Every morning, virologist Dr. Michael Emerman wakes at the same time. He gets dressed and heads out to bike to work as usual. He gets halfway to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he leads a team studying HIV and related viruses.
And then Emerman turns around and comes back home.
Like so many of his colleagues, that’s where Emerman works now. On March 16, Fred Hutch announced a new policy to wind down on-site research to keep employees and the larger community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. That move came less than two weeks after the center announced a mandatory remote-work policy, starting March 5, for most of its nonscientific staff.
Research organizations around the world enacted similar physical distancing policies around the same time, as the swift spread and deadly force of the new coronavirus came into focus. Evidence suggests that the virus primarily spreads through respiratory droplets between people within about 6 feet of each other, so keeping people physically separated slows its spread, reducing crushing patient loads in hospitals and saving lives.
With the epidemic peak forecasted to hit this month in the U.S. and weeks more of physical distancing measures ahead (if not longer), these research teams are having to make radical adjustments in the way they work — especially those that do laboratory-based research.
“The transition from working in the lab to off-campus research has definitely been a challenge,” said Fred Hutch cancer immunologist Dr. Kevin Barry. “As bench scientists we spend so much time in lab that it feels almost like home. That being said — and this is true for all of my colleagues that I have been able to talk with — social distancing and reducing our interactions is the most important thing we can be doing at this time.”
We talked with Emerman, Barry and other Fred Hutch lab scientists about how they're adjusting to doing science, as much as possible, from home in the midst of a pandemic.
Hutch scientists said they’ve worked through feelings like frustration and disorientation as they put experiments on hold and filed away new research ideas to tackle at some unknown time in the future. For immunologist Dr. Justin Taylor, the psychological adjustment has been one of the hardest parts of the situation.
“You can’t be a good scientist without knowing that what you do in the lab is important and needs to get done. You don’t work on an experiment for 18 hours straight, or work in the middle of the night, for fun,” Taylor said. “So it’s a hard mental shift to say: Yes, what we do in the lab is important and could one day help people, but right now the best way we can help people is not going into the lab.”
“Throughout that whole time [of my career] the focus has usually been: What’s the next experiment we need to do to push this project forward?” he explained. “So it’s a big change when you don’t know when any of those experiments could be done.”
Hutch scientists are grateful that they received the benefit of advanced notice from their institution and a gradual ramp-down in on-site activities over the course of a week. Not all of their colleagues worldwide did. Earlier in March, Nature featured the account of an Italian cancer researcher who had only 48 hours’ notice to shut down his 24-person lab.
“While everything has been moving quickly, I’m glad we at least knew where things might be headed and were encouraged to plan for it,” Taylor said.
That warning allowed Fred Hutch teams to wrap up key experiments, put samples and microorganisms into safe long-term storage, and figure out how to maintain critical functions, like caring for lab mice, with only the allowed one person per lab at a time. (Exceptions to this rule are teams studying COVID-19 and those working on certain patient-critical clinical trials, although they must maintain physical distancing for safety.)
Many research teams, like evolutionary biologist Dr. Harmit Malik’s, faced tough decisions during this process.
Malik’s team uses fruit flies to study how the competition between genes and proteins with opposing functions drives evolutionary change, which has implications for a variety of diseases. Some of the thousand or so fly stocks they work with are unique in the world, making them scientifically priceless.
Unlike microorganisms like yeast or bacteria, flies can’t be put in a freezer to revive later. They must be transferred to a new container with new food every two weeks or so. Malik’s team was able to work out new, streamlined fly-husbandry schedules to make the insects easier to care for with a skeleton crew.
But they worried what would happen if the pandemic forced them to curtail on-site operations even further. So, they worked together to make a list of the stocks they considered most valuable, so that if the situation demands — and they fervently hope it will not — lab members can bring those flies home with them to care for them there. While the flies would have to undergo quarantine before coming back to the lab, in case they'd caught any parasites during their time away, at least they'd have survived.
Transplant biologist Dr. Rainer Storb’s team is also struggling with difficult decisions in their long-term, complex preclinical studies.
