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Reimagining Research in a Remote World

McMahon Lab Virtual Meeting
The McMahon Lab meets virtually

What happens to a research lab when a pandemic shuts things down? In mid-March 2020, COVID-19 brought restrictions to on-site activities at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). Anyone who could work from home had to start telecommuting. But lab bench work is in-person work, from performing procedures to maintaining organisms to making sure equipment is functioning.

HCI leaders, following guidelines from the University of Utah Vice President for Research Office, developed a plan to keep lab research functional and operational while restricting the number of people on site as much as possible. Principal investigators (PIs) of HCI labs had to identify which employees were considered essential for in-person work.

Trudy Oliver, PhD, who leads a lung cancer lab at HCI, says that was nearly all her staff. "We had mice that were alive and human lung cancer cells that were alive that had to be tended to," she explains.

But if an employee were to get COVID, protocols dictated almost everyone in that area of the building had to vacate for 14 days. And it happened early on in an area housing eight labs.

"That was the worst of the pandemic from the standpoint of our research," says Martin McMahon, PhD, whose lab was one of the eight. Experiments had to be put on hold. Some trainees froze their live cells and others moved cells to incubators in unaffected lab areas before heading home to quarantine.

There’s only so much lab-based employees can do remotely, McMahon says. Trainees had to find ways to occupy their time while doing their best to keep working on their graduate school research projects.

"I used the time away to write a fellowship application, prepare a paper for submission, and read voraciously," says Dilru Silva, PhD candidate in the McMahon Lab. This had its benefits, Silva says: "Reading more papers has helped me develop better ideas to test in the lab."

Dilru Silva Examining In McMahon Lab
Dilru Silva in the McMahon Lab

Even when not quarantining, labs still faced major restrictions over who could come to work and how many people could occupy a given area. Employees staggered their schedules, with some coming in at night or on weekends.

For graduate student researcher Kayla O’Toole, this was a challenging time to begin working in a lab. As a new employee, O’Toole says, "I had to navigate finding reagents and protocols, as well as designing my project, without some key people physically in the lab to help. There were a lot of days when I had to Zoom or FaceTime someone on the fly to help me at that moment."

Gennie Parkman Works From Home With Her Child
Gennie Parkman works from home

With two young kids unable to attend daycare, Gennie Parkman, a PhD candidate in the McMahon Lab and Sheri Holmen Lab, had no choice but to work from home most of the time. She used the opportunity to write papers and grant applications. But that was easier said than done—as evidenced when she was writing a review on a tight deadline.

"I was trying to type and at the same time put in references on another computer and my daughter was literally climbing all over me," she says.

Trudy Oliver says another challenge labs faced was ordering supplies.

"COVID-19 caused a significant delay in shipping," she says. "We found it very difficult to find some of our critical lab supplies in stock. Many items were back-ordered for months. Over the holidays, we ended up scouring Amazon for certain items."

Despite the challenges, the situation turned up some unexpected positives. "I have had multiple opportunities to participate in trainings and classes I would not have even known about previously," says Silva. "For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) puts on a seminar series that used to be available only for NIH staff, but now that they’ve transitioned to an online format, they’ve invited all trainees to participate."

Silva, O’Toole, and Parkman say the circumstances have made them appreciate the help of their coworkers. And the flexibility, understanding, and support of their mentors has been crucial.

"We still needed to keep our research going. It’s not like patients are able to wait on a year of us not doing anything," says Parkman. "But I always felt like I had the support and the backing of the cancer center and I’ve never felt unsafe coming to work."

"I have been very impressed at how dedicated our lab personnel are to making a difference for cancer," says Oliver. "They have adjusted to make sure their productivity is just as strong as ever. They have not given up."

The Oliver Lab Meets Virtually
The Oliver Lab meets virtually

Cancer touches all of us.