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Stacey Gabriel was on her way into yoga class, rolled-up mat under her arm, on the second Monday night in March when her phone buzzed. Gabriel runs the Genomics Platform at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge. It’s a big job — the Broad is one of the largest sequencing centers in the world. She was eager to find a little after-work peace.
The COVID-19 crisis was ramping up in Massachusetts, enough for Governor Charlie Baker to decide that same day to cut short his family ski vacation in Utah. Now Dr. Deb Hung, a Broad researcher and infectious disease doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was sounding an alarm.
“Stacey, testing is terrible!” Hung said, explaining that even at the Brigham they could only process a few dozen a day. “You have to help.”
“Deb,” Gabriel replied. “We don’t do viral.”
The platform that Gabriel oversees at the Broad was set up to do genetic sequencing on a massive scale. It’s an impressive operation, leveraging robotics and other cutting-edge technology to help scientists unlock mysteries behind a host of illnesses, from cancer and diabetes to schizophrenia and heart disease. But it was never designed to quickly deliver test results to individual patients suspected of having a particular virus.
“Can you just look at it?” Hung asked.
Gabriel agreed. The next morning, after meeting with her managers, the 49-year-old geneticist called Hung back and told her, “I don’t see any barriers that are insurmountable.” In her two decades in Boston, Gabriel had developed a reputation for being unafraid to take on seemingly impossible challenges — and managing to deliver. Still, her initial plans were fairly modest: to set up a small shop inside the Broad to help ease the state’s testing backlog.
She had no idea she would end up leading an effort that would become the centerpiece of New England’s testing infrastructure, not to mention a sliding-door vision of just how much better our national pandemic response might have been.
Gabriel grew up in a rural town outside Pittsburgh called Madison, Pennsylvania, a speck on the map with 436 souls. She excelled in parochial grammar school and public high school. Her dad was a truck driver, her mom a bookkeeper. She fixed her eyes not just on becoming the first in her family to go to college, but to graduate from medical school.
Her plans to be a doctor changed after her sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon University. She spent that summer traveling around rural Pennsylvania and Ohio, collecting blood and taking genealogical information from Mennonite families. It was rudimentary science, done on the cheap — she and two grad students were investigating a disease unusually prevalent in those close-knit communities — but it gave her a glimpse of genetics as a powerful tool for solving problems. She changed her focus to genetics and did her doctoral work at Case Western Reserve University, having identified a gene implicated in the disease afflicting the Mennonites.
The typical path would have required Gabriel to spend several years as a post-doc, climbing the academic ladder. She was too restless for that. She headed to Cambridge in 1998, to the MIT/Whitehead Center for Genome Research, which would soon join forces with Harvard to become the Broad Institute. She had prepared a detailed speech for her interview with Eric Lander, who would become the Broad’s founding director, about why she should be allowed to skip the post-doc and get right to work as a staff research scientist. She expected a lot of pushback, but quickly persuaded Lander. Gabriel has that effect on people.
Remarkably, within just two weeks of Gabriel taking that March call, she and her team had the Broad Institute’s COVID test-processing operation up and running. In the sprawling Kendall Square space that once housed a Budweiser distribution center, crews rearranged machinery and erected new walls so techs could extract RNA safely from the samples. Before long, the Broad team was processing a few hundred tests a day, and then a few thousand, and then 5,000. They were “doing viral,” and at scale.
Still, it frustrated Gabriel when they hit a plateau around 5,000 that they couldn’t seem to get past with any consistency. Little steps — like unscrewing by hand the tops of the vials in which samples arrived — were causing big slowdowns. When cases surged in nursing homes, the Broad became a pillar of the state’s response. But to be effective, it needed better quality control in the collection. One day, as Gabriel opened a cooler of samples from a nursing home, her heart sank. One of the vials had opened, contaminating the whole lot.
Is this what every day is going to be like? Gabriel asked herself.
Her usual pleasures — hanging out with her 17-year-old daughter, Anna, and her husband, Bob Munsey, as well as their five rescue cats, and binge-watching House Hunters and The Bachelor — just weren’t providing the same release. She managed to squeeze in a week of vacation in July, only to find herself pacing the kitchen of their rental. She was on Nantucket, but her head was stuck in Cambridge.
