How labs are weathering the lockdown
It’s been more than two months since the first coronavirus case was reported in the Boston area on February 1. In the intervening weeks, Kendall Square, usually bustling during business hours, has come to resemble a ghost town. MIT’s campus houses thousands fewer students than usual, the windows of popular Cambridge restaurants are dark, and in the nearly-deserted hallways of Whitehead Institute, Institute Member Peter Reddien’s footsteps echo as he walks to his 5th floor lab to feed his planaria, a type of marine flatworm he studies as a model for regeneration. “It is strange seeing the once bustling spaces of the lab empty,” says Reddien. “Hopefully the rooms and halls will be full of energy again soon.”
On March 15, Whitehead Institute Director David Page instructed lab leaders to begin ramping down research. Similar to orders passed by universities and research institutions around the country, the new directive meant researchers had to pause projects when possible and completely halt them when necessary. In the weeks following the decision to cease non-essential activities, Whitehead Institute has slowly adjusted to a new normal -- a difficult transition for an organization that prioritizes basic research, much of which is done at the lab bench.
Lab work looks different now
From lab to lab, the process of ramping down research has looked very different. Biochemical experiments in Whitehead Institute Member Jing-Ke Weng’s plant biology lab, for example, were put on hold, and proteins and reagents frozen away. “Some plants needed to be thrown away, but we preserved the seeds and can re-germinate them,” he said.
“As scientists—and experimentalists at that—we are driven to act, to learn by doing, so it’s very hard to put that entire side of our work on ice,” says Member Sebastian Lourido, whose lab studies the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. But given the current situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic -- the number of cases continuing to increase exponentially, hospitals running low on medical supplies, and health care workers working around the clock to fight the virus -- “I think this is the right thing to do,” Lourido says.
To recreate a semblance of the usual lab meetings and one-on-one discussions, most labs have turned to online video conferencing services. Whitehead Institute Member Hazel Sive’s lab talks on the conferencing service Zoom every week to discuss goals and progress. The situation is, of course, not ideal, but “we are doing okay,” Sive says. “Our priorities are to keep lab members and our animals safe.”
Sometimes, Member Iain Cheeseman’s whole family is on video conferencing at the same time -- Cheeseman running a lab meeting or talking to researchers one-on-one, his wife for her biotech jobs, and his two daughters, ages 8 and 12, in a virtual classroom.
Video chatting has also taken the place of the Institute’s frequent in-person social events. Institute Member Mary Gehring’s lab hosted a going away party for a postdoc via the platform, and Sebastian Lourido’s group convenes for virtual happy hours.
Some researchers who have ongoing long-term projects or other essential duties continue to go in, as long as they can preserve social distancing guidelines. For the most part, though, the Institute is empty as researchers refocus from home. Many are taking the time to read papers in their field or prepare for graduate school exams (“It’s a great time to study!” says Gehring), and those with large enough datasets are getting a head start on analysis for future papers. “I’m thinking of it as a collective sabbatical, where the lab gets to do some deep thinking about the completed research and craft future plans,” says Weng.
While humans can work from home, some important “members” of research groups have to stay right where they are. Whitehead Institute is home to thousands of plants and animals, from Iain Cheeseman’s “constellation” of starfish, to Peter Reddien’s flatworms, to Mary Gehring’s and Jing-Ke Weng’s plants. Labs with organisms that need care have designated a member (or a couple) as essential staff. These researchers have clearance to enter the building to perform their day-to-day tasks.
And as for all the supplies sitting unused in near-empty labs? Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini found a use for some. In March, he and his lab donated boxes of lab coats, gloves and other supplies to local hospitals facing shortages.
Away from the bench, researchers prioritize teaching and communicating
While the coronavirus has, of course, taken a toll on the labs’ pre-pandemic productivity, some researchers are finding new outlets for their scientific zeal. Izabella Pena, a postdoc in Member David Sabatini’s lab, is focusing on outreach, specifically in her native Brazil.
“I've been working really hard, really non-stop to build educational content to help inform my country Brazil about the importance of social isolation and also to translate the scientific literature in lay terms,” she said. “There's so much [misinformation] and we need to bring reliable information to the public because we are talking about people's lives that may be at risk.”
