How research labs are functioning in quarantine

As the world grinds to a halt, how does science go on?

The world is currently in the midst of a global pandemic. Nearly two months ago, caretaker Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that schools, colleges, and public offices were to close. In doing so, Trinity closed its door for the foreseeable future. Along with its doors, all labs were closed; only research labs actively researching Covid-19 or contributing to testing remain open.

Over the past few weeks, further nationwide restrictions regarding people’s movements have been imposed through a so-called quarantine. Other terms used are Lockdown, Social distancing, and  Social Isolation. Our new social lingo is starting to sound like it’s been extracted straight out of a medical epidemiological textbook.

Quarantining is serious business: according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Protection quarantining specifically involves “the separation of a person or group of people reasonably believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease but not yet symptomatic, from others who have not been so exposed, to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease”. In summary, the government is asking us to stay at home.

“How are scientists coping with the effects of coronavirus on their lives and work?”

As researchers globally lock up their labs, we might wonder: can science carry on? How are scientists coping with the effects of coronavirus on their lives and work?

A great deal of work and research can be done from home (technology huh?) but what happens if the work involves long-term experiments that depend on consistent testing over weeks and months? This can not be done remotely.

For some scientists, like Professor of Synthetic Chemistry Stephen Connon, this means putting their lab experiments on the shelf. Parts of the scientific process can only be physically carried out in the laboratory meaning “all data gathering has stopped”, but this doesn’t mean that hands-on research is the be-all and end-all. “Technology makes a lot possible that wasn’t before”, allowing direct communication with students and colleagues, says Connon.  Between writing research papers, preparing teaching material and organising examinations, Connon’s research group are trying to make the most of a situation that is “far from ideal”.

For PhD student and organic chemist Dylan Lynch, his lab-based research has stopped completely. The quarantine experience has meant “projects have been brought to a complete standstill” for Lynch and his colleagues. The current situation is a far cry from the usual day in the life of a third-year research student whose “usual workday is nine hours in a lab coat”; this has definitely “thrown a spanner in the works”. The new quarantine workday involves “marking reports, analysing the data collected off the College servers just before the shutdown, and working on paper drafts to publish later this year”.

It could be worse, however. For final year PhD students expected to submit a thesis in September, the uncertain situation surrounding Covid-19 brings into question whether they will have laboratory work finished in this timeframe. However, it seems likely that College will offer extensions in those cases.

“It is evident however that this shutdown does not just affect research here at Trinity.”

Dr. Colm Cunningham from the School of Biochemistry and Immunology halted all ongoing experiments and effectively shut down his lab a month ago. Cunningham is already making preparations for the uncertain future as he estimates this team will “be out of the lab for at least 3 months”; and believes that “most labs in TCD are experiencing the same disruptions and projecting for the same sort of hiatus”. A day at the home office for Cunningham involves working on papers and a review that he has been “meaning to write for months”. In addition to this, he is involved in the reconfiguration of “teaching and exams as the coordinator of both a large Senior Freshman module and Senior Sophister Neuroscience class” along with home-schooling his two children.

Dr. Robert Baker, whose research group focuses on Inorganic and Materials Chemistry is currently “writing up experimental results at home” while the labs are on lockdown. It is evident however that this shutdown does not just affect research here at Trinity. Baker’s group had “experiments scheduled in large scale user facilities in the UK”.  This type of research involves major planning for up to six to eight months and large-scale funding, “about three-quarters of a million euro”. With facilities around the UK closed and with no indication of when restrictions will be lifted, there is a considerable amount of uncertainty regarding when experiments can be rescheduled.

Being a modern-day scientist does have its perks, as a lot more work can be carried out online. For Professor Jane Farrar, from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, working under quarantine involves a never-ending list of tasks including reviewing grants for various international organisations, going on video conference calls to discuss the same, generating lectures with slides and audio for undergraduate classes, participating in staff meetings via Zoom to plan around what needs to done for our undergraduate students, talking to my research team members via email and phone, drafting papers, dealing with grant reports, setting assignments and grading various other assignments, considering if we may be able to help with Covid-19 in any way, finalising grant applications and additionally dealing with the many other work issues that arise each day”.

Farrar’s research group is primarily concerned with the Molecular Genetics of Retinopathies and as such deciphers the causes of genetic eye diseases and designs innovative therapies. In the past weeks, some select team members were continuing to undertake really essential hands-on lab work to finish “important experiments on-going for, at times, up to twelve months”. These experiments were of high priority for continuation but may now be completely halted. Thankfully, a lot of work involving data analysis can be carried out from home.

Although it is disappointing for many to have to close up labs on campus and abandon research projects, even if only temporarily, the safety of researchers and laboratory staff is paramount. Research teams are finding creative ways to continue their work and collaborate with their colleagues.

The overall message from Trinity’s scientists is that, although it is difficult to juggle online teaching, research, and family during this uncertain time, the scientific process must go on. Amongst the large volume of negative news that is constantly being devoured by us all, Trinity researchers bring a message of positivity and hope.

While most of society has ground to a halt, science can and will go on.