People rarely asked DNA scientist Karim Gharbi about the complexities of his work. That is until a global pandemic came along – now everybody wants to talk about COVID-19 testing. Here, the Earlham Institute-based scientist tells us what’s changed.

Norwich Evening News: Picture: Earlham InstitutePicture: Earlham Institute (Image: Earlham Institute)

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here. What does a normal working day look like for you?

As head of Genomics Pipelines at the Earlham Institute, I lead a group of scientists helping other UK science groups to carry out experiments using advanced DNA sequencing technologies. These are expensive to buy and require a high level of training to run. My role is to make sure that these technologies are readily accessible here in Norwich for the benefit of the science community across the UK.

One of the most exciting projects that my group is currently working on involves decoding the DNA of all life in the UK. That’s over 60,000 species! We’re using technologies developed at the Earlham Institute to crack the DNA code of tiny, single-cell microbes (known as protists), most of which have yet to be discovered and play important roles in maintaining a healthy environment. Having said that, my normal working day has changed a lot since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In what ways has COVID-19 changed your work?

I’ve been involved in two major initiatives – the first was coordinating volunteer scientists to ramp up testing capacity at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital from hundreds to thousands of tests a day. I also worked with colleagues at UEA and the hospital to set up a new testing facility to boost regional capacity.

For the volunteer project, we needed skilled molecular biologists who were already familiar with the techniques and hazards involved in working with COVID-19. A few days before lockdown, we put out a call for volunteers from across Norwich Research Park’s science institutes (Earlham Institute, John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Quadram Institute, the University of East Anglia). This was on a Friday and by Sunday night we had nearly 200 volunteers ready to help. It was really humbling to see such a surge of solidarity, and very much a team effort.

I think the Research Park is going to come out of this pandemic stronger and be better prepared to respond to the next emergency. It’s really pushed us to work outside of our normal circle and encouraged us to work with people from other organisations that we don’t often interact with. It’s been a timely reminder that by gravitating towards the same group of people, we are missing out on opportunities to make a difference.

Norwich Evening News: Picture: Earlham InstitutePicture: Earlham Institute (Image: Earlham Institute)

Making decisions ‘guided by science’ has become something of a government mantra these last few months. As a result, do you think people are thinking about science differently?

It’s fascinating. I now regularly talk to my neighbours about lab testing – we would never have done that before! I have been impressed by how much they know, from DNA to antibody and antigen testing. It’s been great to build those bridges with non-scientists and talk about what we’re doing and how we can help.

I think the general public naturally trusts scientists and the pandemic has reinforced this perception. Evidence is key to the scientific process – it’s the bread and butter of science. So seeing this way of thinking become more popular and seeing more people approaching problems from a scientific point of view has been fantastic.

How did you end up working at the Earlham Institute?

It’s always been a hotbed for genomics and one of the best places in the country to work in this field. Genomics is relatively new and the Earlham Institute is one of a small number of places with the infrastructure to deliver world-leading science in this area.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I’m a football coach with the Lakeford Rangers under 11’s team in Norwich. It’s the opposite of working in a lab because I’m out in the fresh air and teaching great kids how to have fun while working as a team and respecting their opposition. It’s rewarding to watch them develop from learning not to chase the ball all at once, into skilled footballers playing together as a team.

Karim Gharbi is head of Genomics Pipelines at Earlham Institute based at Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @DrKarimGharbi