Fear. Uncertainty. Anxiety. To mention just a few of the emotions felt by many throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the early months of 2020 when much remained unknown. In response to the spread of the virus, research groups worldwide shut down. Experiments were halted, cell lines were frozen down, and laboratories operated like ghost towns with flickering fluorescent lights and a skeleton crew that operated to keep irreplaceable experiments going and animal models cared for. While it is true that the research community rallied, shifting to virtual formats where possible, pivoting research objectives, and maintaining lab communities (one too many Zoom happy hours!), it was, and in some instances continues to be, an extremely challenging time for research. New and junior faculty who were embarking on setting up labs of their own for the first time, faced unprecedented challenges. Global supply shortages, travel bans and the shutdown of international borders, and logistical difficulties are just some examples of the problems faced by these scientists/clinician scientists. In response, Dr. Christina Termini, a new faulty member in Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, and colleagues built on lessons learnt by authoring an article, recently published in Trends in Biochemical Sciences, that provides support and advice for new faculty. Explaining how her own personal experience setting up a lab (a lab which focuses on investigating hematopoietic stem cell function in disease with the aid of in vivo models and is actively recruiting members) during the present pandemic enabled this article into fruition, Dr. Termini said “I have had a few key insights into building a laboratory that shaped how I have led this process at Fred Hutch. I joined a new lab as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, which provided an opportunity to see a lab transform from start to promotion. My lab is inspired by a lot of the ways my mentors led their labs – what did I like as a trainee? What would have streamlined things in the lab to make the science more accessible? I took a lot of time to reflect upon my lab’s infrastructure before arriving. Each lab is unique, but the systems we design can create a foundation to stand the test of time. Turnover is inherent to research, so I also wanted to build a lab that had structure to enable new folks to onboard quickly and ensure offboarding would not disrupt our research. It’ll be a few years before I can say if this has been successful, but we are optimistic!”
Throughout their article, the authors provide advice for new faculty on how to develop their research objectives while navigating the pandemic. The authors supply examples of important questions to ask your new institutional leadership, for example what resources are in place to aid with obtaining basic supplies greatly impacted by global supply chains? The authors focus on the hiring process, outlining how building a laboratory team - often international in nature - may be time consuming and faced with new challenges such as obtaining relevant visas with long wait times, and give suggestions on how to combat this. They emphasize the importance of contacting senior faculty and peers within your institution and discussing ideas and issues, to learn from those who have gone before you. They note, building relationships with other new faculty who have recently navigated similar challenges will provide invaluable advice and insight into how to succeed. Social media, often highlighted for its negative associations, can be an invaluable tool for virtually connecting in shared spaces and for providing support to one another. Dr. Termini’s own experience building networks has been a positive one thus far. “As far as building networks goes, I have been overwhelmed by kindness within the Fred Hutch environment. I have taken an active role in setting up meetings with potential collaborators, potential lab members, and folks who are just starting. I have also been delighted by the number of folks who have reached out to me to connect, which has helped me integrate into my environment while building my network. The cluster hire was a wonderful mechanism to provide me with a layer of community upon arrival,” she explained.
The authors emphasize how these challenges are often exacerbated for women and members of historically excluded, and minoritized communities. They describe obligations often placed on women with respect to childcare and family wellbeing, in addition to structural racism which leads to disproportionate social burdens placed on minoritized communities, e.g., reduced economic means. The authors champion junior faculty to address these issues head on, asking questions of senior leadership about childcare subsidies, family support, financial assistance (e.g., relocation and housing), as well as promoting self-care and the empowerment to respectfully decline when too much is being asked of them. When asked what advice she would provide to the next generation of junior faculty members, Dr. Termini stated “the next generation will be in a unique position where research environments are just starting to recover from the pandemic but are still remodeled. I highly recommend talking to recently hired faculty to discuss the issues they are experiencing. You will want to consider these struggles and discuss them explicitly with your future Chair to discuss strategies to acknowledge and circumvent them.”
Dr. Termini and her fellow authors hope that this article will provoke conversation and change among senior faculty and institutional leadership that is aimed at addressing how junior faculty are supported and assessed throughout the building of their own research groups. “I really hope this article supports discussions around how we should consider junior faculty productivity, as this will directly relate to their eventual promotion. For example, could promotion clocks be adjusted to account for backorders of essential equipment? Colleagues have been incredibly kind by offering backordered supplies for our lab to use while we wait for ours. If you know a new hire, I highly recommend reaching out to see if they have what they need to do their science,” advised Dr. Termini.
This work was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Program, and the National Institute of General Medical Science.
Fred Hutch/University of Washington/Seattle Children's Cancer Consortium member Dr. Christina Termini contributed to this work.
Nicholas DA, Trejo J, Termini CM. Building a laboratory and networks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trends Biochem Sci. 2022 May 20:S0968-0004(22)00111-6. doi: 10.1016/j.tibs.2022.04.012. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35606213; PMCID: PMC9121306.