Jefferson researchers maintain lab cohesion and fuel scientific inquiry with the help of Zoom Rooms, collaborative peer groups, and creative use of open access databases
As the COVID19 pandemic sweeps the globe, normal activities have come to a grinding halt. This includes much of biomedical research. Faculty, postdocs and graduate students who are usually at the bench have found themselves working from home for the foreseeable future. We talked to Jefferson researchers about how they’re maintaining lab cohesion and becoming creative with their scientific approach under current constraints.
Here are some tips that may be helpful for the research community at large.
“I think there is a temptation to see this time of working remotely, with fewer distractions and with all sorts of technology at our fingertips, as a chance to be super productive” says Raj Vadigepalli, PhD, Professor of Pathology, Cell biology and Anatomy. “We have to set more realistic expectations and acknowledge that this is such a stressful and unusual time. I’ve emphasized to my lab that the most important thing right now is their well-being. If they’re feeling well, only then can they allocate mental and physical bandwidth towards research.” Tim Mosca, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience agrees, adding, “There will always be time for science later, but the scientists, i.e., the people, have to come first.”
Use technology to stay connected
Many labs and researchers are making use of various video chat and messaging platforms to stay connected, as well as maintain a sense of cohesion and camaraderie. “I have my ‘virtual office’ or personal meeting room in Zoom open at all times so people can drop in if they have a question or need to chat,” says Dr. Mosca. “We also have what we’re affectionately calling the ‘Boom Boom Zoom Room’ where people meet every day for lunch and just to hang out, like our normal lab space so we don’t lose that connection.”
Outside of their regular lab meetings and one-one meetings, both Drs. Vadigepalli and Mosca are doing regular check-ins with their lab members. “During these check-ins, I make it a point not to talk about work. It’s a chance to vent or to share good news or to just talk about random things,” says Dr. Vadigepalli. “It’s also a way to try to recreate those conversations that we would have physically in the lab.”
Set weekly goals for the lab
“I meet 1:1 with everyone for 20-30 minutes at the beginning of the week to make a plan and goals for whatever people are working on,” says Dr. Mosca. “Some people are writing grants, some people are designing new projects, some people are doing literature reviews, and others are doing bioinformatics or writing a thesis.”
Setting short-term goals can help maintain structure and provide accountability in a time when team members may find themselves dealing with childcare and homeschooling in some cases, and struggling with isolation in others. “We have a Microsoft Teams channel where we post regular updates which helps create an added touchpoint and allows for immediate feedback on a problem or question,” says Dr. Vadigepalli. “If someone doesn’t add an update, we check in to make sure they’re doing OK and revise the goals if necessary.”
Tap into online databases
Since researchers cannot do wet lab experiments, many are turning to data mining and open access data sets. “You almost have to think of these large databases as experiments that have already been done,” says Dr. Vadigepalli. “And then you approach these data with the questions that are relevant to your own research.” Analyzing these databases often does not require programming or bioinformatics experience, or a powerful computer.
“At the end of the day, we’re all data scientists. It’s an opportunity for us to hone our skills to extract new information and provoke a new set of questions,” explains Dr. Vadigepalli. “For instance, we are interested in understanding how macrophages in the liver regulate regeneration, and what genetic states they take on when regeneration occurs. There are many single cell, culture, and whole tissue data sets that we can analyze to tell us things about gene expression. We may find that macrophages can take on seven different genetic states during regeneration. That brings up a whole new set of questions that we can then explore.” A list of online databases is listed below.
Collaborate, in and out of the lab
As everyone adjusts to transitioning to writing manuscripts and grant proposals, Dr. Vadigepalli suggests setting up peer groups for the editorial process. “This also may be a good time to plant seeds for collaboration with researchers across the globe, who are in the same situation,” he adds. “We’ve already sent out some feelers asking other researchers if they would be willing to exchange data or plan experiments for the future.”
Make use of webinars, online journal clubs and symposia
Many research communities are putting together online journal clubs to discuss the literature in different fields. Labroots, AAAS, iBiology has a range of research talks and resources for professional development, or you can join online research communities such as Aging Science in Isolation and iRNA_COSI on Twitter. Researchers can also still find opportunities to present work at online poster sessions and symposia, or attend just to keep up to date with what’s happening in the field (Sigma Xi Student Research Showcase; RNA Society; Experimental Biology is allowing e-posters; Neuromatch and Neurotheory for neuroscientists; eLife is hosting online seminars to support early-career researchers).
Define productivity in different ways
For those who don’t have enough data to start work on a primary research manuscript, Dr. Vadigepalli suggests working on literature reviews. This can be a perspective, or meta-analysis of existing data sets. “Manuscript output is the general parameter for research productivity, but there are still ways, especially for trainees, to display scientific thinking and prowess with these other types of publications,” says Dr. Vadigepalli.
You can also work on graphical abstracts or visual summaries, which are becoming increasingly popular ways to communicate science and many journals are encouraging them too. If you feel comfortable, you can also share your work on Twitter or through open access platforms like BioRxiv.
Open-source databases for biomedical research:
- NCBI Gene Expression Omnibus
- Human Cell Atlas
- Tabula Muris
- Broad Institute Data, Software and Tools
- Cell Profiler for automated image analysis
- Cytoscape for network analysis and visualization
- Galaxy for Omics data analysis
- ASAP for single cell transcriptomics analysis
- A collection of databases for neuroscience research
- Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience – Data Sharing
Public health databases:
Career development resources (Visit Jefferson Career Development Center and Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for more):
- myIDP and Academic Scientists’s ToolKit for science PhDs, Imagine PhD for science, humanities and social science
- BWF/HHMI Laboratory Management Book
- The NIH Intramural Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE)
- 3PSeminars for postdocs involved in Parkinson’s research
- InterSECT Job Simulations for a PhD level scientists and humanists