COVID-19: Halt and catch fire

By Maria Bernabeu, Group Leader at EMBL Barcelona

On March 13th, just around my group’s 6-month anniversary, the COVID-19 outbreak brought work in our new lab to a screeching halt. After months of purchasing and slowly building up the lab with stocks of supplies and equipment, and the first crucial experiments excitedly underway, everything was put on hold. Even prospective new members now stand in the shadows waiting for an indeterminate period to hear some concrete news.

First malaria samples received at Maria Bernabeu’s lab at the beginning of March

Stopping our experiments was especially hard and difficult, even though we knew it was the right decision. Our lab works in malaria, an infectious disease estimated to kill one child every minute. This disease also has a profound impact on families, local health systems and economies. So, we truly appreciate how our “small” efforts in social distancing can have a meaningful effect and protect the community at large.

As in Italy, we are also experiencing strict lockdowns. We only exit from our homes for obtaining basic needs – and even this is unsettling, as we enter one by one. The bustling Barcelona landscape has dramatically changed and the once crowded streets are now deserted. I walked by the Sagrada Familia on my return home to find it completely empty!

After 2 weeks of working at home, the adrenaline of the first days has finally cooled down and we are starting to experience our new reality. We are all going through good and bad moments. Sometimes I feel frustrated about not being able to work in the lab, and sometimes I wish we could contribute more directly to help the local hospitals.

To cheer us up and not feel isolated, we are continuing our regular coffee meetings through Zoom. Anybody from EMBL Barcelona that wants to say “Hi” can join the call. We are also keeping our regular lab meetings, journal clubs and unit meetings. As a small lab, in a small but growing unit, it is encouraging to stay in touch and feel the support of everyone unit-wide.

EMBL Barcelona Unit meeting from home

And what are we doing now in the lab? With our ongoing and exciting 2020 experiments now at a standstill, we are now focusing on writing a few projects and paperwork that was until now left undone. We are taking this opportunity to catch up on that. Unfortunately, we do not have data to crunch or simulations yet to run since we barely got off the ground! But, as we already have many ideas, I’m also taking this time to think about future lab structure and strategies to effectively accomplish our dreams.

We have no idea when we will be back in the lab, but we are really expecting that on that day, we will all come back stronger, with more energy and determination for achieving our scientific goals.

Maria Bernabeu