Lab management during the coronavirus pandemic – Part II: how to restart a research group after quarantine

Lab management during the coronavirus pandemic – Part II: how to restart a research group after quarantine

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This is the second of two posts on the FEBS Network sharing my experience as a recently relocated PI working at the Chinese Institute for Brain Research (CIBR) in Beijing during the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). In the first post, I focused on approaches to motivating and managing a research group while in isolation away from the lab. I also explained the reasons for writing about my experiences – China was affected earlier by SARS-CoV-2 than Western countries and interest in how we approached challenges and solutions has grown. I hope that sharing my personal experiences will help with the considerations other scientists are faced with to move their work forward while also stopping spread of the virus.

In this second post I now turn my attention to how we restarted and managed lab work (and other operations at our research institute) in a way that minimizes coronavirus risks.

As stated in Part I, it is important to note that 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 restart a research group after quarantine:

Our lab restarted actual lab work after 3 weeks of self-imposed quarantine.  The following is a list of changes that our lab and institute did to keep everyone safe while restarting lab work.

1. Adjusting our commute to and from work

We tried to adjust our daily commutes to avoid crowds. I usually use public transport, but changed to travelling by car. Also, we offered the team to start and finish work at flexible times, so they can avoid travel at peak times, ultimately reducing risks of virus exposure. One lab member lives not far away from me so during this time I gave her a lift home if we finished work at a similar time.

2. Everyone entering our institute has to wear masks

Our policy in the institute is to wear masks, to minimize infection risks. Masks are provided for free at the entrance, or on any floor. In addition, administrative personnel go daily to every lab and hand out two masks to everyone, for free. We wear them as a precaution and to minimize infection risk. I only take my mask off when I am alone in my office.

3. Registration and health check before entering the institute

At the entrance of our Institute, CIBR set up a desk with masks, disinfectant, and a log book. At all times, there is someone there. Each person who wants to enter has to have their temperature measured and recorded in the log book, which takes less than a minute. In addition, details such as name, telephone number, time of entry are recorded. If someone’s temperature is high, they have to go to the hospital nearby for further evaluation.

4. Visitors are not allowed into our institute

No visitors are allowed, even from neighbouring institutes. Occasionally, exceptions are made for essential tasks to be completed. In such a case, a health report has to be provided, and a special permission has to be obtained.

5. Disinfectant, masks, gloves and tissues are distributed throughout the institute

A desk was put at the entrance of each floor with a spray bottle containing disinfectant, masks and gloves. This is to ensure that everyone, at all times, has access to protection.

6. Frequent cleaning and some items that are touched are wrapped in transparent plastic foil, which is often replaced

Our cleaners disinfect all surfaces more frequently and our floors are disinfected daily. Of course, the cleaners also wear masks and take extra care while doing their job. Some items that are frequently touched are protected with transparent plastic foil. For example, all our elevator buttons are covered with plastic foil, and this is often changed. The institute has also prepared tissue papers nearby to ensure that nobody touches frequently used items without protection.

7. Posters and reminders of good practices

Posters and reminders are put up throughout the institute to remind people to remain careful.

8. Allocating work to lab members who have to stay in quarantine for longer, and staying in touch

I have two PhD students in my lab who are still at home, as their university does not allow them to come back yet. Irrespectively, they are working, and I talk to them at least once a week, one-to-one, over video call. One of them has done a tremendous amount of background research, ultimately making her our in-house expert on anything related to CRISPR-Cas9. The other student is learning how to code and analyse high-throughput sequencing data, which will benefit her project once she gets back.

9. Teaching through online lectures

Our lab is in a research institute, freeing us from any teaching commitments. Nevertheless, I give occasional lectures, such as at our summer and winter courses. During this time, all our faculty and core facility directors started giving online lectures to our PhD students and all staff. This is a great opportunity to continue to learn, exchange ideas, keep the community alive, and include students who are stuck at home.

10. Lab sitting arrangements

We adjusted where people sit in our lab, so nobody sits directly next to or opposite someone. In this way, we maintain distance.

11. Cafeteria closed and eating together is not allowed

We are not allowed to eat together, to sit opposite or next to each other. Hence, everyone eats alone. Our cafeteria was closed. This reduces the risk of contamination. Now, most of us prepare our food at home. However, we can pre-order food from our cafeteria, which can then be delivered.

12. Meetings of more than three people are not allowed in person

I meet with everyone in my lab at least once a week, as I used to. These meetings take place in my office, as before. The only difference is that we wear masks, but we got used to it. We are never more than three people.

13. Video conferencing for larger meetings

We continue using video conferencing for any meetings, such as our weekly lab meetings. Even when most of us are actually at work in the lab, we do not meet with more than three people in one room, but instead we do it through video calls.  Also, our faculty meetings are done through video calls, with all of us sitting in our offices.

14. Restarting international and national faculty interviews through video conferences

Due to restrictions in travel, initially we delayed all international faculty interviews. However, we realized that the virus situation might not be disappearing any time soon. As such, we restarted our faculty interviews via video conferences. We not only set up online interview talks where all faculty and facility directors evaluate the candidates, but in addition schedule one-to-one interviews.  

15. Supporting other colleagues and families abroad

Everyone worries about their family and friends in such unusual situations. Hence, I was extremely grateful when government agencies and CIBR personnel reached out to me and assisted in shipments of much-needed masks, gloves or disinfecting products to family and friends abroad.

I do not have the perfect solution how to handle this unusual situation, and I made mistakes along the way. However, I hope my personal experience can be helpful to some. Overall, I do believe considering the circumstances, we managed it well, but only because we all worked as a team.

Ultimately, I was extremely moved and grateful by how wonderful everyone worked together, within our lab, within our institute, and also across institutes and between countries. I am relieved everyone in our lab is safe, while our lab work has picked up again and our science is moving forward again. I hope we can continue sharing experiences and learning from each other, to keep everyone safe and protect livelihoods.


Top image of post and photos in post: by M. Koziol lab

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