Scientists Without Labs: Reinventing Research in the Pandemic Age

White Coats at Dawn by Dr Jenny Rohn and contributors

The white coat is often seen as a symbol of science, though many modern scientists view the classic uniform as largely ceremonial. But in the current pandemic, it has never felt so irrelevant.

All around the world, universities and research institutes have closed under lockdown. In the absence of knowing when things will get back to normal, lab-based scientists including myself have been facing uncertainty. This uncertainty can border on the existential, in an academic ecosystem that prizes “outputs” (published papers and funded grants) above all as the currency of hiring, promotion and — in some cases — even being allowed to remain in the profession.

I asked a number of my colleagues at University College London how they were coping. What follows is a testimony to our community’s resilience and spirit, and underscores the various ways that scientists of all stripes can lend a hand in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chemist: Prof Andrea Sella

Over the last four years I’ve been working with a colleague, Christoph Salzmann, on a project to put phosphorus inside carbon nanotubes. White phosphorus – dangerous stuff that ignites in air – consists of clusters of four phosphorus atoms arranged in a tetrahedron. In reality these little “Ps” are almost spherical and you can slide them into a carbon nanotube where you can see them all line up like Ps in a pod (geddit?). We can then link them up to form chains and do the same with arsenic. From this we can learn about intermolecular forces at the nanoscale. The student who did most of this work, Martin Hart, had the temperament of a NASA test pilot – a must for high-hazard chemistry.

Lockdown is a problem. No lab work is possible. So I’ve been running online revision workshops for students, and taking a course on distance learning. I should be trying to learn to code but instead the hours slip by and I’m way behind on my marking. 

But I’ve also set up a small team of enthusiasts to make a few batches of hand wash/sanitiser for University College London Hospital as they were running short. We’re now working with a chain of care homes who are absolutely desperate; they are being gouged by suppliers who are asking for three times the price of single malt. It’s nice to know that the “Blitz spirit” includes the resurrection of spivs. You might see me on my bike with a trailer loaded with plastic jerry cans of liquid, perfect fitness accessories at a time of enforced inactivity. It’s a tiny drop of liquid to try to stem an ocean of invisible woe. 

Pic: Key worker: Andrea’s selfie in the lab with PPE today

The engineer: Dr Ying Lia Li

I’m a Royal Academy of Engineering fellow at UCL working on designing and testing chip-scale optomechanical sensors for navigation. I create optical resonators that trap and confine laser light in the form of a whispering-gallery mode resonance. These resonances can be so sensitive to the resonator motion that you can detect movements smaller than the size of an atom. Before the coronavirus lockdown, I’d spend over half of my research time in the laboratory using lasers to test my sensors and the rest of the time I’d be using modelling software to work out what the best sensor design should be. Now under coronavirus lockdown, I’ve had to re-evaluate how I can continue my research.

Since half of my family live in Wuhan, I was preparing for a UK lockdown around the start of March. My partner has severe asthma so I was going to self-isolate with him even if UCL didn’t decide to shut down. My whole academic career I’ve put research above a lot of things, but for once, I had total clarity that work would never be more important than the wellbeing of my family, friends and colleagues. I printed a stack of papers from my endless ‘read this!’ pile, moved some software licenses from my desktop to my laptop, and said goodbye to my lab and office. For the past few weeks I’ve been semi-productive but also fighting against FOMO (fear of missing out!) because I know that there are people thriving right now and publishing papers or writing grants. Academic competitiveness is still a very real thing, and it feels more heightened and toxic than ever.

I have to remind myself that I’m not working from home – I’m trapped at home trying to be productive. I’ve managed to finish a short grant proposal that I’d started earlier this year, and there are two papers taking shape; a theory collaboration and a viewpoint paper on my research field. These bits of work keep me in touch with colleagues which is important because I’m someone who can easily go missing in action when you remove physical face-to-face interactions. The viewpoint paper also keeps me up to date with new research that I haven’t had time to check out yet and the theory paper allows me to dip into a new topic, guided by some excellent theorists. Because I can’t focus on writing or coding for long periods of time, I also have some Arduino hardware to play with, although at the moment I’m struggling to start anything new. Even changing out of pyjamas is a big ask sometimes!

