In the Field

Innovating On The Front Lines

By Carl Zebrowski

Take time to reflect on Leah Roberts’ journey on developing a system which would see over a million processed covid tests in Georgia.

Growing up, Leah Roberts was a fan of the TV show CSI. She was fascinated by its depictions of high-tech forensic techniques, and she dreamed of working in a medical laboratory someday. But it was also experiences closer to home that led her to the scientific career that in 2020 saw her develop methods to increase the number of COVID-19 tests her lab could turn around in 24 hours.

“From a personal standpoint,” the native of Fayetteville, Georgia, remembers, “I had family members who were sick, and there always seemed to be a delay in getting critical test results back from the lab.”

So, Roberts set a goal to make things better.

When she finished high school, she enrolled in college to study biology. “There it fostered more interest in infectious disease prevention, particularly in minorities, because I am a woman of color,” she recalls. “There seemed to be a lot of underserved populations that either could not get testing or could not read the test results. Also, there was a lack of women of color in the science field, in laboratory science.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree, she began working with immunology and microbiology and decided to steer her career toward molecular diagnostics. She chose Walden University for her Master of Public Health (MPH) program and earned her degree in 2015. “I worked a lot with the Walden faculty,” she says. “Eventually I got to a point where I could use my strengths in a more meaningful way. I started looking into small organizations and private labs where I could potentially start developing a lot of the testing.”

She accepted a position as a molecular diagnostics supervisor at Ipsum Diagnostics in Sandy Springs, Georgia, in 2019. The company had just 15 employees at the time, and its main work was testing for the detection of pathogens such as fungus and bacteria from wounds. Then, only months after her arrival, reports began to surface about a “novel coronavirus.” Roberts and Ipsum leadership concluded by late January 2020 that the situation looked like “something that could be a lot worse” and started planning for the coming months.

Roberts, along with three other women, worked to develop the process. “Because our laboratory was new and innovative,” Roberts says, “we had platforms that could triple the amount of samples processed within one hour that would immediately increase the testing capacity for the state of Georgia.”

On April 1, 2020, the FDA authorized an emergency use of Ipsum Diagnostics’ coronavirus test. At the height of the pandemic, Roberts and the laboratory team at Ipsum were processing 10,000 COVID-19 samples a day.

One hundred fifteen people were working for the company by this time, and Roberts had become the molecular diagnostics lab manager, with 40 people under her supervision. Lab hours were no longer Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Now the operation was 24/7, and most of the COVID-19 tests in the state were being processed at Ipsum Diagnostics. By the end of 2020, Ipsum had done more than 1 million of Georgia’s COVID-19 tests.

Toward the end of 2021, Roberts and the scientific staff at Ipsum began working to apply the lessons they’d learned more broadly. “There is a self-collection kit we are working on to allow individuals to be able to test in the comfort of their homes. In addition, we constantly keep abreast of new developments from the CDC and FDA for the SARS-CoV-2 variants and will soon begin a validation to detect the omicron variant.”

Reflecting on the challenges of the COVID-19 effort, Roberts says, “We were thrown into a war zone every day, but once you’re able to catch your breath a bit, you can see the empowerment of change and how important science is and how important public health is. … We see how important it is that we have healthcare professionals who can work together to help resolve obstacles that seem insurmountable. Disruption is an opportunity to innovate real-time solutions that can help in times of crises.”