As the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) continues to spread around the world, it highlights the need for everyone to work together. Diseases do not know borders. The more we work together, irrespective of race, cultural background, educational and social status, to share experiences and exchange knowledge globally, the more lives and livelihoods can be saved.
I am a non-Chinese Principal Investigator (PI) at the Chinese Institute for Brain Research (CIBR), a leading international institute in Beijing. My laboratory studies DNA and RNA modifications in the brain. In 2019, I moved here from Cambridge University in the UK. As a European, setting up a lab in China is not a usual move. However, having lived and worked in several European countries and the USA, I saw in China a unique opportunity, at a special time. I was attracted by the unprecedented support, the scientific excellence, the ambition and drive. Our lab has access to core facilities within CIBR, seemingly unlimited opportunities and we are tightly connected with other top scientific institutions, such as the National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS), Peking University and Tsinghua University, and the McGovern Institute.
Despite the fast pace at which our science can move forward here, the virus delayed our efforts. However, it did not stop it: although keeping everyone safe was our highest priority, we continued our science by working from home, and making adjustments that enabled us to restart lab work within a matter of weeks.
Since we lived through the quarantine period earlier than in Western countries, we also reopened our lab earlier, already in the middle of February. As such, when the virus reached Europe and the USA, I initially shared my personal experience and advice with friends, former colleagues and PIs there. As the virus continued to spread, the interest in our experience grew. I was approached by different people and shared my experience even with embassy and government personnel, as well as universities all over the world.
Due to the high interest in how we managed our lab during and after lockdown, I was invited to share my experiences publicly. I hope my personal advice will help other laboratories, institutes and universities. My priority was and remains on keeping everyone safe, while trying to move our science forward during and after lockdown. As such, across two posts on the FEBS Network I will provide suggestions of (I) how to manage a research group during quarantine and (II) how to restart a research group after quarantine. The remainder of this post covers Part I; Part II can be found here.
Please note, I am not an expert on coronavirus safety, and my advice is entirely based on personal experience and what I have learned by following our institute’s guidelines. This is what worked for our lab at our institute CIBR. As such, everyone should critically evaluate their own situation, and of course follow their institutional and governmental advice.
How to manage a research group during quarantine:
Of course, labs are bound by government regulations, but many decisions we can take ourselves. In CIBR, all our faculty have been given the freedom to decide how we want to manage our own lab during the initial virus period. Our decisions were supported and respected by our directors, Yi Rao and Minmin Luo.
1. Stay in touch daily with everyone in your lab
We have a lab WeChat group, which is the equivalent of WhatsApp. In this group, everyone was asked to report daily if their health is OK. It might seem unnecessary at first, but it was actually fun and had a good outcome. It allowed us to keep in touch, and to help each other if needed. This creates a ‘community’ so nobody feels isolated and alone, keeping spirits up.
2. Talk to everyone in your lab at least once a week one-on-one, face-to-face, via video calls
To keep morale up and people focused, I decided to talk to every lab member face to face at least once a week. We used video calls for these meetings. These calls were often not too long, sometimes interrupted by some unexpected (often funny) surprises. I felt it was important and my responsibility towards each lab member to check on everyone one-on-one.
3. Distribute ‘homework’ to everyone: fellowships, reports, PhD theses, grants, writing papers, lab databases, research topics, preparing future lab meetings
Although we always associate carrying out science within a laboratory setting, a lot of the science is actually done at the desk, at the computer. To use the time at home, I gave everyone ‘homework’ that can be accomplished from anywhere.
My postdocs wanted to apply for fellowships later in the year, so I asked them to write and completely finish these applications, ready for submission, during the lockdown time. My PhD rotation students had to write their rotation reports and prepare their rotation presentations during lockdown, even if their rotation has not ended yet. My lab manager finally had some time to optimize our lab databases and lab organization. Others in the lab I asked to research scientific topics and to prepare presentations and lab meetings. These were later presented via video conferences. All of this improved and continues to benefit our science now. Of course, this is also a great time for PhD theses, papers and grants to be written. In our case, we have generous core funding from CIBR and additional funds, so at that stage no more funding was necessary. Instead, managing the lab and the tasks I allocated to my group kept me very busy. In addition, I actually ‘enjoyed’ this period to some extent as I had fewer disruptions: I finally managed to catch up on reading papers and shortened my long ‘to do’ list.
4. Provide deadlines for ‘homework’
Personnel who travelled outside of Beijing had to quarantine for 14 days before coming back to work, but quarantine was not mandatory for those who did not leave Beijing. Nevertheless, I strongly encouraged everyone in my lab to self-quarantine until further notice. To ensure that people work during this voluntary self-quarantine, I provided tight deadlines, by which all members of the lab had to email me what they had accomplished. Ultimately, everyone in our lab self-quarantined at home, while remaining productive.
5. Use video conferences for meetings and interviews
We continued our lab meetings, but did them over video calls. It was strange at first, but everyone got used to it quickly.
Also, despite the lockdown, I received many applications from people who wanted to join our lab. As such, I continued interviewing qualified and keen candidates, but did so through video calls. It was actually easier, as it could be set up faster, and not much time was wasted for the applicant and me if the fit was not right.
6. Enable PhD students to continue classes through video conferences
In China, PhD students have to take different classes and pass exams in their first year. Therefore, all our first-year PhD students continued their normal university classes. The only difference was that all classes were online, through video conferences. This was swiftly implemented, to not cause any delay.
Since CIBR is a research institute, all our PhD students have to be affiliated with universities. The majority of our PhD students come from Peking University, but also other universities. As such, our students have to follow their own university regulations. In addition, to keep them safe and continue their education, all our faculty was asked to have at least one video conference per week with each student who is part of our lab.
We only have PhD students in our institute, and usually no undergraduate or graduate students. As such, I cannot share any experience with undergraduate students. However, I know that all universities in Beijing did not allow their undergraduate, graduate and PhD students to return to work, and instructed them to stay at home for a prolonged period.
7. Maintain animal welfare and essentials, but reduce to the minimum
We are extremely lucky as a lab as we had wonderful support during our quarantine. For example, our animal core facility director made sure all our animals were safe. His animal core facility personnel looked after our mice during the entire lockdown phase. The personnel who cared for our mice worked at reduced capacity, and focused on maintaining animal welfare, and did so for all labs. With their help, our and all other labs could stay at home. Nevertheless, on one occasion, my lab manager and a postdoc who both live in walking distance from the lab checked on our lab animals and lab.
Our administrative personnel also continued to work from home, and kept me up to date with new regulations, answered any of my questions and guided me and our lab through this unusual time.
8. Allow special considerations for career support and progression
To support all personnel at CIBR, no changes were made to salaries or health benefits. Even if some people were stuck far away, they received their normal salary and did not have to worry. When evaluating personnel and student performance, the difficult situation was taken into consideration. Furthermore, our directors Minmin Luo and Yi Rao decided that the current special circumstances will be taken into account when our performance as faculty and lab will be under review at a later date.
I hope my personal experience can be helpful to some labs still under lockdown. Retrospectively, I do believe, considering the circumstances, we managed it well. We were also lucky, as nobody in our institute got sick, and we could restart lab work after 3 weeks of self-imposed quarantine.
If you would like to know more about how we restarted our lab work, while remaining safe, you can read our personal guidelines in Part II that be found here.
Top image of post: by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com