DU's SPIT Lab and the Undergraduate Experience
Emma Mason, biology student, on working in the SPIT Labs.
At DU, we provide a robust range of experience and education to our students, in many different fields. Through our unique SPIT Lab program, we were able to both keep the community safe from COVID and provide in-depth, real-world training to some of our NSM students. We interviewed one of the undergraduates working at the SPIT Lab to get some perspective on what makes the Lab so unique and important. This undergraduate, Emma Mason, is studying Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, and after graduating this spring, she’s moving to Australia to pursue a master’s degree in genetic engineering.
So, what makes DU’s SPIT Lab special?
“The Spit Lab is unique in that it employs and trains undergraduates to be certified analysts. We are one of the only universities without a medical school that has a CLIA-certified laboratory, which is a very big deal. If I were to attend any other university, I would never have had the opportunity to run, process, and analyze COVID test results,” said Mason.
Last year, the SPIT Lab passed its accreditation audit, making it a CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) certified lab, approved for high complexity diagnostic testing. This puts the DU SPIT Lab on the same level of accreditation as diagnostics labs at major hospitals and university medical centers. While there are several CLIA labs located on university campuses around the county, these are almost exclusively in university health clinics or university medical centers/hospitals and pharmacy units.
There are only two CLIA labs for high complexity testing in the US that are based in (and developed entirely by) traditional academic teaching units. One is the Sewanee Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at The University of the South in Tennessee. The other is here at DU: of these two labs, only the DU lab actively engages undergraduate students in the lab's operation—specifically in the high complexity testing process. Over the past year, a total of 5 DU undergraduates have completed their training in the laboratory. Each one of these students has passed a required competency assessment and must also pass regular proficiency exams to maintain an official status as a "qualified medical diagnostics analyst" under our CLIA accreditation. These students have been an integral part of the lab's daily operations.
The SPIT Lab provides a very distinctive type of educational experience that undergraduate students simply cannot get at similar institutions. It also gives them an advantage in terms of relevant work experience when they move on with their careers:
“The SPIT lab has continued my academic growth immensely. While learning the foundation of science is essential in core classes, having the opportunity to see what I learn firsthand is remarkable. People joke about ‘when you are going to use this in real life,’ but I am seeing it every day when I work. Every day we see something new, as this is an ever-changing virus, the learning is nonstop. Between lab skills, analyzing results, and understanding the intricacies of this virus, the SPIT Lab has taught me tons,” said Mason.
Besides the academic benefits of the SPIT Lab, it has also been a major part in keeping COVID under control on DU’s campus. This is beneficial not just for the health of our community, but for providing our undergraduates at the SPIT Lab a chance to be involved on campus and to make a difference at DU:
Mason remarked, “My favorite part of working in the SPIT Lab is seeing our impact on the university. We continuously have a low positivity rate, and one much lower than Denver. We have successfully been able to manage new variants, which can be difficult. However, most substantially, on-campus life has returned virtually to normal in a safe way. Looking back at the campus a year and a half ago when I started working in the lab, classes were online and there were a lot of unknowns happening, now we are in person with in-person events back. There is a lot to be proud of. I would also say that our work environment is a fun place to be. Even when we have two thousand samples and there is a lot going on, we have an incredible staff to always have fun with.”
All in all, the DU SPIT Lab has worked to keep DU safe from COVID, while providing technical experience and an exciting, friendly workplace. While we will hopefully reach a point where the SPIT Lab’s services are no longer needed, for now it remains a boon to the education of our NSM undergraduates, and a shield against the dangers of COVID.