Pena has so far produced five videos in Portuguese discussing different aspects of the virus and the pandemic. She has also joined forces with a group of students at Harvard to create a website, contracovid.com, to share content in Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole to inform the Latinx/Hispanic communities about coronavirus.
Sive Lab postdoc Danielle Tomasello has been working on finding volunteer mentors for her nonprofit organization The Social Scientist, which provides virtual one-on-one mentorship for people in the STEM field.
Hey community! We know things are tough right now, but we are here if you need some guidance. This is a good time to reflect on your passions and interests moving forward. Reach out to our mentors #heretohelp #mentorship pic.twitter.com/G11GV5z61o— The Social Scientist (@TheSocScientist) March 19, 2020
Whitehead Members -- all of whom also hold faculty positions at MIT -- have moved their regular courses online to comply with MIT’s COVID-19 policies. Iain Cheeseman, who teaches undergraduate cell biology, says the actual work of transitioning the class was not too difficult since MIT’s online class infrastructure was already in place. “However, it is really hard not doing this in person, and honestly not as good or as fun,” Cheeseman says. “I miss the students and the community that it creates. We are doing our best to provide a constructive and productive learning experience, but it simply can’t be the same -- which has made me appreciate the in person stuff even more.”
Other researchers are taking on courses outside of MIT’s curriculum. Whitehead Institute Founding Member Harvey Lodish has created created a version of the course he teaches with professor Andrew Lo of the Sloan School of Management, on the science and business of biotechnology, for the online open course provider EdX. The free, self-paced course now has over 6,500 enrolled participants, most of whom joined after the lockdown commenced in early March.
Off-duty scientists find ways to lighten the mood
Amid the incessant onslaught of bad news, Whitehead Institute researchers are searching out and sharing bright spots via Twitter. During the first few weeks of the quarantine, imaging technician Wendy Salmon turned to the timeline to post a few resources about microscopy.
To help beat the stress of COVID quarantine, I'm going to start a thread with fun microscopy-related resources. One a day (from me) to keep things fresh. Please add! #SciTwitter #Microscopy— Wendy C. Salmon ??? (@FishCsCells) March 16, 2020
First up: The Light Microscopy Series from iBiology https://t.co/w2Jh3U72Vd
Another source of optimism: the Whitehead Institute ritual of cookie hour. In person, the Whitehead community gathers weekly in the cafeteria to enjoy chocolate chip cookies and a break to mingle with friends and colleagues from other labs. For every Wednesday researchers have spent working from home, at least one person Whitehead Institute community has contributed a photo of a baked good under the hashtag #WICookieHour.
Welcome to the 5th weekly #WIcookiehour, the online continuation of Wednesday cookie hour in the Caf, when we share our latest sweet treats made at home! Rachel Hodge kicks us off with picture-perfect blueberry muffins—one potential use for extra buttermilk in the fridge. pic.twitter.com/akPDivNgOc— Whitehead Institute (@WhiteheadInst) April 15, 2020
Endless zoom meetings aren’t so bad when your labmates have a sense of humor: Kuan-Chung Su, a postdoc in the Cheeseman lab, brought a “friend” to a lab meeting, to the enjoyment of Cheeseman himself, whose background placed him right in the middle of a cell in anaphase.
As we all work on our Zoom skills and backgrounds, I am declaring Kuan-Chung Su (a great post-doc in our lab not on twitter) as the winner. pic.twitter.com/zzWfWiw4eE— Iain Cheeseman (@iaincheeseman) April 8, 2020
What will the future look like?
While Whitehead community members are making the best of these unprecedented times, many are looking forward to the future date when they can return to their research. “I miss Whitehead, the people, and the science,” says Cheeseman.
“Although the current situation has much to teach us, it also makes me value the ways in which physical language, the coincidence of proximity, and the serendipity of an overheard conversation act to lubricate our collective efforts in research,” Sebastian Lourido says. “This is ultimately the reason we have and need a Whitehead Institute.”
Communications and Public Affairs