The Univeristy of Melbourne The Royal Melbourne Hopspital

A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital

18 Nov 2019

Want to know what Contagion looks like in real life?

The Doherty Institute is home to Australia's only biosafety level four laboratory (PC4) for diagnostic work and research on easily transmissible, fatal diseases in humans such as Ebola. As part of our 5 year anniversary celebrations, we gave staff the opportunity to enter a lottery to experience what it's like to put on the suits and work in this highly regulated, PC4 laboratory. Here the two winners, Catherine Kennedy and Daniel Sijmons shared their experience. 

Catherine Kennedy

PC4 lottery winner Catherine Kennedy all suited up.
PC4 lottery winner Catherine Kennedy all suited up.

Why I applied:

I applied for the PC4 lottery because I loved the movie “Outbreak” and have always wanted to know what it is like working under PC4 conditions. To be honest, that movie was the reason I went into science! This gave me the opportunity to try out the suit – without dealing with Ebola. I was SO EXCITED when I got the email that my entry was drawn.

What was the experience like:

I loved every minute of the experience.  About a week before we got to go into the PC4, Daniel and I met with Leon Caly, to have a run through of what was planned, have a look at the facility and then try on overalls (to go under our suits) and find a suit that would fit. All the suits in the facility are custom made right down to the boot size, so it was a matter of finding one that fit the best.  This gave us a little taste of what it would be like on the day. 

On the day we met with Julian Druce who is the head of the Virus Identification Laboratory (and, incidentally, looks a bit like Dustin Hoffman, from Outbreak!) and Leon and got a presentation on how the facility is set up including all the safety precautions that are in place to contain any potential hazards. While the PC4 itself is relatively small, all the engineering and supports that are required for it’s function makes it’s footprint in the Doherty Institute huge!

Dr Leon Caly and Dr Julian Druce conducting the pre-lab briefing.
Dr Leon Caly and Dr Julian Druce conducting the pre-lab briefing.

After the talk, we made our way through the standard safety checklist, checking all support systems above the PC4 were functioning properly and then checking that the decontamination tanks below were OK. After this, we headed back, grabbed our suits and headed into the PC4 airlock to put on out suits. The suits are pretty cumbersome as they are fully inflated while you are wearing them. You need headsets to communicate with your workmates and with those outside the PC4. We then got to go into PC4 laboratory with out buddy and learn a bit more about the lab, how it is set up and how the researchers get around some of the limitations of working in the PC4. After about 10 min in the facility, we got to experience “showering out” as we left the PC4 which is basically like being in a car wash inside the suit.

Best bits:

The whole experience was really great. I’ve always vaguely appreciated how tricky it would be to work under PC4 conditions, however this really highlighted just how much preparation, oversight and training is involved. Learning about how the facility runs, getting to try on the suits, go into the facility, shower out – it was all awesome.

Daniel Sijmons

Dr Julian Druce and Daniel Sijmons entering the laboratory.
Dr Julian Druce and Daniel Sijmons entering the laboratory.

Why I applied:

Working at VIDRL I had previously been given a short look at the PC4 laboratory in the “new person” tour and had since wondered what it would be like inside all suited up, and this seemed the perfect opportunity! Plus I get asked by family members all the time if we have to wear the space suits they see in movies so I thought it would be cool to actually do it.

What was the experience like:

The whole experience was very exciting.  I ran into Leon shortly after receiving the email and he briefly told me what his plans were before inviting Catherine and myself to meet so he could show us the ropes beforehand to try and smoothen the day. We were loosely fitted into suits that are tailor made for the staff members that are trained to use the laboratory, meaning mine was slightly big but did the job, we were then given overalls to get into under the suits which required some sizing as well. While I had briefly seen the lab before I did not realise how much was involved in keeping it maintained and operational. 

Dr Julian Druce heping Daniel suit up before entering the laboratory.
Dr Julian Druce heping Daniel suit up before entering the laboratory.

On the actual day it was interesting to hear and see the required safety checks lab as we were toured through the supporting facilities above and below the lab itself,  but it definitely got most exciting when getting into the suit and preparing to go into the laboratory. We were given back our overalls as well as a pair of VIDRL socks and got back into the suits we’d tried as Julian and Leon prepared us to enter the laboratory through multiple air locks. I had a slight breakdown of my comms equipment, requiring Julian to attempt to mime instructions to me when we got into the lab but in spite of that it was still a lot of fun moving around in the suit. It also gave an appreciation as to how difficult performing regular laboratory tasks would be with minimal mobility.

Best bits:

Overall the whole day was amazing and the background given to us before suiting up and getting into the lab gave me a greater appreciation for the requirements upon entering it myself. That said, ‘suiting up’ was definitely the highlight of what was a great experience. 

News Archive