In terms of my career, I’m in a relatively safe position as a researcher with a fellowship. I’m incredibly lucky with timing because last year I was briefly unemployed and like many postdocs, I rely on short term contracts so it’s likely I’ll be unemployed again in a year’s time. My worry is that the pandemic will lead to further economic austerity such as downsizing departments or cutting research funding, which will deepen existing inequalities especially for early career researchers.

Pic: Lia in her pre-lockdown lab

The physicist: Manish Trivedi

I am a PhD student working in the UCL Department of Chemistry – although I sometimes feel like an imposter as I don’t really do much chemistry at all. I can barely get my ratios of water and Ribena right. I actually come from a physics background and am looking into the dynamics of tiny micro-robots, called Janus particles, in various micro-environments that try to mimic real life, biological situations. The aim is to study how these particles collectively behave, sometimes “helping” each other traverse denser environments by clearing a path, much like ants digging tunnels in anthills.

As a result, my day-to-day activities in the lab consist(ed) of making these Janus particles, preparing samples and working with different optics and laser setups.

Currently I am working on my thesis as I cannot continue my experiments at UCL. I have around ten months to finish all my experiments, analyse my data and write up my thesis, so time is quite tight! When I first found out that the university could be closed for up to 2-3 months I was devastated and very anxious about my future. However now that I’ve lived like this for the last month or so, I can honestly say that it has had positive effects on my mental and physical health. Usually life as a PhD student (at least, from what I’ve seen and experienced) means long hours, working extremely hard, bountiful amounts of stress/anxiety and making a lot of lifestyle sacrifices.

Now that I am isolated and working from home, I feel strangely liberated. Living at home, I can spend extra time with my Dad, and I’m exercising and meditating as I have time in the mornings and evenings due to no travelling requirements. I’m digitally interacting with more friends than ever before, through voice/video calling, messaging and games. I feel more in control of the pace at which I’m living; life feels like it belongs to me again. It’s nice. Of course, it’s sad that I can’t directly interact my friends/family/girlfriend face-to-face, and my productivity has definitely taken a nosedive. However, in the short term, I am weathering the viral storm better than I’d expected.

Pic: Manish working in his lockdown office

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The geneticist: Dr Lucy van Dorp

I am a post-doctoral researcher in the UCL Genetics Institute. My work makes use of computational genomic methods to determine the factors underlying the emergence, spread and transmission of human-associated pathogens. I have worked on genetic data from the agents of several significant infectious diseases including tuberculosis, malaria and multi-drug resistant infections.

Since the COVID19 pandemic hit, I have refocused some of my efforts on studying the genome of the virus responsible for COVID19: SARS-CoV-2. I am, on a daily basis, compiling large comparisons of thousands of SARS-CoV-2 viral genomes collected around the world and uploaded by the research community to the database called GISAID, an open repository of many kinds of viruses with the potential to become pandemics. Together with a team of collaborators we’re using this resource to track mutations as they appear in SARS-CoV-2 and looking out for genetic signatures of selection, variation and conservation, which may offer clues to potential drug and vaccine targets.

One of Lucy’s comparisons of viral genomes

 The materials scientist: Prof Mark Miodownik

I work on developing new materials and analysing their use for a range of applications including self-repairing cities, assistive technology, plastic waste and advanced manufacturing. The work involves synthesising and testing materials and as well as computer modelling and analysis. In addition, I am a Director of the Institute of Making, a research club for multidisciplinary materials research which has more than three thousand members from across all departments at UCL.

Our labs and the Institute of Making workshop are closed. I am helping coordinate materials and manufacturing aspects of COVID-19 activities across UCL to enable the global provision of breathing aids, ventilators, and PPE. I continue to teach my students online and to write grants and research papers using our existing data. I balance these activities with looking after my family.

