Lab life under lockdown

Played this with my kids last night.

EMBL Rome sent all its non-essential personnel home at the beginning of this week. One day later the Italian Government imposed a blanket shutdown across all Italy. We are now in lockdown.

People are at home and go out only to shop for food, take out the trash, or buy medicine. Maybe to sneak a short walk to the local park to stretch your legs, but always crossing the street when someone approaches. Restaurants, pubs, bars, and all non-essential shops are closed. To wait to enter the supermarket one-by-one, people stand ten feet apart making lines that snake down the streets. But, in fact, there is a sense of relief in Rome after two stressful weeks of indecision. 

Lab life has adjusted quickly to remote working and there are signs of a flourishing of solidarity and creativity among staff. Many of our students live together or have moved together or closer to each other since the outbreak started to make sure they would not be alone over the next months. Most of them are from other countries and don’t speak Italian, but they’ve decided to remain in Italy nevertheless. This means that their connection to the lab is their key support mechanism.

Yesterday we had our first virtual lab meeting (using LifeSize, they recently offered a free 6 months unlimited trial for COVID-19 affected businesses). We’ve had to learn new etiquette – it’s hard to chat in a group of ten; you need extra patience to wait your turn. It does seem to make for more efficient and focused comments, but there are clearly thoughts among the group members that no longer get raised and others that speak for too long once they get the chance (my lab would probably say I was one of those). We’ll have to learn as we practice. For example, I suspect sub-group meetings of three to four persons will work better. The lab set up a video chat channel that is always open where you can drop in to find people – we call it ‘The Kitchen’ as that is what we call our social area in the Institute.

At the lab meeting we did an initial round-table and everyone appears to have major projects they want to work on – analyzing endoscope and microscopy images, registering and segmenting volume EM data, writing papers, and learning Python, R or Italian. Our lab manager did an amazing job this week organizing data storage capacity, assuring VPN and virtual machine access, and packing desktop computers into cars to be taken to people’s houses. By now everyone is settling in at home and finding new rhythms of working. I told them that this is a special time; limbo time. Better to come out of this having done and learned something that they would have never done, than just finishing their existing projects. Leave some free time to think, try new things, enjoy the moment – all your competitors will be under lockdown anyway in no time, so what is there to stress about? We’re all in this together.

This is a special time; limbo time

At home family life has been transformed. My three kids have been at home for two weeks already. And now they are happy to have us with them. They have at least three to four hours a day of homework – which keeps them busy; we’ve set up a ping-pong table in the living room, and they usually eat lunch in the sun on the balcony. I have managed to take them on a long walk along the river behind our house every other day, despite all their complaints. And they are excited about a series of evening presentations we instituted where they each have to teach the family something – one told us about the impact of cow farts (I know about methane, but she said it increases ozone too?), the other gave a cooking lesson (based on Nutella, of course), and the last gave us a hard-core analytical-chemistry-with-NMR lesson. And last night we played a  game I had borrowed from the EMBL Board Game Club – Pandemic!

All your competitors will be under lockdown anyway in no time, so what is there to stress about?

For now the atmosphere is energized. But I predict a second phase will appear soon where stressors will emerge. The news coming from outside will be getting more desperate over the next weeks (see Tom Pueyo’s thread, or this lesson on the math behind pandemics) and this will be hard for some. Those living in isolation will go through fluctuations of frustration. Failures of equipment or lack of even insignificant commodities and comforts will elicit anger. We need to build in mechanisms to catch, share, and diffuse these. Luckily we are not alone.

Author: Cornelius Gross

Neurobiologist interested in the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the control of instinctive behavior associated with defense, reproduction, and ingestion; EMBL Group Leader since 2003, Senior Scientist & Deputy Head of Unit since 2009, postdoc with Rene Hen at Columbia University, PhD with William McGinnis at Yale University 1995

One thought on “Lab life under lockdown”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *