Whitehead Institute keeps research moving during uncertain times
This story is part of our ongoing series, Beyond the Lab Bench. Click here to see all stories in this collection.
The events of the past two years have forever changed what work and life look like for people across the world, and the Whitehead Institute community is no exception. As evidenced by the recent surge of COVID cases due to the Omicron variant, the only thing that is certain in the future of the pandemic is uncertainty. Despite the challenges, researchers, administrators and other employees of Whitehead Institute are learning to live with that unpredictability. Read on to hear from employees across the Institute about what the “new normal” looks like for them.
New routines and joyful reunions
Following the ramp-down of research at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers started to trickle back into labs, masked and adherent to a regimented testing schedule. By summer of 2020, many labs were back to partial operations, staggering work times so that researchers could be adequately distanced.
When vaccines became widely available in early 2021, research was able to return to full capacity (with the exception of a month of heightened restrictions during the Omicron surge). Dilly Wilson, the Director of Human Resources and Institute Diversity Officer, and Pari Arokiaraj, the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety, and their teams, have been instrumental in facilitating the return. “We are really fortunate to have great teams,” Wilson said. “We have a staff who are truly committed to the Institute, and I don't think people just look at it as just a job. I think those are some of the unique elements of Whitehead Institute’s community that has made the [return to campus] a success.”
For some in the community, it has remained safest to stay at home. These staff members look forward to a tentative return in the spring. For most labs, on the other hand, the existing protocols mean that work can return to pre-pandemic routines (without indoor lab birthday parties, unfortunately). “[With the exception of the Omicron surge], we haven't been doing hybrid meetings or anything since everyone was vaccinated,” said Institute Member Mary Gehring. “Everything's pretty much normal, but with masks.”
Still, while members of individual labs had been interacting at work for months, the Institute has not resumed all-hands events like in-person seminars and cookie hours, leading to a more compartmentalized culture. “There are continuing challenges like, how do you create community when things are still very lab-focused rather than Institute-focused?” Gehring said.
Slowly, the Institute is taking steps in that direction. In fall of 2021, Whitehead Institute’s scientific community gathered in full for the first time in many months for the Institute’s Annual Retreat. Usually, the retreat takes place at a ski lodge in New Hampshire, but in 2021 the Institute played it safe, hosting a weekend of scientific talks in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kresge Auditorium. “[The retreat] is such a significant part of our collaborative culture,” said Institute director Ruth Lehmann. “Despite the fact that we were all wearing masks and keeping our distance, there was a palpable sense of joy in the room.”
The retreat was a welcome introduction to the Institute for new employees such as Cassandra Rogers, the new manager of the Keck Microscopy, who joined Whitehead Institute in September 2021. “[Until the retreat] I had no idea there was such a diversity of applications here at Whitehead,” she said. “Most of the imaging that I've done has been either in mammalian cells or zebrafish, but it's generally centered around human disease models, and at Whitehead there's a much larger variety of experiments and scientific questions being answered, and that's really that's really fun from our perspective.”
Rogers’ previous job was fully remote, and although she enjoyed the work, she found it difficult to maintain a boundary between her work and the rest of her life. At Whitehead Institute, her job is to help researchers in different labs with the parts of their projects that involve microscopy.
“I really enjoy coming in every day,” she said. “I'm on site four to five days a week, and I enjoy being here and helping users with their questions and doing trainings and interacting with the community. I leave my laptop here, so I have a clear boundary between work and my home life.”
Socializing is more structured now
Months of meeting exclusively on Zoom have changed the culture of social interaction among lab members. “There was this inertia,” said Institute Member Ankur Jain. “People were meeting for specific purposes or when they have questions — but these are not the spontaneous interactions where people come up with crazy ideas and try to run an experiment or two on them.”
Jain recognized these spontaneous interactions as a key part of his lab’s creative process, so he and his colleagues came up with another way to structure interaction and collaboration between lab members. “We are having an internal ideas challenge within the lab,” he said. “A minimum of two people have to work together and come up with a brief research proposal which is different from their main project. And we will allocate some discretionary funds available to us to the winning proposals. I think it is working. People are gathered around the whiteboards and discussing all kinds of experiments.”
A changing culture
The past two years have changed Whitehead Institute culture in other ways as well, as the pandemic has laid bare some of the inequalities inherent in our social support and education systems. “[Many people] recognized the lack of diversity in academia,” Jain said. ”We are thinking about what else we can do to make science more inclusive.”
Jain’s lab is already making an effort to reach out to communities that are historically underrepresented in science, and offer them opportunities to join the lab. Jain, working in collaboration with the MIT Department of Biology, received a grant from the Packard Foundation to bring in students from community colleges in the Bunker Hill and Roxbury areas of Boston as paid interns in summer 2022.
