Keeping a lab running during a pandemic:
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be the 10,000th “we’re in this together!” update that you’ve read since the COVID-19 epidemic ground much of the world to a halt. It will however contain some hopefully useful information about how to continue running your research group during this surreal time of physical isolation. Like the majority of research laboratories in the US, we have had to drastically change the way we operate on a day-to-day basis and stop all but the most essential physical work in the lab. Our version of an essential employee goes in every other week to ensure our precious samples are kept frozen, and as a bonus that our office succulents don’t get too dehydrated. Otherwise the lab has been entirely vacant since late March. However, we are still making progress, still functioning, still communicating, and still working to move science forward. I think the key to our success and continued progress boils down to having constant communication across multiple platforms minimizing the feeling of social isolation as much as possible. The platforms we have been thoroughly taking advantage of these past weeks are Slack, Zoom, and OSF.
We use slack as our primary tool of communication. Prior to quarantine we used it as a tool for updating other members of the lab to our location throughout the day and for its instant messaging capabilities for short communications. Now, with everyone working from home, we have started a new form of status update similar to the old style punch cards used to clock in/out at hourly jobs. Every day each member of the lab checks in with a brief list of tasks/goals we plan to work on and then later checks out with what we have actually accomplished. First, this is a great way to keep everyone informed about how the entire team is contributing to the goal of moving the lab forward. Second, it is a consistent way to work on goal setting, time management, and personal expectations about task completion. Additionally, while this aspect of our slack communication is on the formal side, we keep it informal enough to let everyone express themselves/their emotions about their work (e.g. excitement over completing that analysis, or frustration about the amount of time it took to write up that report). The second isolation-era addition to slack is the use of an informal-semi-structured-daily-group-ice-breaker. All that to say that we have created a place free of judgement to express our frustrations about the current state of affairs (Mondays), give thanks for what we do have (Tuesdays), talk about interesting things we’ve learned (Wednesdays), share funny pictures from our past (Thursdays), and tell each other about all the things we are looking forward to (Fridays). Slack has helped us stay physically, but not socially or emotionally isolated. While it is not the same as seeing each other in person on a daily basis, Slack has for myself and other members of the Neigh Lab kept some sense of normalcy to the workings of a usually bustling and social team.
If the word Zoom hasn’t sent you into a panic attack at my mere mention, you have likely at least heard of the now infamous video conferencing platform. Thus, I will say only this: with mostly love, and a little loathing, we do appreciate you Zoom for allowing us to see each other (and how badly we all need haircuts) during our weekly lab meetings… and weekly one-on-ones… and all those meetings that maybe could have been an e-mail, but definitely wouldn’t have been if we were still in the lab, and I don’t really want to type that all out so let’s-just-talk-about-it-over-Zoom meetings.
Open Science Framework (OSF) is a glorious tool that, thanks to their partnership with VCU, we have been able to use to collaboratively share and work on data and documentation. OSF is the dropbox/AWS/cloud storage platform of a researcher’s dreams. It is secure, free, and open source, unlimited cloud storage designed for scientific research. We are able to create and selectively share projects (file folders) where we can upload data (in as far as I can tell, any format) and track changes to documents. One aspect that admittedly I don’t use all that often, but when I do I am so thankful for, is their “Check Out” feature. It essentially lets others know that someone has, as the name implies, checked out a document for editing. This way your lab doesn’t end up doing twice as much work by accidentally editing the same section of a document dualistically.
In conclusion, yes, we are all on this planet together, and yes, continuing to work in a physically isolated manner is new to many of us; but no, that does not mean that we have to stop productivity or communication. Hopefully we can all take this time to learn and progress together to keep science moving forward.