“Our group normally works together to process the samples, with each person responsible for their own portion of the process,” explained Storb, whose studies aim to launch safer, more effective forms of bone marrow transplantation into the clinic. “When only one person can be in the lab at a time, either that person must do everything for that set of samples, or we scale back our analyses. That is not an easy choice and is one that we are constantly re-evaluating.”
Storb, who also conducts clinical research, noted that it’s not just lab work that’s been adversely affected. Fewer patients are enrolling on trials. In fact, to protect staff and patients, Hutch leadership has temporarily halted enrollment on certain clinical trials, unless they are COVID-19-related or of clear benefit to the study participants' health. More than half of Hutch trials have now paused enrollment.
But many have found that being forced to step away from their pipettes and test tubes is not without some benefit.
Research teams are analyzing data they’ve already collected and starting to write them up into narratives that will form the core parts of scientific papers they'll complete once labs fully reopen. They’re organizing protocols, planning complex multisite clinical trials, reading and critiquing published scientific papers, writing grant applications to fund future studies, and taking online courses to learn important new skills like programming and data science.
“While this certainly isn’t the way I envisioned running my lab six months into a faculty position, the silver lining is that I’m now able to focus on important tasks that often get pushed to the back burner at other times," said immunologist Barry, who is one of the Hutch’s newest faculty members.
Cancer geneticist Dr. Alice Berger figures that if her team can’t generate its own data at the moment, it might be able to wring new scientific insights out of other people’s data.
"We're thinking about more creative ways to tap into publicly available data to supplement our data sets, rather than doing new experiments,” said Berger, who holds the Innovators Network Endowed Chair. “So it is making us think outside the box about how we can use data that already exists, in a new way."
And across the Hutch, scientists are using the time outside the lab to lay plans for everything they’re going to get done when they can finally get back into their home-away-from-home. For example, Emerman — the bicycling virologist — and his team are taking a deep dive into the COVID-19 literature. They are considering how they can build on their years of research on the AIDS virus to answer key questions about the planet’s latest viral threat.
"That’s one of the advancing thinking projects we’re doing to think about where we can contribute, once we get back in,” he said.
Thanks to technology, the researchers are able to stay connected virtually while most everyone is away from campus. Staying in touch is important not only for personal sanity, they noted, but also to keep their work humming along.
“It provides a weekly dose of motivation. Without that interaction, it is easy to slow down and lose focus on the work,” said transplantation expert Storb, who holds the Milton B. Rubin Family Endowed Chair.
His and other Fred Hutch teams are holding virtual meetings to connect with teammates, others at the center and scientists around the world. They’re presenting data, discussing papers and potential future
research, troubleshooting problems, and just enjoying the human connection.
Emerman has embraced virtual meetings with particular enthusiasm, meeting his team and special invited guests every morning for a virtual coffee break. As in-person scientific conferences get cancelled around the world, he’s organizing a multilab virtual symposium to give his lab members an opportunity to present their work to the larger scientific community.
“It is important we stay connected to each other,” Emerman said, noting that several of the 10 people in his lab have no family in the Seattle area. “They’re far from them [family]. We want to keep a sense of lab community going.”
Of course, even with enough scientific work to do from home (for now), Fred Hutch scientists — like most everyone else on the planet at the moment — are finding it impossible to be as productive as before. There are anxieties about the future of their work and loved ones’ health and, for those with children at home, the incessant demands of parenting.
“It’s just a new normal for everyone,” said Berger, who with her husband is trying to homeschool three kids while working full time.
Berger and many of her colleagues find comfort in the fact that the whole world is in the same situation.
"One of the silver linings that has come of all of this is that there is a clear recognition across the scientific community that we are all in this together,” said Dr. Jarrod Dudakov, who studies immune regeneration. "It has also forced a societywide reckoning that things are weird,” he added, noting that as expectations for productivity have shifted, he’s found deadlines more flexible and both neighbors and journal editors more friendly than before.
That recognition has helped scientists, like immunologist Taylor, come to terms with the dramatic changes required in their work, and help them look ahead.
"We’ve put down our pipettes for now because we need to think about the bigger picture,” he said. “And when we get back in the lab we’ll steamroll this hurdle and be really motivated to make up for lost time.”
“We've all got to do what we've got to do,” he added. “And we're all in this thing together.”
Fred Hutch News Service writer Sabrina Richards and other staff contributed reporting to this story.