The outbreak of Covid-19 has changed the world and, closer to home, our laboratory: People everywhere are looking to us, researchers, who study the novel coronavirus and advance the state of antibodies and vaccines to help eradicate it.
But that societal expectation is being countered by the virus itself. It battles us with its cleverness in infection and transmission, which so far has eluded our attempts to stifle it. SARS-CoV-2 is also pushing back on our workdays, which used to begin and end anytime but now unfold on a much stricter schedule.
Let’s start with the shifts. To prevent too many people from being in the lab at one time, IPI has split the day into two shifts: 7a.m.-1p.m. and 1p.m.-7p.m.. Approximately half of each group is in the lab at any given point, wearing masks and spreading out among benches.
Then there is the cleaning. We’re wiping down equipment, benches and common spaces at the close of each shift.
There is the planning: We have to complete the same transfections and experiments. Now, teams meet formally and often to discuss what will happen on what day and during which shift, as we cannot make these plans on the fly.
Finally, there is the sharing. Science is generally very collaborative: people work together to plan experiments, troubleshoot when things go off plan and give an extra set of hands when too many experiments are coinciding. Working in shifts has lessened that ability. We are having to share robots and other equipment, now one user at a time, to avoid passing potential coronavirus particles.
I admit that physically it has been tough getting used to the early starts and late endings to our days. Logistically, we can miss in getting our portion of the work done in time for the next person up on a shared machine. That can increase the stresses that come from a time crunch. Emotionally, it has been difficult to adjust to an emptier lab that used to be filled with coworkers, who are also friends.
Despite the hardship, however, the changes do have a definite upside, Shift work has caused IPI to become more balanced and efficient. Team members have become more skilled, learning techniques, previously done by others, on which they had not been trained. We have developed more and better communication to manage the shared space and tools and the timing of work completion.
At this point, I am choosing to roll with 2020. I count my blessings like the fact that I have a job and it can have a huge impact on the world, especially now. While I want to see my co-workers, all together and without masks, being back to work, albeit asynchronously, is still infinitely better than being locked down and unproductive.