Members of the Wyss community find silver linings while adjusting to remote work during the COVID-19 crisis
By Jessica Leff
When Wyss researchers and staff were directed to transition to remote work with only a few days’ notice, everyone sprang into action. Researchers quickly and safely shut down their experiments and shifted their focus to other activities, like reading publications or writing grants. Staff members rapidly put systems in place to support the researchers remaining in the lab for COVID-19-related projects while simultaneously performing as many of their normal tasks as possible.
Now, after a few disruptive weeks, everyone in the community is settling into the “new normal” in their own way. “It’s about finding your rhythm and your groove,” said Senior Bioinformatics Scientist Diogo Camacho, Ph.D., who is also a member of the Wyss Advanced Technology Team. “It’s not so much replicating your office environment but making sure you have all that you need to do your work at your newly discovered ‘home office.’” But even those like Camacho who are used to spending hours on the computer face challenges with full-time remote work, including the lack of in-person interactions, distractions from family and pets, and feelings of frustration and fear.
Yet, the Wyss community is resilient. Our culture has always focused on developing solutions, and that hasn’t changed. People are finding various ways to make progress and stay positive, discovering new ways to connect with colleagues, and using their time to dig deeper into background research that will help them in the future.
Sparking a new interest in science
Jenny Tam, Ph.D., a Staff Scientist and member of the Wyss Advanced Technology Team, works on FISSEQ (fluorescent in situ sequencing)/RNA spatial sequencing in organoids with features of bipolar and schizophrenic disorders to better understand how RNA synthesis and localization is disrupted in people with psychiatric disorders. As she was transitioning to working remotely, her two young sons were transitioning to attending school remotely.
During the first few weeks of working from home, Tam was focused on analyzing data and writing Validation Project submissions. Her sons noticed the images on her screen and began to ask questions. This sparked a conversation with her younger son about how she “cuts DNA out of cells” using CRISPR. Over the next several days, he wanted to know what she was doing and offered his own suggestions about what she should measure. Sometimes, the boys pop in on Zoom meetings. Luckily for Tam, “my Wyss co-workers have been very welcoming to my ‘new co-workers.’”
Now that she has submitted the Validation Project proposals, she is focused on assisting COVID-19 projects, writing new grants and progress reports for existing grants, and analyzing data using a remote connection to her Wyss workstation. While working from home has been challenging for Tam, it has also led her sons to better understand what she does and how much work goes into science. “Seeing science applied, especially by their mom, really piqued their interest in a new and exciting way,” she said.
Uniting the community
When Clinton Mann, Director of IT, found out he had to transition to remote work, he knew that space would be tight. He shares a 10ft.x13ft. office with his dog Rizzo and his wife, who runs her business from home. Mann has spent more than eight years perfecting his work desk and equipment setup at the Wyss – in a much shorter amount of time, he was able to re-wire, wire manage, move equipment, and reconfigure his monitors to perfect his space at home.
One important project that was accelerated with the mandate to switch to remote work was the Wyss Community Team. In early March, when everyone was still in the office, but news about the novel coronavirus was spreading, Wyss Technology Translation Director Angelika Fretzen, Ph.D., MBA, asked Mann about the possibility of creating an online message board for the entire Wyss community. She thought that this could be extremely beneficial for maintaining the Wyss community spirit during the uncertain times ahead. He immediately thought of the Microsoft Teams platform because it allows users to chat, meet virtually, video call, and collaborate remotely. Once the immediate needs related to remote work had been taken care of, Mann worked with colleagues who also saw a need for this type of forum, Associate Director of Communication Seth Kroll, Communications Design Manager Mariel Schoen, and SharePoint Administrator/Developer Viet Nguyen, to create a Wyss Community Team on the Microsoft Teams platform, and it has so far proven to be a success. At the same time, Fretzen has done her part to raise morale by sending emails each morning to the “Wyss Home Office.” Distribution started small, but the recipient list grew quickly, and now the emails are added to their own channel within the Wyss Community Team.
But Teams can never replace true human interaction, which has always been Mann’s preferred way to connect with his colleagues. In the office, it was easy for him to walk over to their desks and offer support or advice. Mann explained, “Personally, I think check-ins through email, text, and chat are so impersonal. I felt like I was losing out on capturing so much of the emotional context I would get if we met in person or over a video call.” When everyone within his team went remote, Mann started doing daily 30-minute Zoom team check-ins to connect personally and professionally with them. Everyone gives updates on how their lives are going, offers support to one another, and before the end of the meeting, they usually end up having a good laugh together. Mann has also added another twist to keep the meetings fun; each day, he wears a costume that he coordinates with a custom Zoom background. His team has embraced the challenge, with Systems Administrator Gordon Thompson even using software to turn himself into Mann’s dog on one call.
