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Harvard Postdoc Launches National COVID-19 Research Volunteer Database

Harvard postdoctoral fellow Michael F. Wells is developing a database of volunteer researchers across the country to help perform COVID-19 lab work.
Harvard postdoctoral fellow Michael F. Wells is developing a database of volunteer researchers across the country to help perform COVID-19 lab work. By Michael Gritzbach
By Ethan Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

As Harvard postdoctoral fellow Michael F. Wells walked home from his last in-person laboratory meeting for the foreseeable future, one thing was on his mind — finding a way to combat the spread of COVID-19 that had forced his research group to close for two months.

“I really wanted an outlet for me, like someone like me, to be able to help out in this fight,” Wells said. “I knew I was, by far, not the only one who felt this way. And so what happened was, on the walk home from work that day from lab, I thought, ‘Hey, I should try to organize something here in Boston so I could potentially be a part of a group that makes themselves available to health department officials or county officials.’”

Now, Wells is developing a database of volunteer researchers across the country to help perform COVID-19 lab work, using a Google Form to collect information on each respondent’s location, expertise, and access to necessary lab materials.

Wells’ database, which currently boasts more than 7,000 entries, has been sent to various organizations researching and testing COVID-19, such as the Broad Institute and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The data is shared only with “key contacts throughout the country” who lead efforts against COVID-19, according to the database’s FAQ page. Harvard’s Division of Science posted a link to his Google Form on its website in a March 20 update on the pandemic.

Other researchers have joined Wells to form a group of managers, which they call the COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database Coordination Team, for the database. Wells said one of the management team’s greatest successes was catching the attention of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“After about a week of trying to find the right person, trying to get the emails to the right contacts, whatever may be, we finally got to the point where one of the leads at FEMA requested access to the database,” Wells said. “They were one of our primary targets after it became known that FEMA was going to take the lead on many of these different issues related to the virus, and so that was a big win for us.”

Through the connection with FEMA, database will serve as a bridge between talented scientists across the country and leaders in research efforts against COVID-19, according to Wells.

“Just knowing that this database is in the hands of these health officials is very empowering, because we did our part,” Wells said. “We can’t tell them, ‘Hey you have to hire us, you have to put us in these labs.’ We don’t have that power. But we do have the power of organization.”

Wells said the ultimate goal of his work “would be a situation where we don’t have to do this anymore” and the spread of COVID-19 would be successfully halted. If this were to happen, Wells said his database could still play a significant role in future responses to potential pandemics.

“When all is said and done, potentially the database could be used in some way to help maintain this type of reserve workforce, in case we have a second wave,” Wells said. “In case another pandemic happens five years from now, we’re already in a situation where we have scientists who can be called upon to help out.”

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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HealthResearchSciences DivisionScienceScience NewsFront Middle FeatureCoronavirus