Lessons from the Pandemic: How to Be a Good Lab Mate

13 November, 2020
Lessons from the Pandemic: How to Be a Good Lab Mate

Lessons from the Pandemic: How to Be a Good Lab Mate

Sabine Hahn is a PhD candidate in the Biology and Biotechnology program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the United States. She is interested in understanding how functional inactivation or loss of the retinoblastoma tumor suppressor protein influences heterochromatin regulation and organization.

In this guest blog, Sabine shares the research challenges caused by the pandemic and the small changes you can make that will benefit the whole research group.

COVID-19 Restrictions: The Beginnings of (Necessary) Chaos

While COVID-19 isn’t the first disease in our lifetime to receive the status of worldwide pandemic, and almost certainly won’t be the last, COVID-19 created a state of universal concern that hasn’t been seen since the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s. Like most labs in the US, we were subject to numerous restrictions upon reopening to protect us, and others, from spreading this highly infectious disease. Our institution only allows two people in any lab space at a time, shared equipment in other labs is off-limits, shared core equipment, such as a confocal microscope and GelDoc Imaging System, requires 30 min to 1 hr gaps between users, and every piece of equipment – regardless of whether it’s shared or not – requires thorough sanitation after each use. This creates challenges when planning experiments and means that we need to rethink how we work.

Being a Good (Lab)mate: How to Be Empathetic

Given our lab is the largest in the Biology and Biotechnology department, we’ve struggled particularly hard with these demanding – albeit necessary - restrictions. After all, we all want to be productive, to make discoveries, and importantly for grad students, graduate. However, it’s important to recognize that everyone in our lab may have personal commitment and struggles of their own. That may be having a deadline to submit revisions for a publication, being a single mother who relies heavily on the school system for childcare, or having a one hour commute each way to get to the lab.

This means that our time in the lab is precious and we want to spend as much of it as possible to get great data while following the safety rules. To do this, and be fair to everyone, we created a schedule with shifts. The earliest shift begins at 6 am and the latest shift ends at midnight. This means there is almost always someone in the lab – even after midnight. Those with fewer personal commitments can volunteer for later, more inconvenient shifts. Those who were able to change their focus to be more computer-based rather than relying on being in the lab switched their approach. Undeniably, the first lesson of the pandemic was empathy. I implore readers and fellow researchers to think about their lab mates and to think about how making a small sacrifice can improve the productivity and wellbeing of someone else immensely.

The Curse of the PhD: How to Ask for Help

My lab shift, in particular, begins at noon and ends at 6 pm. In theory, six hours sounds like a lot of time to get things done, but – as many other biologists can testify – it is not. Often, the inherent nature of our experiments alone lasts beyond the scope of our short shifts. If I need to add nocodazole to enrich for mitotic cells, three hours before fixing and staining my time-sensitive experiment at noon, what should I do? To have enough time to run a western blot during my shift after a 36-hour transfection, when can I come in to set it up? If I need to replenish a buffer but don’t have access to the necessary reagents, how can I get my gloved little hands on them? The answer is clear, but the uneasiness remains: I need help. The second lesson I learned from being a scientist during the pandemic is that it’s okay to ask for help. Additionally, other people may request that I help them either prepare or finish their experiments and that also now needs to be factored into my research time.

A Collective PhD Vision: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

You often hear horror stories about highly competitive labs where PhD students and postdocs keep their lab notebooks locked up and wear the key on a lanyard around their necks. Labs where data is only shared with advisors but never peers. Luckily, these types of labs are in the minority, and I am lucky that ours is both relaxed and collaborative. Still, it’s hard to trust someone else with your experiments - your brain baby, the fruits of your labor, the data for your upcoming publication.

"What if my samples are pulled out of the water bath too late and they degrade?" "What if my inoculated overnight cultures are run for too long and the bacteria overgrow?" "What if the wrong concentration of nocodazole is added and all my cells die?"

This is, after all, your work, your livelihood, your PhD, and your future. As members of our lab began to ask me to add drugs to their experiment or maintain their cell culture while I was in the lab and they could not be – either due to quarantine, distance, or timing – I quickly realized, as the third and fourth lessons of the pandemic, that the overprotectiveness of my experiments was unjustified, and flexibility is an absolute must. After all, everyone in the lab wants you to succeed just as much as they want to succeed. Soon, I even found myself offering to add drugs to experiments in the middle of the night so that my lab mate could avoid sitting in a car for two hours for a lab procedure that takes less than five minutes. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean you can’t send a reminder text or two for your own peace of mind! Conversely, take as much care with others’ experiments as you would with your own. Always double-check the protocol and ask them to confirm any steps you are unsure about.

The Blessing of the PhD: We’re All in the Same Boat

Everyone knows being in graduate school is hard; however, being in graduate school during a pandemic is harder. It’s up to us, as lab team members, to work together and support each other. As the pandemic dawned upon us and we implemented restrictions out of necessity, communication faltered, and we often argued.

"No one told me you needed a split of my cells today and I already split them." "How are we already out of autoclaved Pasteur pipettes?" "Who used all my ice-cold transfer buffer?" "I need 8 consecutive hours on the microscope to image all these slides!"

As with many big changes, the COVID-19 lab restrictions took some time to get used to. We all realized how strongly we relied on shouting across the lab or visiting each other’s cubicles with a quick question during pre-pandemic conditions, but none of this is possible now. As the fifth and final lesson of being a researcher during the pandemic, we learned how to communicate efficiently and effectively by sending polite but detailed emails, and reminders with our plans and the needs that accompanied those plans. It was difficult at first and, after a few too many offenses, our lab communication via email and text has become easier. Our email and text chains are direct. Our advisor asks for our input on certain situations. We split up lab maintenance jobs. We plan around each other’s schedules and utilize an online calendar. We exercise our flexibility and ask each other to trade shifts if a given experiment requires more time. And, if someone else is present in the lab to do it, we are no longer opposed to asking our lab mates to add a drug to an experiment, take care of a sample, or ask any other kind of favor.

Our newfound communication skills and willingness to work with one another for the sake of scientific progress and discovery is one I hope we’ll keep even after pandemic restrictions are lifted. Ultimately, we’re all in this together and we’re all going to succeed together through teamwork and in good health.

Want to Be More Organized in the Lab?

Read our blog on how to how you can organize your way to better science by taking a bit of extra care and establishing systems to make you a better lab mate.



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