Assembling a virtual journal club
Graduate student Neha Kapate is working on creating cellular “backpacks” – disc-shaped microparticles containing drug molecules that are attached to circulatory immune cells so that the drug reaches its intended target with greater accuracy and success. Working in the lab of Core Faculty member Samir Mitragotri, she fabricates backpacks, quantifies drug release from them, and determines how well they adhere to immune cells.
When Kapate found out that lab operations would be shutting down, she knew she’d have to adjust. Most of her work involves “wet lab” experiments, which would be halted. In place of those experiments, she is now focusing on preparing for the written and visual components of her upcoming qualifying exam. She also decided to take advantage of the extra time to review relevant literature and think critically about her research. Video meetings and virtual happy hours have helped to fill some of the void left without in-person interactions, but something was still missing.
In late February, before measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were put in place in the United States, Kapate had begun preparations for a Mitragotri Lab Journal Club, a group that would meet regularly to discuss relevant papers, stay up-to-date with current research in their field, and sharpen their critical thinking skills. Social distancing was implemented right when the club was supposed to have its inaugural meeting. Initially, Kapate thought about delaying until everyone could be together, but after working from home for several days, she changed her mind: “I realized that the journal club would be a good way to keep spirits up, so I decided to forge ahead virtually.” The first meeting was a huge success. “There was lots of active participation amongst all attendees and we ended up going over the allotted hour. In general, this felt like an engaging way to maintain a sense of continuity and unity during these uncertain times.” Members of the group plan to continue the journal club once they return to the lab.
Informing the public
Surge Biswas, a Graduate Student studying protein engineering in the lab of Wyss Core Faculty member George Church, is developing new machine learning and experimental techniques to accelerate protein design. His transition to remote work wasn’t too difficult, because he’s worked from home in the past.
While being out of the office might not have been too abnormal, Biswas was aware that the world was facing an unprecedented crisis. In addition to his research at the Wyss, he began gathering all of the information he could on at-home-testing for the novel coronavirus, something he personally found interesting. Somewhere during that process, he realized others could benefit from this material, so he wrote an article summarizing at-home coronavirus tests that have been developed at several places and created a website to share the information. Though it was frustrating to find that the FDA has tightened their regulations on home sample collection, which limits the use of currently available systems, he and his co-authors hope their article can serve as a resource to scientists and entrepreneurs looking to develop new technologies. The webpage ends with an invitation for feedback, as Biswas and his co-authors are open to suggestions and just want to share their knowledge. They plan to update the page periodically as more information becomes available.
Discovering valuable information
Research Assistant Nate Borders, also in the Church lab, is working on engineering cyanobacteria for use in many potential applications like sequestering carbon dioxide to slow or even stop climate change. In the lab, he does experiments to determine how to best work with these bacteria, changing variables like light intensity and quality, media, and cryopreservation.
Since the transition to remote work put the experiments on pause, Borders is taking advantage of the time to get some perspective: “For me, the quarantine has been a time to pull back from the minutiae.” While he adapted to working from home quickly at first, it became harder to stay motivated as the days stretched on. His research partner, graduate student Max Schubert, had the idea to start a daily virtual journal club, similar to the one Kapate created for the Mitragotri lab, but there would only be two members and papers would be directly related to their research project. This has served as an important source of structure and a daily point of human connection.
Borders and Schubert have already made several important discoveries in reading these publications, some of which they may not have otherwise had time to learn. One example was a paper that showed that cyanobacteria grow faster under light that is flashing rapidly than if they’re grown under a constant stream of light. This is something the two may apply to their own work when they return to the lab. They also found that one of the many goals of their project had recently been accomplished by a different, well-known lab in their field. Borders explains, “It is a small disappointment now, but a huge time saver. We could have easily spent months on this aspect of our project, just to find out later that it had already been done.” With an endeavor as broad as theirs, with so much left to learn about these cyanobacteria and so many potential applications, this is extremely beneficial. Though Borders is excited to return to the lab, he knows these remote-work findings will have a lasting effect when he gets there.
In these uncertain times, members of our community have rallied in unprecedented ways. They have kept the innovative spirit of the Wyss alive, facing challenges head-on and discovering new ways to connect, distribute information, and learn. When this is over, the best of our “new normal” will survive to enrich our lives and our work in the future.