“COVID brought our research activities essentially to a complete halt,” said Jared Hysinger ’21, voicing the reality for researchers around the world whose labs have been forced to close due to COVID-19 risk. “It’s very hard to do wet-lab research with no lab.”
Hysinger had been with the Monje Lab at Stanford for over two years, studying pediatric neuro-oncology, when his lab shut down at the start of the Santa Clara County’s shelter-in-place order in March. First caught up in more pressing concerns including the status of final exams and housing, the full extent of his research situation didn’t dawn on Hysinger until he started receiving emails from other members of the lab and his Primary Investigator (PI) concerning the lab shutdowns.
Preparations were hurriedly made to adapt current experiments to something that would be sustainable for long-term closures. Mice colonies were brought down to a baseline level. Current experiments were scaled down. Generation of new data came to a stop.
“Most of our experimental lives were totally paused,” said Jason Rodencal, a third-year Ph.D. student working at the Dixon Lab, researching cancer cells and how to kill them. “My lab was almost entirely experimental, meaning that we have to be in the lab to collect data.”
The week before labs were forced to close, Rodencal and the other researchers in his lab, assuming the order was imminent, worked to freeze down all of their active cell lines and complete any ongoing experiments.
“We are fortunate that we work with cancer cell lines, which can be frozen and thawed later without consequences,” Rodencal said. “So while many of us were inconvenienced by the closure, we did not have to worry about totally ruined experiments that could not be recovered.”
Some lab researchers weren’t as lucky. Experiments involving animal models like mice or other live cell lines are “a very time sensitive enterprise,” according to Hysinger. Inability to be in the lab every day could affect the data of those experiments, making it necessary to start them all over.
“For example, when doing a drug trial, we may have to inject the mice every day with a certain dosage of trial drug,” Hysinger said. “This may go on for several weeks, and if you’re not able to be in person continuously through those several weeks … it can be very difficult conducting those experiments.”
“The data we’d get from running an experiment like that would either be delayed or unusable,” he added.
Hysinger said that there will definitely be experiments that will need to be started from scratch when he returns to his lab.
For rising third-year Ph.D. student Julie Cachia, restarting came in the form of partially redesigning an experiment she had carefully been planning for a whole year before shelter-in-place suddenly took effect, leaving her no time to prepare aside from trying to grab all the books and equipment she might need from her office.
The experiment was meant to test “cultural differences in the misattribution of arousal effect — which is the finding that high arousal states lead to greater romantic attraction.” Cachia had intended for participants to come into the lab, where she would randomly assign each a different level of physical activity performed on a treadmill and subsequently have them report their romantic attraction to photographs of faces of the opposite sex.
“Right as I was putting the finishing touches on this experiment, everything shut down,” Cachia said.
The shutdown forced Cachia to redesign the experiment and adapt to an online format. Aspects needed to be revised to accommodate for participants who might not have a treadmill at home, and for Cachia’s inability to personally measure whether or not her manipulation of the participants’ arousal states was working from the other side of a screen.
After a few weeks of “racking [her] brain, trying out different experimental designs and piloting them with generous volunteers in [her] lab,” Cachia was able to find creative solutions. With the guidance of her advisor, psychology professor Jeanne Tsai, and the help of her research assistant, she is now conducting her research completely over Zoom and is halfway through data collection.
“Looking back, I’m really grateful that my advisor helped me see this as an opportunity to be flexible and think outside of the box,” Cachia said.
She also recognizes that she was lucky that her experiment could be made virtual.
“I know that for some methods … virtual data collection is simply not an option,” she said.
While some experiments have been able to adapt to remote work, returning to labs brings up another problem, as many researchers wonder how experiments will continue before a vaccine is available. At any point, their labs could be shut down again due to a spike in cases in the surrounding area.
The possibility of recurring shelter-in-place restrictions in the future poses the same problem as the current lab closures in terms of the accuracy of experimental data and forcing experiments to start and stop constantly.
On top of this, recurring shelter-in-place restrictions bring the extra challenge of designing experiments — which are often planned well in advance — around an irregular or uncertain schedule.
“We try not to think about it too much,” said John Wen, who just finished his third year as a Ph.D. student working at the Giocomo Lab studying the neural basis of spatial learning. “I’ve discussed [the uncertainty of recurring orders] with my PI a bit, and we both think the best way to go about this is to take things one day at a time.”
In Rodencal’s unique situation, predictable closures do not pose too much of a disruption to his research. Many of his experiments are able to be completed in short amounts of time. As a result, being able to work in the lab for only a couple hours a day (which is allowed under his lab’s new restrictions) doesn’t have much effect on his research.
However, if closures become unpredictable due to recurring shelter-in-place orders, the effects would be felt.
“It would be detrimental to us to have to close and restart unexpectedly, as our experiments can be weeks long, and so we would lose weeks of work,” Rodencal said. “Unpredictable closings and openings would greatly impede my ability to do experiments.”
Still, Hysinger, Rodencal and Wen all feel that the lab closures are necessary to fight the pandemic.
“I, of course, did not enjoy having one of my favorite engagements at Stanford completely shut down with the lab closures,” Hysinger said. “However, I completely understand the necessity and support the reasoning behind it.”
“While lab closures are detrimental to our progress, I’d rather lose that progress than have others lose their lives,” Rodencal added.
They also look to the future with optimism in terms of what can be learned from this experience.
“I’m optimistic that this will make clear the need for increased biosecurity and medical surveillance, accelerated medical research pipelines and public access to healthcare,” Hysinger said.
Contact Joelle Chien at joelle.chien2 ‘at’ gmail.com.