Pic: Mark and his kids making the best of things

The virologist: Dr Claire Smith

My colleagues and I at UCL Great Ormond Street Hospital Institute of Child Health study respiratory viruses and the impact of their infection on the airways of children and adults. I also have two small children under the age of six.

Unsurprisingly, since the COVID-19 lockdown, my life has got a lot busier. Through the support and collaboration with UCL Respiratory and Imperial College London, we are now investigating determinants of COVID-19 disease severity correlated with age, one of the few identified risk factors. I am also juggling home-schooling my six-year-old and crafting/baking with my three-year-old. Depending on the day, some of these things have a more successful outcome than others.

Pic: One of Claire’s more tasty experiments

The healthcare scientist: Anthony De Souza

On a normal week I have two jobs. First, I work as a healthcare scientist in Microbiology; this involves testing patient samples to distinguish disease-causing bacteria from the normal flora of the body. We then test these bacteria to find out what antibiotics could be used fight the infection. My second job is Practice Educator for healthcare sciences which involves supporting the healthcare science workforce, creating educational opportunities and fostering collaborative education among different staff groups.

During the current crisis I have been helping the hospital screen staff for COVID-19 infection. Specifically, I have been working with a close colleague (Victoria Heath) within a larger team to help with the creation and maintenance of service at our hospital which is responsible for staff screening. This has involved liaising with the technical team, human resources, volunteer staff, management and the labs. We have worked hard to facilitate the process by selecting volunteers, creating teams, developing the rotas, giving a hospital induction, getting all relevant paperwork filled in and making sure what they need is in place.

Pic: Anthony enjoying the great outdoors before lockdown

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The Astrophysicist: Lucy Hogarth

I’m an Astrophysics PhD student in the Extragalactic Group. My research involves analysing how different gases interact in galaxies in the local universe to better understand the evolution of star-formation. This is done in part using data gathered from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA for short), which is an array of 66 radio telescopes in the Chilean desert.

 As I have access to the data at home, I have been working most days. I find it helpful to draw up a short list of tasks for each day that are easily achievable. However, in order to keep calm in the current situation, I have also been indulging in my hobby of growing bonsai trees! I display the trees outside my house during the day so people can enjoy them as they go about their daily exercise.  

I drew a picture of one of my trees as my photo – as I work surrounded by my trees, they are my work environment!

Pic: Sketch of Lucy’s leafy new colleagues

The Cell Biologist: Dr Gautam Dey

As eukaryotic cells divide, they must ensure that each copy of their genome is safely encased in its own nucleus. Errors in nuclear division – a process that is over 2 billion years old, dating back to the very first cells with a nucleus – can drive cancer and cell death. Despite its fundamental importance, different species have evolved very different strategies to split their nuclei, making it difficult to uncover core regulatory principles of nuclear division. As a postdoc, I’ve taken a comparative, evolutionary perspective to studying this process, focusing on a unicellular yeast with a nucleus and a close archaeal relative of eukaryotes without one.   

A typical pre-COVID19 working week would add up to three days of lab experiments, split between the bench and various microscopes, and two days analysing the data, training students, and fulfilling various organisational responsibilities. 

Lockdown has changed all that. I’ve been luckier than most – my wife and I don’t have carer responsibilities at home, I don’t teach, and I was able to quickly move a large fraction of my research online. This includes finishing some writing and analysis (we just resubmitted or will resubmit revisions to a cluster of papers), acquiring long-overdue skills (moving my code to Python and Jupyter), and accelerating the computational components of ongoing projects (for example, an update of the work here). These tasks could keep me busy for quite some time, but of course, eventually, the work will hit experimental bottlenecks, presenting a major challenge if we are not able to return to our labs by the end of autumn. Through all this we are trying our best to stay connected  – we have regular virtual meetings and hangouts with colleagues in the lab and department, and I’m helping to launch a virtual seminar series for the very cohesive fission yeast research community. 

