Ramping Up and Ramping Down Research
Wet lab research in the biomedical sciences is complex, with many moving parts and a variety of factors to consider. So, when Tufts announced in early March that all lab research would have to be ramped down due to COVID-19, GSBS students and faculty found themselves working to close their labs without sacrificing their research.
“I had just received a precious genetic knockout-parasite strain of the protein I work on and was planning to characterize the knockout,” said Chris Schwake. Schwake is a Cell, Molecular & Developmental Biology (CMDB) PhD candidate who studies how malaria-infected red blood cells attach to host blood vessels in Athar Chishti’s lab. “Fortunately, I was able to freeze down the parasites and keep them safe in storage.”
Mike Thorsen, a CMDB student who works in Katya Heldwein’s lab studying herpesvirus replication, was also able to preserve his samples by freezing. “Typically, the biochemical assays I perform are shorter protocols, so I didn’t have experiments I had been working on for weeks that had to be stopped and completely restarted,” he said. The bigger issue for Thorsen was the many unknowns at play: “When would I be allowed to come back and perform experiments? How long would this delay my PhD? What should I work on in the meantime to stay productive? For me, the most difficult aspect of ramping down research was dealing mentally with those questions.”
Sasha Smolgovsky, a PhD candidate in Immunology who studies the role of the adaptive immune response in cardiac inflammation and remodeling in nonischemic heart failure in Pilar Alcaide’s lab, had a similar reaction. “The first week in March, I expected slight changes to our day-to-day routine. The second week, we were planning a reduction to our in-lab schedule and activities. By the third week, we were in complete shutdown. Quickly adjusting to such extreme changes and being unable to predict when everything will be back to normal was really difficult for me.”
In addition to dealing with the logistical and mental stresses of ramping down research, students and faculty miss hands-on research and scientific inquiry. “It was very disappointing to suddenly stop experiments we had been working on for weeks with valuable samples,” said Marta Rodriguez-Garcia, an assistant professor of Immunology whose research focuses on understanding how women get infected with HIV and the role the immune system plays in protecting women from infection. “Not being able to perform experiments has been a big frustration,” said James Cameron, a PhD candidate in Immunology who studies epigenetic medications in T regulatory (Treg) cells in Xudong Li’s lab.
Bing Dai — a CMDB PhD student who works in Heldwein’s lab finding host proteins used by herpes simplex viruses to infect cells — agreed. “The most difficult part is not being able to test my ideas, only being able to write them down. For now, all the hypotheses just stay on paper,” he said. Schwake has similar feelings, saying, “Only wet-lab experiments can move my project along at this stage, so not being able to work on them has been frustrating.”
Now that research is ramping back up, researchers are faced with a whole new set of logistical challenges. Daniel Fritz, a CMDB PhD student who works in Chishti’s lab, has been heavily involved – along with Chishti and lab manager Donna-Marie Mironchuk – in creating the reopening plan for the lab. “The plan has to allow for at least 500 square feet of space per person at any given time,” he said. “This requires us to assign shifts to our researchers to stagger the times that multiple people will be in the lab, and to assign specific workspaces to maintain a 15-foot separation at all times. We also had to coordinate public space on the building floor with neighboring labs to allow for safe lunch and bathroom breaks.”
Finding a plan that allowed for research to continue while following the University’s social distancing guidelines required some creative thinking. “It’s pretty weird to try and reimage a workspace where I’ve been working, with no space restrictions, over the past few years,” Fritz said. “It was almost as if we were assigning space to a brand-new lab!”
Thorsen echoed Fritz’s comments about the complex logistics of planning. “Initially, only two Heldwein lab members will be in the lab at a time,” he said. “We’ve had to develop comprehensive plans for critical experiments we need to do and the time we need to complete each one, so we can use the limited time at the bench most efficiently.” Dai agreed, saying, “My role is to plan my experiments in as much detail as possible, and to make the experimental plan flexible so that everyone in the lab can have time to work on their projects.”
Another major logistical challenge has been procuring the necessary supplies to get the labs up and running. “One thing that has been difficult is trying to figure out which vendors are able to supply equipment, now that things are loosening up,” said Cameron. “Human research has been put on hold during COVID-19,” said Rodriguez-Garcia, “so one of my priorities is to re-start the network to obtain human tissue.”
Of course, the pandemic is unpredictable, which means labs must have multiple courses of action in place. “We have contingencies in place for a rapid shutdown in the event of a second wave that would necessitate another period of quarantine,” said Smolgovsky. “Even though we’re starting to return to work, we accept and are prepared for the reality that things won’t be back to normal for a long time.”
In addition to restarting their own, ongoing projects, students and faculty have been thinking about how to work with those who are new to the lab, another problem that requires creative solutions. “This happened right around the time when first-year graduate students would join their PhD labs. They are returning to the labs and need to be trained, yet we can’t be within six feet of one another,” Thorsen said. “We are currently figuring out ways to record ourselves performing the experiment, narrating as we go along. We will most likely use Zoom so that the new trainee can ask questions in real time.”
Like everyone else, GSBS scientists have rapidly become proficient in Zoom and other electronic communications. “We’re very lucky to have Zoom and WhatsApp at our disposal!” said Smolgovsky, whose lab has weekly Zoom meetings, a “very active” group chat, and weekly Zoom “coffee breaks,” to catch up. Both Chishti and Rodriguez-Garcia have been holding weekly lab meetings over Zoom, while Cameron’s lab has “Zoom drinks.” The Heldwein group has a Slack chat, as well as lab meetings, one-on-one meetings, lab lunches, game nights, and practice talks, all on Zoom. “I feel I spend more time with my labmates than before,” said Dai.
No number of Zoom events, however, can replicate in-person interaction. “I am fortunate to work close to many of my friends,” said Smolgovsky. “I miss running over to their lab benches to see what they’re working on or assembling a group to grab coffee if we need a quick break. As soon as it’s safe to do so, I hope we’re able to enjoy each other’s company at work again.”
And, of course, researchers are excited to get back to their science. “Prior to the shutdown, my work was approaching a conclusion, with only a handful of important experiments left to round out the story I had been developing,” said Fritz. “I’m looking forward to getting back to my experiments to finish up my work.” Thorsen agreed, saying, “I’m definitely looking forward to starting up experiments again, working with my hands, and doing something other than reading papers!”
“You have to enjoy working at the bench to make it through grad school,” said Schwake. “Nothing is worse than sitting in your apartment unable to do any of the work you love.”