Special Report

Researchers cope as labs go quiet

Research labs across the country, and the world, are being shuttered in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As a result, hundreds of thousands of researchers have been forced to put their studies on hold and find a way to cope with an uncertain future.

For Paul Brindley, watching the current public health crisis unfold brought back memories of a time when his own lab – and career trajectory – was altered by forces outside his own control. “I thought this is going to be tough, it’s going to be like what happened in New Orleans,” he said, referring to the days after Hurricane Katrina hit Tulane University, where he had a research appointment at the time.

Like Brindley, other BWF awardees have had their labs closed as a result of natural disasters. Though no one has experienced anything quite like the current viral pandemic, their experiences do offer lessons for scientists as they navigate this new reality.

Keep Calm and Carry On

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, Marie Samanovic-Golden was overseas attending her brother’s wedding in France. A graduate student told her over the phone that she wouldn’t be able to go back to the NYU lab where she worked. Power was out in the city, and their building was essentially destroyed. “That’s it, my postdoc is over, my research is gone!” Samanovic-Golden thought at the time. “I cried, because there went 4-6 years of my life.” 

It wasn’t until she returned to campus that she realized that her PI Heran Darwin had mobilized the lab to save all they could, filling freezers with dry ice and salvaging lab notebooks. Within a month, Heran and her husband Andrew Darwin, another BWF awardee, had found new laboratory space at Rockefeller University and had resumed experiments. They ended up moving their labs four times over the course of six years before landing back in their original building, which is still being renovated.

“I’ve found myself joking that if this happens again I’m quitting, but I don’t think I would,” said H. Darwin. “I think most people are survivors. At the end of the day, we need to realize it’s our work and not our health. We’ll get by.”

Stay Connected

Shortly after Lynn Zechiedrich was granted a BWF new investigator award in 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dropped more than three feet of water on the Houston area, closing her lab at Baylor for six weeks. Fifteen years later, the area was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, again bringing her lab work to a standstill. Each time, Zechiedrich made every effort to maintain a sense of connectivity with her lab. She went to pick up students whose cars had been flooded, driving them to pick up groceries or back to her house where the rest of the group gathered to commiserate and brainstorm ideas.

Zechiedrich believes it is just as important to keep her lab connected during the current crisis. Given the importance of social distancing in stemming the spread of the pandemic, Zechiedrich is getting her group together via the popular online meeting app Zoom. She held her first virtual lab meeting on March 16. “Everyone is going to react differently -- they might be afraid, they might be nervous, they might be worried that they will never finish their work,” said Zechiedrich. “To know that all of us are looking at that screen with all of our faces, there was something very comforting about that.” 

Other investigators are using similar tactics to maintain that sense of connection. After Heran emailed her lab a couple of times to cheer them up, they suggested doing a virtual happy hour through Google Chat. “At first I thought it sounded ridiculous, because I didn’t want them to see me in my pajamas,” she said. But then she decided it would be a great way to see each other and catch up. Now she’s creating Zoom happy hours for colleagues on the west coast.

Brindley is using another platform, WhatsApp, for his group to share ideas or interesting papers, such as the NEJM study on the half-life of coronaviruses. In addition to group discussions, the investigators are also reaching out individually to laboratory personnel to make sure they are okay. “Because I directly ask, they are honest with their fears and concerns, and I can tell they feel better by the end of the Zoom or phone call,” said Zechiedrich.

Do Something

Chris Lopez was watching movies with his wife in their apartment in Houston when Hurricane Allison hit the region. The next morning they went downstairs to take their rentals back to Blockbuster and discovered that their cars were flooded, the surrounding area a mess. Lopez, who was a graduate student at the time in Zechiedrich’s lab, said the days that followed felt like a whirlwind, as the group got together to spare what specimens and experiments they could.

“I think it is important to not just focus on what is lost or can’t be replaced, to look for the silver lining,” said Lopez, who now teaches at Lone Star College. “In these types of situations where this is loss, it is almost heresy to say, but the research isn’t the most important thing in the world compared to family and friends. It gives you perspective, because when you are in the lab that perspective can very easily get lost.”

