Carnegie Mellon University
March 12, 2021

A Tartan Team Effort

Professor Jon Minden lent his expertise to the Tartan Testing team to help create this new testing facility from scratch

By Matthew Salyers

Jocelyn Duffy

With the launch of the Tartan Testing Program at the beginning of 2021, Carnegie Mellon University has implemented a major advancement in its ongoing strategy to detect and prevent the spread of COVID-19 within its community.

“Our faculty and staff have taken something that was just a concept, and applied their expertise and hard work, to build the Tartan Testing program, capable of providing weekly asymptomatic COVID-19 testing to all of our Pittsburgh-based community. Professor Minden’s expertise and experience have been invaluable as we stood up the lab from scratch,” said J. Michael McQuade, Carnegie Mellon's vice president for research. “Now that the program is up and running, we want everyone who is coming to campus to participate in Tartan Testing weekly as a key part of our strategy to reduce the impact of COVID-19.”

Jon Minden, professor of biological sciences, worked closely with the lab to help put testing processes and protocols in place. After the success of its initial ramp-up period over the last several weeks, the lab is now able provide asymptomatic COVID-19 testing to all Pittsburgh-based faculty, staff and students.

“This was truly a team effort.” said Minden. “From the lab staff, medical personnel, university communications group and legal team, all were absolutely essential in making this work properly and satisfying the regulations set out by state and federal agencies.”

Florent Letronne, who recently joined the university as science director of the Tartan Testing Lab, and his team of five lab operations staff, used their expertise along with the valuable resources around them to create a lab that can handle this large size of testing.

"We built this facility from scratch. Everything, including the creation, verification, validation and certification of the test, had to come together quickly to be prepared for this semester," said Letronne. "It's been an intense effort, but certainly a great adventure."

Letronne worked closely with Minden, as well as Anne Skaja Robinson, trustee professor and head of chemical engineering, and postdoctoral associate Liqing Song.

“My experience with combining bench research, automation and data handling in our departmental lab, and the same with my commercial efforts, helped lend insight to the Tartan Testing processes.” said Minden. “My understanding of biological sample prep and handling was also helpful in our discussions.”

Tartan Testing uses a saliva-based protocol developed by the Yale School of Public Health. Once samples are collected for testing, the tubes are loaded into racks for their high throughput robotic system, which transfers the samples to special trays and adds reagents. The reagents assist in identifying the presence of COVID-19 when the samples are loaded into the qPCR machine for analysis. 

“The actual mechanics of doing the PCR test is relatively simple,” said Minden. “But with the goal of testing every person in the CMU community once a week, this means handling a very large number of samples. The sample handling, tracking and data flow were major issues that required the whole team’s input to get right.”