COVID 19 Series: Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic

We are experiencing a global pandemic that none of us have ever encountered before. It has brought with it many challenges, particularly for researchers whose work consists largely of wet laboratory experiments. Additional challenges are faced by researchers who have dependent children at home with them. Being an international society, the situation in each country is different and changing
constantly. However there are many commonalities, including forming strategies to work effectively from home, which is a situation that many may not be familiar with. This blog is predominantly directed at the early to mid-career researchers, but the information may also be of help to more senior researchers.

First, stay calm. We cannot control the current situation but we can control how we respond to it. The top priority should be to be safe, happy and healthy. Make sure you keep on top of your mental health, if you are suffering from significant anxiety, depression or other mental health issues please seek professional help. If it helps, form support groups with other peers and do virtual social events with them like a once a week happy hour and share advice on strategies that are helping you in your working from home approaches.

Stay connected with the research of others. In addition to a range of virtual conferences that are being held worldwide there are a number of excellent blood-themed seminar series occurring virtually. In USA, Kellie Machlus has organised a series called Blood and Bone, daily at 1:00 PM USA EST (e-mail her or follow her on Twitter @theclotthickens for the full program).  The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society together with the Dana Farber / Harvard Cancer Center has also organised a virtual seminar series at 12:00 PM USA EST (https://www.dfhcc.harvard.edu/events/dfhcc-connecting-the-scientific-community-seminar-series/).  Australia has a weekly Blood Club 2020 seminar series on Wednesdays at 11am AEST co-organised by Steven Lane, Nikki Verrills and Matthew McCormack (Blood Club 2020, contact Matthew McCormack to be put on the e-mail list for this series or follow @StevenLane_QIMR on Twitter). The seminars from these series are also placed on YouTube for a very limited time so that people who cannot attend the seminars live can watch them later.

There are many things that you can do from home irrespective of how advanced you are in your research career. I have tried to highlight some for different stages of careers.

Junior researchers (students and post-docs): learning how to critique a publication.
For those who are new to research, take the time to learn how to critique a paper. This is an important skill to learn, enabling you to keep up with the literature in your field and to acquire the skills to participate in the peer review of manuscripts. Hopefully you will be having virtual journal clubs with other members of your lab (or other researchers). If you are not having regular journal clubs this is something that you can initiate.

If you have not had enough time in the laboratory to learn how to critique a paper, here are some tips to start you off at home. Start by reading reviews in your research topic and familiarising yourself with the terminology that is new to you. Then, read the paper thoroughly a number of times until you feel confident that you understand it. Next, read through the methods section. If you are new to research and are not as familiar with the experiments that have been performed in the paper, compare the published methods of a number of papers that are of a similar topic and have used common approaches. Are the methods sound? Do they have appropriate controls? Are there adequate numbers of replicates within a single experiment? Have the experiments been performed more than once to prove reproducibility? Was appropriate statistical analysis performed? Once you are confident with your critiquing methods, move to the results section. Interpret the data independently of the authors- analyse the results of the figures, tables and other datasets independently without reading the results section. Write down what your interpretation of the data are. Do you agree with the interpretation of the authors? If not, why not?

After mastering data interpretation, read the Discussion. This summarises the key findings of the paper and compares the results to relevant studies published by others. Do you agree with the authors or have they misinterpreted their findings (or have they overlooked/misinterpreted the findings of others?). Are the title and abstract supported by the data or not?

For researchers at all levels who have data that can be analysed from home.

With no (or few, depending on the scenario in your country) wet lab experiments able to be performed during this time, go thoroughly through the data that you have generated. Catch up on data analysis if needed. You can also analyse your data in different ways- sometimes this reveals something novel and exciting that you might have otherwise overlooked. If you need specialised licensed software (such as FlowJo for FACS analysis) many of these have opened up public access so you can use them at home without a license.

Start putting your data together in Figure formats (for manuscripts and/or your thesis). Each Figure should tell a cohesive part of your story. Investigate each Figure and decide if any data is needed to complete the Figure (for example do you need to perform more replicates of the experiment or do you need to do other experiments to strengthen the data in the Figure). If more data are needed (other than replicates of the experiment), do you already have data from other experiments that may complete the Figure (sometimes data from other projects may be suitable if they are not required for the other projects). If you do not have appropriate data, make a list of plans for experiments to do to complete each Figure when your experiments can recommence.  If you have an almost complete story that lacks a few experiments you can start writing it now.  If you do not have sufficient data to write up and have planned future experiments consider writing a review (see the above advice on critiquing a paper). Familiarise yourself with other technologies that will be useful for your research project (understanding the basics of bioinformatics is something that will be very useful for many). Read papers outside of your field that may complement your research. For example, if you are working on a particular gene, determine what is known about the effects of the gene in other tissue systems. This can often be informative about the function of the gene and may provide you with new ideas that may be applied to your own research project.

Advice for laboratory heads
Being a lab head also brings leadership responsibilities. We all have different leadership styles and continue to learn in leading. If you have not already had the opportunity to do so, take a leadership course- some are available online, it is worth asking your workplace to support your participation in one if this interests you.

If you have recently become a lab head and have not advanced far in your new position/do not have much data (if any) to look through there are still many things you can do. If you have data from your former post-doc position that can be written up, even if only as an incomplete manuscript, this is worth doing. It may assist you to identify additional experiments that can be performed to complete the manuscript, especially if you have taken the project with you. If you need to apply for ethics for your research, now is a good time to do this.

If you have been at your current workplace long enough to have established a team organise regular lab meetings with them. Set a schedule that works well for everyone in the lab. I touch base with my lab members daily via the Microsoft Teams chat function (largely to make sure that everyone is OK, but we also discuss what our work plans are for the day) and we have virtual video calls twice a week (Zoom or Microsoft Teams are both excellent free platforms for these), with journal club every fortnight. Do not underestimate the potential of your research assistants- they are just as capable of working from home on various tasks and participating in journal clubs as the students and post-docs are.

There is a difference between what can realistically be achieved by your staff (and sometimes yourself) during this period to what you would ideally like to occur. Working from home can be very different to working at the lab- some people thrive in this situation whereas others find it harder to cope. If children are at home (particularly younger children and the very dependent, such as disabled children) this will also reduce productivity of the working from home parent. Be patient, recognise that these issues will arise and encourage your lab members in their efforts as much as possible. Remind yourself that this is temporary and make the best of the situation that you can.

Advice for everyone
Working from home is a very different situation for many. If you procrastinate, do not stress, this is normal and your subconscious is actively working even if you are not. If you have not yet established a working from home routine, do bits and pieces at a time and try different schedules until you find a routine that works best for you. This is a very different situation for everyone- what works for one person does not necessarily work for another, some people will find it easy, others will struggle- do not be hard on yourself if you are in the latter group. Take breaks, get some exercise and make sure that you have time to relax during this different time. We will get through this. Stay safe, happy and healthy.


Professor Louise Purton, PhD
Head, Stem Cell Regulation Unit
St. Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research
Melbourne, Australia
Twitter: @purton_louise

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