“These community colleges serve older individuals who are often working full time, while attending college,” Jain said. “By providing them internship opportunities in labs at MIT, we hope that we will be able to help them transition to a four year college and potentially open opportunities for jobs in biotech in the area.”
Similar changes have been happening Institute-wide. Whitehead Institute turned an eye on its own culture, hiring an outside consultant, Jones Diversity, Inc., to complete a diversity audit of the Institute.
“More than anything, I think these issues need to be an ongoing conversation,” Wilson added. “Diversity is not one or two people's responsibility. All of us have that responsibility. And the more we talk about it, the more we have those conversations, the more people are aware, that's going to help us create a more diverse workforce and then create a culture that's open and welcoming to individuals from all walks of life.”
Many of the challenges brought about by the pandemic have affected people’s relationships and the office culture. Marcia Glatt, director of the Institute’s Office of Procurement, has seen first-hand the chaos wrought by the pandemic on other parts of the Institute’s operations. Glatt and her team are in charge of keeping the Institute’s 21 labs stocked with supplies they need to complete their experiments.
Pre-pandemic, the whole procurement operation was a well-oiled machine. Thanks to the hard work and planning of Glatt and her team, the Institute did not usually need to keep inventory, but rather ordered as the need arose, preventing unnecessary waste, and the receiving department was able to accept the deliveries and shuttle them to the appropriate labs.
When COVID hit, however, the process of procuring scientific supplies was thrown into chaos. For one thing, the initial guidance that only allowed essential employees on site meant that the Receiving Department had to work extra hard to ensure that supplies arrived safely to their final destinations. “With a skeletal staff in the labs, deliveries to the labs needed to be closely managed,” Glatt said. “There had to be one lab staff member to take possession of cold deliveries, which was not an easy task since in most labs the essential staff did not come into the building every day and had various schedules.”
Besides these logistical hurdles, the pandemic also led to severe shortages in scientific supplies. At the beginning, the shortages mostly affected supplies that were also used by the healthcare industry, such as masks and gloves.
“It was really difficult to find gloves and masks,” Glatt recalled. To solve this problem, she negotiated with a local supplier to commit to a whole year’s worth of gloves, instead of buying them as needed. “Our labs did not have any shortages of their gloves,” she said. “At times maybe it wasn’t quite the glove they wanted but they ultimately had quality gloves to work with.”
As the pandemic progressed, other supplies became more difficult to find, largely due to disruptions in the supply chains for those items. Culture plates, plasticware, and other supplies became backordered, and Glatt and her team continue to seek workarounds to solve these problems. The supply shortages grew in unexpected ways. Computer chips, used in laptops and desktops, were in short supply which impacted computer inventories.
Many scientists are loyal to particular brands of supplies, but the worldwide shortages made it nearly impossible to continually stock the same brands. New companies sprang up to meet the demand. “Our scientists who in the past would not have considered using items from substitute brands had no choice, but to move to them where they could,” Glatt said. “Samples were ordered by my group for lab staff so that inferior products were not purchased. Some new vendors required payment up front.”
To cope with the shortages, the already collaborative Whitehead Institute community came together. “Labs would ask one another if they could borrow supplies, or if someone had excess stock,” she said. “And lab managers said yes.”
The new normal
While COVID may be with us for some time, it seems the Institute is finding a new rhythm. Scientists like Cassandra Rogers are bringing some of their remote-work savvy to their now in-person jobs. “I think one of the things about remote work that has been a real positive is that it has freed me up to do my job in better ways,” she said. “I don't have to be in the room with somebody to troubleshoot an instrument, and I don’t have to make someone walk over to my desk for a consultation. It helps to streamline our day to day activities.”
This means that while Rogers is on site full time, her work can flow more smoothly than it might have pre-pandemic. “I’m starting to feel like the pandemic is never really going to end, but I hope we will reach a point where face-to-face interactions are more normal,” she said. “Even still, online consultations are probably something that I'll continue to do.”
“The great remote working experiment, I think, has been a real success,” Wilson added. “It has shown that many whose jobs only require a computer can be done remotely and efficiently. And I think we're fortunate to have a wonderful, dedicated, hard-working staff, and everyone's pulled together and just worked really hard to keep everything going.”
And everyone is hoping to leave behind the challenges of isolation. Jain, for example, is looking forward to attending in-person conferences again. “Traveling and just seeing people in person makes a big difference in how we interact with one another,” he said.
And Gehring is eager to resume the more casual social interactions that bring her lab closer. “I’m excited to be able to have little lab celebrations, you know?” Gehring said. “And the main thing I'm looking forward to is cookie hour returning. Hopefully that will happen at some point.”
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