It’s Monday, and Ann-Janin Bacani arrives at work around 8:15 a.m. She covers herself head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE), and heads into the lab.
The Chaminade alumna checks each coronavirus testing swab that arrives—it’s essential to enter them into their database before proceeding. She ensures they each have proper approval from the state epidemiologist, and then she gets to work.
Each coronavirus test swab is analyzed for the virus through a lengthy process. First, the RNA is extracted from the virus. Then, it is converted to DNA. Finally, using a real-time, reverse transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) machine, the DNA is copied and amplified to identify the presence of 2019-nCoV genes. If the genes are present, the test is considered positive.
Bacani is a microbiologist in the Biological Response Section of the Hawai‘i State Department of Health’s Laboratory and Preparedness Response Branch.
Initially, she worked with the Food and Drug Administration to test food samples for salmonella and listeria. But when COVID-19 hit in January, Bacani’s lab was the first in the state of Hawaii to be approved to analyze test results.
At first, it was nerve wracking. There was a lot of initial uncertainty and risks. So much about the disease was unknown. But the department was quick to react.
“I was fully trained by highly trained microbiologists in my section and we were provided with the proper PPE to work the virus,” says Bacani. “That put my mind at ease while working in the laboratory.”
As part of the Biological Response Section, the Waipahu High School graduate is part of a team of epidemiologists, physicians, microbiologists and officials from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration tasked with providing rapid response to bioterrorism, infectious disease outbreaks or any other public health emergency.
Their COVID testing lab serves all of Hawai‘i and many of the outer Pacific Islands as well. Bacani sees it as a chance to serve her community.
“It has always been my vision and goal to be able to give back to my community,” says Bacani. “From my early years at Chaminade University, I have wanted to provide and bring quality care to underserved populations.”
Bacani graduated from Chaminade University in 2018 as a biochemistry major with a minor in psychology.
She attributes a lot of what she does now to her time at Chaminade. It was through a Chaminade classmate that she initially found the position at the Department of Health—Alexis Young, another Chaminade alumna, is also a microbiologist at the department.
A graduate of Waipahu High School, Bacani was introduced to Chaminade University at a college fair field trip. Her dream was to become a pharmacist, so she chose Chaminade for the highly regarded STEM program.
Her next four years were filled with leadership roles, clubs, research opportunities, premedical summer programs, travel to conferences and more. And while she didn’t always recognize it at the time, everything she learned was preparing her for her role today.
“Turns out, a lot of the things we all thought we wouldn’t need to know were things we later found to be very helpful,” she admits.
Perhaps her biggest lesson was understanding just how important it is to follow precise laboratory techniques and best practices—for a patient relying on a diagnosis, it can be life-changing.
“The human aspect of a clinical sample is more than just the volume in a tube,” says Bacani. “It’s the impact that the sample has that is important, which makes all of what I do as a microbiologist worthwhile.”
And the impact of what she does every day is not lost on her.
“Our job is so meaningful right now, as it is an essential task that allows people to know whether or not they have contracted the coronavirus,” explains Bacani. “It is so important to understand the precise laboratory techniques, tests and best medicinal approaches that allow for a patient’s life-changing diagnosis.”
While she has been honored to serve her community on the frontlines of this pandemic, Bacani’s ultimate goal is still to become a Doctor of Pharmacy. She’s humbled by the power drug interactions can have on a patient’s life, and wants to become a clinical or hospital pharmacist. She plans to start at the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy at University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in the fall.