I’ve also been trying to find small ways, as a concerned biologist with generalist knowledge, to contribute to the broader scientific response to COVID19 without (hopefully) getting in the way of genuine experts. This includes, as part of a team at preLights, an effort to summarise the key emerging literature (as of today, almost 1600 COVID19-related preprints have been posted on the BioRxiv and MedRxiv servers). I’ve also been a guest on a podcast for a leading Indian daily, trying to demystify some of the terminology around vaccines for a general audience. 

Pic: One of Guatam’s experiments: dividing fission yeast cells expressing a nuclear envelope marker (green) and labelled tubulin (magenta)  

The Environmental Microbiologist: Dr Lena Ciric

I am studying the populations of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live with us in buildings. As an academic, my working life consists of reviewing progress on current projects and planning for new ones. I also spend quite a bit of my time teaching the new generation of scientists and engineers. On a day-to-day basis, I’m mostly at my desk or in meetings. I normally work from home one day a week to avoid the commute from Essex to central London.

COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way we all live. I am lucky as I can still do all the things that I would normally do, though remotely. However, it is not the same for the rest of my group as their projects are lab-based, so these are all on hold for the time being. The big change for me is spending a lot more time with my son and husband. Juggling two full-time jobs, home schooling and keeping a six-year-old busy is challenging and there is little downtime. Because of my field of expertise, I have worked more with the media in the last few weeks than ever before, giving interviews about COVID-19. I hope that my contributions have been helpful. The uncertainty of how long the situation will last is difficult. I had some work travel plans for later in the year; these might not happen now.

These are unprecedented times and it is important that we do not rush back to normality too early, causing further peaks of transmission of COVID-19. Watching the responses to the pandemic across the globe has been very interesting and I am eager to see how history will see the time of COVID-19. One thing is for sure, I know my son and his little quirks better already, and I am grateful for the precious moments we’ve had as a family over the last few weeks.

Pic: Some STEM learning at home with Lena’s 6-year-old

And as for me…

During normal circumstances, I run a research laboratory at the Royal Free Hospital in UCL’s Division of Medicine. My team and I are trying to unravel the mysteries of how bacteria invade people’s bladders and then somehow become chronic and cause repeated urinary tract infections. This illness inflicts many millions of people, mostly women, and has been historically ignored, under-funded and under-researched. (If you’re interested, the Chronic UTI Campaign UK has some great information on the subject.) In our own small way, we are trying to improve the lot of these patients by working out how the bacteria get around our defences. Based on this knowledge, we are designing smart new therapies to clobber the bugs in their sophisticated hiding places. We have a solution that is almost ready for clinical trials, and a lot of hope that this might be a therapy that can make a real difference.

In lockdown, I’m at home with my husband and six-year-old son. With the labs closed, I’m running the team remotely. Much of what I do these days is by computer anyway – papers and grants, meetings and brainstorms. We’ve switched teaching to online, which has worked fairly well. And I’m trying to make sure that my team members have enough to keep themselves productive in their home-working too. It’s not easy and some of the researchers are fairly new and don’t have any data to analyse yet. But we’re being creative and sharing out data so that everyone can get involved remotely. I’ve also been exercising my PhD in Virology by doing a lot of media work on COVID-19, which has been rewarding. Doing all of this alongside home-schooling my son has been challenging, but I’ve enjoyed seeing so much of my family. Nevertheless, I look forward to the future when we can all get back to normal – whatever ‘normal’ might look like in the pandemic era.

In the meantime, stay safe.

Pic: Kitchen as lab: Jenny’s son Joshua doing a home science experiment during lockdown

Dr Jenny Rohn is a practising cell biologist at University College London. She is also a writer, broadcaster and novelist. She has written three novels, the latest being Cat Zero, released in mid 2018. She was a regular contributor to the Occam’s Corner blog at The Guardian and was a co-founder of the Science is Vital group. She is on Twitter at @JennyRohn.

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