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Helping Hands in Crisis

November 01, 2020 - 6 minute read

CUI roommates Hannah Hopkins ’20 from Camarillo and Anna Chao of the Imperial Valley weren’t sure what to do when CUI shut down the campus in mid-March as part of the nation’s COVID-19 response.

“We said, this is kind of terrible,” Anna recalls. “We lost the rest of the year with our friends.” But the next day, Hannah received a text from a friend about an opportunity to help a lab at the University of Washington process COVID-19 samples.

“We wanted to do something other than sit around,” Hannah says. “The only other option at that point was to go home and not be productive, so I asked Anna if she wanted to go to Seattle, hoping she was crazy enough to go with me. It felt like a really good opportunity to serve and get experience in a lab, so we went for it.”

“I’d rather go help than do nothing,” Anna says. “It feels wrong to be idle when we’re equipped to do something to help.”

Within days, both were living in a hotel near the University of Washington campus and working night shifts in a secure lab. Anna says the change was a little disorienting.

“One day you’re a student in classes at Concordia, and all of a sudden we’re in Seattle in this giant lab,” Anna says. “It was a lot to take in all at once.”

Anna Chao and Hannah Hopkins

Anna Chao and Hannah Hopkins

Their main job was to process nose swab samples for people testing for COVID. This required prepping samples to go into machines which checked for target DNA that indicated the presence of the virus.

“There was a sense of purpose because each swab represented a person,” says Anna. “Some doctors called wanting results so they knew how to proceed. It was pretty rewarding work, to know we were helping and filling a need.”

The lab work they had done as students in Concordia Irvine’s biology department made the learning curve less steep.

“I had real-world experience from my Concordia classes,” says Hannah, who also served as a teacher’s assistant at CUI. “The biggest thing in the lab in Washington was to take initiative to learn and get things done. I feel like Concordia prepared me for doing science in the real world.” Both women say the support of CUI professors motivated them throughout the experience.

“Our professors were incredibly supportive and saw it as a good opportunity for both of us,” says Anna. “The entire time they checked in on us. We were on the phone with them frequently. Having that support system behind us was really wonderful.”

“Anna and I wouldn’t have had the courage to go unless our professors were saying, ‘Yeah, go for it,’” Hannah agrees.

It feels wrong to be idle when you’re equipped to do something to help.

They made friends there during long night shifts. And once the lab scientists saw that they wanted to gain skills, they took time to teach them.

“I learned a lot from the medical lab scientists, the people operating the machines,” says Anna. “They caught on that I wanted to learn and wanted the experience, so every chance they had, they walked us through what they were doing. I now have the knowledge of how equipment works which will be really useful for me in the future.”

Some nights, the team of lab workers processed 1,000 samples. Within a month, both Hannah and Anna were promoted to shift leaders, making sure the lab ran as it should. Amazingly, both were full-time students throughout the experience, finishing up their coursework at CUI remotely.

“Your body hates you for putting yourself through that,” says Anna, who was carrying 18 units at CUI while working at the lab. “Our sleep schedules were so messed up. Keeping up with schoolwork — it was exhausting, mentally and physically.”

Hannah managed to run most days. She had competed on the Eagles track and cross-country teams all four years and served as captain of both, but COVID shutdowns ended her collegiate athletic career.

“My favorite part was going to meets and being with the team,” she says. “When you are on long runs with your teammates, that really does bond people. I was hoping to run and place in the 5k at conference and all of a sudden that goal was cut short. But I’m not done running, so there will be other races and other goals.”

After two months, both women went home for a break. Anna returned to Seattle over the summer. She is taking a year off from school to work full time at UW as the speciman processing lead at the lab. She says the opportunity has illuminated a potential career path.

“Experiencing a lab for myself, now I know I can do it and I would like to pursue it as a career,” she says. “It was very eye-opening and made me realize what I’m supposed to be doing. It has been extremely fruitful.”

Hannah graduated in May with a BS in biology and is now at Baylor University pursuing her PhD in cellular, molecular and disease biology.

“I’m really thankful for the opportunity we had in Washington,” she says. “We learned so much and met wonderful people. It has given me more confidence going into a PhD program. It set me up really well.”

We are proud of Hannah and Anna and their great demonstration of the values, skills, and service that make our students so valuable to the world around us. To learn more about CUI's response, please visit

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