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Ask Me Anything: In the field and overseas

This column has become a great way to highlight amazing work our team does that you might not have heard about. Pivoting to virtual and remote work has been the reality for many people over the last year and a half. But, our field team has had to answer a tricky question: how do we help customers when we can’t be in the lab with them?

We asked Charles Ponyik, Lead Field Service Engineer, Amanda Clement, Field Application Scientist, and Luis Jarquin, Field Service Engineer to tell us a bit about how field work has changed.

LET’S TURN BACK TIME: WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THE START OF THE PANDEMIC?

Charlie: I took a vacation at the end of January to a meditation course in Canada — cut off from news cycles for about 10 days. When I was driving home, I called my colleague Matt Wang just to check in on what I had missed. And he was in Nashville, installing a Beacon® system in the Crowe lab at Vanderbilt, because of a virus that was starting to get media coverage. I remember not even knowing what to think. At that point I thought that whatever this thing was would just be another bird flu. I had no idea how it was going to impact my life.

SINCE THEN, WHAT’S CHANGED THE MOST ABOUT YOUR ROLE?

Amanda: What’s been a really great outcome is that the field teams are much closer now. Because many of our Field Service Engineers still needed to be onsite, they could be our hands and help us take care of application requests when we couldn’t travel.

These days mobility has improved but preparing to be onsite looks different now. Sites still have different levels of restrictions, even in the same states. I actually have a customer site with two Beacon systems in two different buildings and the buildings have different procedures. What that means for my team is more open communication with our customers and little bit more prep work so that we can be proactive before the visit. 

Charlie: In the beginning, it was a hard adjustment — not everyone was comfortable traveling. We had customers who still needed services and training; the work they were doing and treatments they were developing, those weren’t going to stop being important. Ultimately, I offered to hop between sites across the whole Midwest for about two months, spending a week or two in each city. It allowed me to make sure our customers were taken care of. Plus, being onsite meant I could work a little beyond my role and help out the field applications team when they couldn’t be there in person.

Now that we’ve been adapting for a year, the logistics look a little different. It’s a question of how to get a customer up and running as efficiently as possible. Because of the length of quarantines and other site requirements, we’ve learned out of necessity that supporting customers isn’t always going to be me, being in their lab. There’s a lot of support we can provide virtually, even if it’s just a Zoom call or a short tutorial. 

YOU EACH VOLUNTEERED TO GO TO THE FIELD OVERSEAS. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? 

Amanda: It was surreal. I hadn’t even been out of the country since I was a teenager, but I did an install in Korea in the second half of the year. The airport, a place I’ve been so many times before, was a ghost town. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie when the flight attendants showed up in full PPE and disposable lab coats. 

When I landed, my phone was registered, and I was asked to install an app to log any symptoms I might have during my stay. And then I was taken to a quarantine hotel. I was actually exempted from the full quarantine. Instead, I was required to do a mini quarantine, which is where someone in a full hazmat suit administers COVID tests and you wait for a negative result. 

And after that, everything felt safe. Korea has done most of their pandemic management through contact tracing. The infrastructure for pandemic prevention is very well developed and precautions are adhered to. It’s actually the only time I’ve eaten in a restaurant during the pandemic. 

Charlie: My colleague Mason and I needed to do an install in Taipei. And quarantine began as soon as we landed. If you haven’t heard the stories yet, they usher you to dedicated taxis that take you to a quarantine hotel. There’s a specific entrance, you go into an elevator alone, and then you’re greeted by an employee in a Tyvek suit who shows you to your room. What was unexpected, at first, was that I didn’t even have a room key. Because I wouldn’t be leaving that room for 14 days. 

Something that was important for me was setting aside time each day to have deliberate, intentional conversations with friends and family. Not just a simple text, but a meaningful interaction. That was invaluable to combatting the loneliness. 

Luis: About mid-year, we needed to do a number of international installs and services. And I was asked if I would go to Australia, which sounded exciting. I was also very interested to see what quarantine would be like for a country taking COVID precautions differently. 

But, what surprised me was that there were border restrictions between the Australian states, which was concerning because I needed to visit a customer in New South Wales and Queensland. We were told that if I flew into Sydney and completed my quarantine there, and then made it to the Brisbane airport within 6 hours of leaving quarantine, I might be able to avoid doing it all over again. But, because cases were still rising in New South Wales, it would still be up to the Queensland government. 

The quarantine itself went as I expected, until I was ready to leave. My taxi was late! By the time I got to my elevator, carrying all of my bags down this long hallway, I realized I was overheating and sweating, thinking, “They’re going to take my temperature, it’s going to be too high, they’re not going to let me leave!” Of course, everything was fine. I got to Brisbane on time and was able to enter without issue. 

And everything else in Queensland, after that, was normal. People were out at museums, enjoying the ferries, shopping at the malls, as if they were tourists in their own city. And the strangest feeling was knowing that it was safe.

OUT OF EVERYTHING THAT’S CHANGED, WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL STICK? 

Amanda: There’s always been an interest in the world of field work for making more resources available to our customers remotely. Now, it feels inevitable that there will be a bigger push for it. It would really help us adjust how we schedule customer visits. If customers can take advantage of virtually learning simple tasks, then our in-person time can be focused on bigger, more valuable things. 

Luis: I think many of the restrictions that our customer sites have put in place will actually stick around for a long time. Their restrictions haven’t prevented just COVID, they’ve prevented the flu and cold seasons, too. Curiosity and wanting to interact more, that will come back. But I think the labs that have been the strictest so far will stay that way.

NOW THAT WE’RE OVER A YEAR INTO THE PANDEMIC, WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHANGE TO YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON THE FUTURE?

Charlie: COVID has altered my perspective on the work our customers do. Some of our customers work with human antibody samples — those are extremely precious. And that gives me pause. Those samples aren’t just precious for our customers, they’re the first steps toward treating people. So, my perspective is beyond our customers now. The work they do and the effort I put in to support them could have an impact on my family and people I care about.

Amanda: I got into this role because I like to work with people and help them solve their problems. All the customers I work with have been fantastic. As easy as they’ve made the transition to Zoom calls and virtual meetings, I value someday being back in the lab with them. There’s a lot of nuance that you don’t sense unless you’re there in person. When I can see exactly how they’re using the system, that’s when I know best how to open up possibilities for them.

Luis: Someday, I would like to not have to worry about crowds. Now that I’ve seen how safe other countries have been… being around people who may or may not be as cautious as me or taking vacations is out of the question. I don’t think we’ll be ready this year, but I told my wife: we need to do a month in Australia. 

 

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of BLI News. To read more, check out our latest edition.