1st post-shutdown week in the lab complete! It was AMAZINGLY AWESOME to be back – and in a lot of ways it was kinda surprising how easy it was to get back in the groove of things. But things definitely were *not* “business as usual, and this week I want to show you some of the things our lab is doing to protect all of the workers from coronavirus.
I was really excited to be back – so many experiments to do, so many pieces of lab equipment to reunite with! But I was also anxious – I’m really scared of unknowingly exposing colleagues to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Thankfully, even if I, or one of my colleagues was carrying the virus, our institution and lab are taking lots of steps to prevent it from spreading.
The evidence of this is present as soon as you enter campus – there are signs everywhere reminding you that masks are mandatory – the only time you don’t have to wear one is if you have a personal office and are in there by yourself. The face shields are optional (and you still have to wear a mask if you’re wearing one) and, at least for now, I haven’t been wearing mine that much because it’s kinda hard to see through. And the mask itself makes work challenging. It’s really important to wear masks, but it also takes some definite getting used to. One of the biggest problems is that they make me soooooo thirsty! And then you have to interrupt your experiment, wash your hands, take off your mask temporarily, and get some water. I seriously want someone to invent a mask hooked up to a CamelPak!
The other thing there are signs reminding us of is the need to practice “social distancing” – stay at least 6 ft apart from people and don’t try to put to many people in one small space. You know how the fire department mandates that places post the maximum occupancy for rooms and elevators from an if-you-need-to-escape-from-a-fire safety perspective? Well, now our lab posts maximum occupancy from a if-you-need-to-protect-each-other-from-coronavirus perspective; we have signs outside all of the rooms, elevators, etc. telling us how many people can be in there at once.
And, a lot of the time, this number is much lower than would normally be in there. The elevator isn’t an issue for me – I am fortunate enough to be able to take the stairs and I’ve always avoided that elevator as much as possible, especially after I saw vendors get stuck in there for several hours…
So, elevator’s not an issue (for me at least, it definitely could be for people with physical disabilities which is another reason why taking the stairs makes more sense for those of us who can – save the elevators for those who need them) – but lab space definitely is an issue. Our lab is really fortunate in that we have a lot of lab space compared to # of people. So we each get our own bench (with some shared equipment at the ends of them). But there are 2 benches per “bay” (the benches are laid out like |• •|• •|• •|• with working space on either side, and the space encompassed by 2 of them is a bay, like |• •|) and we’re only “allowed” to have 1 person working per bay at a time for the most part. I share a bay with a fellow grad student, Katie, and we’re constantly chatting on WhatsApp to try to coordinate working shifts – both for our bay and for the “hot room” (the room where we do any of our work that involves radioactivity).
In addition to coordinating with Katie, we both have to coordinate with everyone else in the lab because we have a lot of shared equipment – from our protein purification helper machines (AKTAs), to the centrifuges, to the PCR machines – as well as shared rooms (in addition to the hot room, there’s my nemesis, the cold room, as well as computer rooms, etc.). To keep people from overlapping with these, we have a lab Google calendar, where we all put in our schedules. Which involves a lot of weird shift taking…
For some companies and organizations, shift work may be a bit inconvenient, but it’s fairly “easy” and you can set up a set shift schedule. But biochemistry research doesn’t like to follow a set schedule. Even if your experiments go entirely smoothly (which is a big if) we’re always doing different experiments and some experiments are fast while others are really long. Sometimes the really long ones have long wait times so we’ve been going home (if possible) or at least outside during the long wait steps so we’re not taking up precious lab time/space doing nothing. We’ve also been relying on the people presently in the lab at any given time to do little favors to prevent unnecessary trips. Socially distanced teamwork!
I’ve been taking early morning shifts, starting about 5:30 am. For the first couple hours, the building is basically just me and like 5 facilities staff who spend all day going back and forth cleaning all the common surfaces – door handles (even to doors I have no clue what go to and have never seen anyone use), switches, knobs – you name it, they clean it. They’re really great and I’m really grateful (and try to make sure to let them know whenever I see them). Even once people start trickling in, you can definitely tell it’s a lot less busy than usual, and the facilities staff still seem to outnumber us (I’m sure they don’t really, but they’re constantly making the rounds – I’m sure they must be walking miles and miles…)
For other common surfaces, like keyboards, computer mice, and PCR machine touch screens, our lab is using a low-tech approach – SARAN WRAP! No joke! (Although some of my prankster colleagues did wrap our lab admin’s desk, chair, phone, etc. in it as a joke…) We ordered cases of Saran wrap and keep rolls by all of the computers – and we replace it after use.
To help make it easier for more people to safely work at the same time, the institution’s taking measures to open up more space. I study/work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), which usually holds a large number of short intensive courses – these have all been canceled (or moved online if possible) – so there are now big lab coursework rooms sitting empty – or at least there were – these rooms are now being used as extra lab space for the labs in the building – the different labs each get a couple extra bays in there.
CSHL has also opened up the no-longer-needed-for-meetings meeting rooms for use as extra “office space” for students and postdocs who normally share crowded offices and/or do their computer work at desk spaces built into the end of the lab benches.
Those meeting rooms are no longer needed for meetings because in-person meetings are a no-no for now. We have our weekly lab meetings over Zoom – some people join from the lab, some from bedrooms, some from outside. Those have been working well and have been fun and productive.
Speaking of productive, I had a really productive first week back – before coming back, I had pre-planned my experiments in great detail (as planning was one of the things that I could actually do from home). By super detailed I mean things like – instead of just listing experiment “ingredients” I wrote things like “transfer x uL per tube and then x uL from that tube to that tube”. Part of the super-detailed-ness might have been me trying to live vicariously through my experimental protocols when I couldn’t actually do them… but nevertheless, these really descriptive experimental plans helped my actual experiments go according to plan! And I was able to get everything I had planned for this week done. This “everything” included my first post-shutdown protein purification, some RNA radiolabeling (tagging pieces of RNA with a radioactive phosphorus atom so I can track them), protein/RNA binding assays (assays is basically just a fancy name for experiments where you measure something), and more.
I got a lot of biochemistry research done this past week, but one of the most truly productive and meaningful things I did was research of a different type – taking #ShutDownSTEM as an opportunity to educate myself further on the history of racial inequality in America, especially how Black people have been treated by medical and scientific establishments and how these establishments, some built off the labor and non-consensual “donations,” are tainted with systemic racism to this very day. You can read some thoughts and check out resources here: https://bit.ly/helacellsshutdownstem
And I’m working on some more posts about various aspects of racism (overt and systemic) in science and medical research, so stay tuned, because coronavirus is just one reason things can’t just go back to “business as usual.”
But one thing that will continue “as usual” is my weekly “Bri*fings – FROM THE BENCH!.” I am incredibly grateful to be able to serve as Student Ambassador for the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (@theIUBMB). This post was just one in my series of weekly “Bri*fings” and I encourage you to follow them for news and resources for biochemists around the world.
If you want to learn more about all sorts of things: #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 http://bit.ly/2OllAB0