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The Caltech Covid Lab: Where Nothing Can Become Something

Like many students at Caltech, I suffer from a slight boba addiction, where side effects may include over caffeination, minor sugar highs, and of course, a large toll on one’s wallet. This addiction is not helped by the fact that there are at least three boba shops within walking distance of campus. So, after an entire term’s worth of boba runs, I came back from winter break with a new year’s epiphany: it was time to get a job. Rather than try to curb my addiction, I decided to find a way to subsidize it.

It is only fitting that I learned about my job from a conversation with a friend as we were taking a study break to get boba. On the walk over to Lake — the nearby off-campus street with stores, restaurants, and at least three boba shops — my friend mentioned a job posting he saw about the Caltech Covid Surveillance Lab (CCSL). He did not know much about the job other than the fact that it had flexible hours and good pay. Naturally, I was intrigued.

The next day I searched the Caltech job listings page and found the advertisement for the lab. I completed my application and submitted it, and a few hours later I got a response. I was told to come to the Chen Neuroscience building the next day for training.

At first, I was a little nervous. Did I get the job? Is training another word for a job interview? What exactly am I getting trained for? The next day, I changed my outfit three times, worried that my ripped jeans indicated a level of unprofessionalism unsuitable for the job. When I arrived at the lab, though, I was greeted by a friendly-looking man wearing a fedora. He introduced himself as George and welcomed me to the lab. He gave me a tour around the lab space and provided a brief overview of the job’s requirements. I was told that the job was mine, and if I was free, I could get trained right then and there.

In principle, my job is very simple. Every Caltech student, professor, and employee must Covid test twice a week. For testing, each person receives a kit with eight sample vials, ethanol swabs, pipettes, and cups. Before my first day at work, I had never given any thought as to how the kits actually came about, taking their presence for granted. In reality, it is an effort heavily reliant on student-labor. In addition to assembling the kits, students are responsible for labeling each kit bag, registering the kits into the database, and packing up bins of 120 kits for distribution.

However, what I soon learned was that simple does not necessarily mean easy. While it is very easy to place a pipette in a plastic bag, it becomes much more challenging when you need to do that for eight pipettes in 36 bags in two minutes. See, the main problem is speed. In order to satisfy the campus’s demand for test kits, we need to work very fast, and the first day I was very overwhelmed.

George had assigned one of the more senior staff members to show me around the lab, and I soon realized that she was not one for wasting time. After giving me a very brief introduction to each task, she immediately put me to work. I felt her presence hovering over my shoulder as I slowly opened each bag, placed the cups/swabs/pipettes inside, sealed it, and moved onto the next one. I could tell my turtle-like pace was not sufficient for her rabbit-like mentality. As taught in Caltech’s Chem 1a class, I was the rate limiting step of the operation.

After a short stint at the assembly station, she moved me onto the computer job, teaching me how to register the kits. Yet, it soon became apparent that once again, I was the slowest step in her speed operation. I could feel her presence behind me, her eyes on my back, her breath hot on my neck. After a few minutes of tortured silence as I slowly registered each kit, she (and I) could not take it anymore, and she politely asked me to switch with her. I got the hint: I was too slow.

However, it did not take me long to learn speed and efficiency, and soon enough I was the one impatiently waiting on the group’s “turtle”. Now, I know what you’re thinking: why would anyone ever want this job? And yes, I do understand, the job is boring. But Caltech is not boring, and sometimes your brain just needs a break from the constant workload and social pressure that is college. At least for me, I wanted to use this break to get paid. So, for four to eight hours a week I go into the lab and brainlessly build Covid kits. The monotony of the task is actually a nice brain-break from the real world.

I’ve made friends with the other employees, and we use work as an opportunity to detox from school stressors and relax. We made a group playlist and we listen to music while catching up on each other’s lives. Work is an environment of peace, comfort, and camaraderie.

So, the next time you’re spitting into a cup to submit your weekly sample and you wonder how exactly your test kit was made, just know it was made with love.

Juni Polansky ’25

Hi I’m Juni, a junior from Baltimore, MD. I am majoring in bioengineering and minoring in English. I play on the women’s soccer team and run on the track team. In my free time, I like to read, play guitar, and paint.