Things improved as July wore on and Gabriel’s team introduced a new high-throughput processing line. Instead of techs opening vials by hand, robotics did that at a rate of 1,200 an hour. Instead of liquid samples arriving at their door, staff had validated a foolproof system that allowed them to arrive dry. Once those samples made it onto the new line, the liquid needed for them to be processed was added automatically.
By August, as colleges around New England nervously awaited a fall semester that might end before it began, all eyes once again turned to Gabriel. In this ultimate university town, it didn’t take long for the Broad to see its list of college clients mushroom from 20 to more than 100. While many colleges in other parts of the country were engaging in a diagnostics regimen so lax, slow, and infrequent that it seemed more like testing theater, the Broad offered both rigor and quick turnaround of results. And because the nonprofit Broad agreed to process all these tests at cost, colleges with strained bottom lines didn’t have to weigh responsible testing against massive cuts.
To standardize the process, the Broad provided each college with all the equipment for collection, from swabs to vials to bar-code scanners. Yet as students were about to begin descending on campuses, Gabriel learned that a crucial shipment of Dymo label printers had been held up. That’s when she made a panicked run to Staples, first wiping out the supplies of Dymos in her town of Burlington before moving to other suburban outposts — racking up $9,000 on her credit card in one day. That let her team get the first batch of complete kits out to colleges in time.
In the world of scientific research, where the silos tend to be tall and the egos large, Gabriel stands out for being nimble, collaborative, and unflappable, says Dr. Hung, who has continued to approach her with thorny challenges. One involves an ambitious effort to track and process monthly COVID (and COVID antibody) tests from a panel of 10,000 people, many of them from low-income communities of color — the people being disproportionately affected by the virus. These tests are self-administrated at home and delivered to the Broad by UPS. “Her first response,” Hung says, “is never ‘no.’”
All afternoon and night, the cars line up in front of the Broad lab on Charles Street in Cambridge, one after another — Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords, Dodge Caravans. Couriers from dozens of testing sites, from Roger Williams University to the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, drop off the day’s samples.
On this Friday afternoon in late November, the 100,000-square-foot lab is humming, to the soundtrack of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” This frenetic pace is now standard at the lab, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Gabriel and her managers have hired about 300 new employees — most of them temps — in just a couple of months, tripling the lab headcount. She had to set up a call center to field questions from all the COVID “customers” — something she never imagined needing. But it’s working. On this same Friday, the Broad sets a new record, processing more than 100,000 tests in one day. It handles tests from multiple states, but in Massachusetts alone, Gabriel estimates that the Broad is processing more than half of the state’s total. The number the institute has processed since March now tops 6 million.
Gabriel is an example of the ingenuity and tirelessness that have been on display since the spring by untold members of Boston’s scientific and medical community. Dr. George Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School, worked with colleagues Arlene Sharpe and Bruce Walker to build a consortium of more than 500 of the best and brightest minds from Greater Boston to provide a coordinated pandemic response — from diagnostics and therapeutics to clinical care and vaccines. During a recent briefing that Gabriel gave the group, Daley found himself marveling at everything she has gotten done — as well as how different things might be if she’d been in Washington. “Her work,” Daley says, “is the single strongest argument that, had the US exerted leadership in testing — and placed responsibility on Stacey — we would have led the world, not brought up the rear.”
As Gabriel manages the testing operation through this current cold-weather spike, continuing a scale-up at the Broad that she thinks could eventually hit 200,000 tests a day, she has also been getting back to her regular job more and more. Running the Broad’s genome sequencing pipeline, of course, is no small thing.
Back in the spring, she says, “I was spooked enough by COVID that I put my yoga membership on hold and got a Peloton.” Heading into a new year full of stress and uncertainty, she’s thinking it might be time to unroll her mat once again.
PLUS, MORE STANDOUT SCIENTISTS:
Neil Swidey, Globe Magazine editor at large, is a professor of the practice and director of the journalism program at Brandeis University, where his COVID tests are processed at the Broad. He can be reached at email@example.com.