is assisting Columbia’s Institutional Review Board with database management and in monitoring the status of nearly 6,000 clinical studies; helping to process patient samples for  COVID-19 research purposes via the newly established COVID-19 Biobank at CUIMC; incorporating a rapid response “on-call” team for lab equipment failures on campus; and building a database of all COVID-19 focused research efforts at Columbia.

CRAC’s projects are organized as a joint effort with Columbia faculty members or administrators to ensure activities are being implemented safely. The idea for CRAC started with a Columbia research scientist, Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez, PhD, seeking help to expand diagnostic testing capacity at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and CUIMC and from there, it rapidly grew in scope and vision to assist all COVID-19 research efforts.

“Aside from the research and publications that CRAC is and will be supporting,” says Dr. Cuesta-Domínguez, “this initiative sends out a message of cooperation, solidarity, and commitment that speaks volumes about the Columbia research community.”

The team is working quickly and has already helped process 1,200 COVID-19 patient samples, including  plasma, serum, and nasopharyngeal swabs, that will enable critical research at CUIMC. Columbia systems biology graduate student, Miles Richardson, and postdoctoral researcher, Natalie Steinemann, PhD, among the first to join the team, are actively organizing volunteer groups to work on CRAC projects including setting up a system to assign an individual project manager for each effort.

Many college campuses and institutions across the U.S. have had to temporarily shut down non-essential lab operations and research. Suddenly, active researchers in academia found themselves with an abrupt shift to their daily routines. For some, CRAC presented itself as a much-needed outlet for their scientific expertise. 

“Right now, this is the best use of my time and skills,” says Richardson. “We have the potential to have a real impact here. We are bringing the Columbia community together to face a great threat.”

Dr. Steinemann, whose daily routine inevitably slowed down when work-from-home orders were instituted at Columbia University, didn’t realize just how helpless she would feel sitting at home knowing that others could use her help. “I was so relieved when CRAC put out its first call for volunteers,” she says. “I haven’t been able to stop working on putting together projects since.”

In addition to Dr. Olive, Eric Greene, PhD, a member of the HICCC and professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia, also is serving as a faculty advisor to CRAC. CRAC’s management team includes scientists from across several Columbia University departments, including the Columbia Zuckerman Institute and the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Interested volunteers can apply on the CRAC website.

“I’d like to think we have already helped take some weight off the shoulders of people who suddenly carry a tremendous burden,” says Dr. Steinemann. “Besides the good coming out of the projects themselves, having well-oiled volunteering organizations on campus has given us all a chance to share good news and feel hopeful as a community.”