Lopez was struck by how Zechiedrich remained energized and busy even during the difficult times. “She showed me that when those times hit, do what you can,” he said. “Don’t sit around feeling helpless; make use of the time.” On bad days, you might only accomplish something small, like connecting with old colleagues or conducting a literature search. On better days, you might set your sights on something bigger, like finally writing that paper or grant that you didn’t have time for before.

Taking on manageable tasks is one way to maintain a sense of control and remind yourself to not lose hope, according to Samanovic-Golden. “While you cannot do bench work, you can still work, you can reinvent yourself, do bioinformatics, brush up on your literature,” she said. “It is not a great time to whine on yourself and slack off because you will regret it later.”

Ask for Help

After Hurricane Katrina, Brindley fled to Baton Rouge, where he stayed at a colleague’s house and found a secondary appointment at LSU. As he was trying to figure out how to get his career back on track, he was contacted by Victoria McGovern, a senior program officer at BWF. “I don’t know how she found me, but she arranged for me to get an emergency research grant,” said Brindley, who had a BWF Scholars in Molecular Parasitology (2001) at the time.

With New Orleans still on lock-down, Tulane and city police escorted him back to his lab in downtown New Orleans, where he donned a miner’s light and hunted around fridges and freezers, ticking items off a list his students had made of their most urgent or precious resources. When he got back to Baton Rouge, he used the money from BWF to buy some kits and start over. “It may be no comfort, but everyone’s in the same position this time,” said Brindley, who made a move to George Washington University to avoid the rising seas.

Unlike the regional destruction caused by tropical storms and hurricanes, the novel coronavirus is disrupting labs and lives all over the globe. As a result, sponsors and research institutions are considering ways to minimize its impact on science and scientific careers.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a FAQs to address frequently asked questions regarding proposal submission and award management related to COVID-19. Holden Thorpe, editor-in-chief of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, advised that institutions alleviate concerns about the future by “extending tenure clocks, guaranteeing status in graduate school, and extending postdoctoral contracts.”

Find a sense of purpose

In a Mar. 20 editorial for Science magazine, Thorpe acknowledged the role that home-bound scientists were playing in addressing the pandemic. “Working from home will make it safer for those who must be in buildings and laboratories to do work related to the virus—fewer people in the hallways, lunchrooms, and other public areas will slow the spread of the virus so that work on COVID-19 can continue,” he wrote.

Today Samanovic-Golden is one of those scientists working overtime in an otherwise abandoned building to get a handle on the pandemic. “During Sandy I was worried about my work and losing my experiments, here I am worried about my health and my family,” she said. As the assistant director to the NYU Vaccine Center as well as the lab manager for the chief of infectious diseases, she has been frantically training a team to conduct COVID-19 testing. Her group is also helping a biotech company develop a potential vaccine.

Others are also lending a hand as the FDA has opened up testing to labs outside the CDC. For example, one of Zechiedrich’s graduate students is prepping RNA samples for COVID-19 testing at Baylor while working on a paper about her own research. It is a small task, but a necessary part of the larger effort to shift the trajectory of an unprecedented public health crisis. No one knows where the pandemic will take us in the weeks or months ahead. But the BWF awardees who have faced adversity in the past remain calm and optimistic today.

“There is a lot of despair and a lot of uncertainty,” said A. Darwin. “It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, but in the end there will be a time when we are back at work doing what we love to do.”

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Post Script:  Making Lemonade

“Here’s the thing about surviving these sorts of things: you know it will pass,” said Zechiedrich. “It will be painful, but you will get to the other side.” She believes that, in the day of internet and digital communication, being forced out of your lab could provide an opportunity to:

1. Work hard on grant proposals.
2. Push papers out the door.
3. Plan experiments.
4. Think hard about research direction.
5. Learn about a new technique.
6. Think about the next steps.
7. If you’re the boss, it’s time to validate the people who work for you. Validate their feelings, their dreams, their ideas. That is far more motivating than arguing with their feelings or discouraging their ideas.