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The Black Hole

COVID-19: Scientists have lost their passive social check-in

The scientific community often relies on impromptu interactions to spur where the next set of experiments might go.

BY DAVID KENT | MAY 25 2020

One of the biggest differences in academic groups in the laboratory-based sciences and other disciplines is that teams of people are generally required to execute experiments. Most graduate students and postdoctoral fellows would typically “see” their supervisor on a daily or at least weekly basis. They would also see and interact with other members of their laboratory group as well as technical staff member who run specific equipment or facilities. These interactions are part of the fabric of being a laboratory scientist.

In sharp contrast, I spoke with academic colleagues in the arts and humanities and they described their relationship with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows quite differently – there aren’t so many (if any) “team” meetings, lunches or coffee breaks. As a result, the relationship appears to be much more formal in nature with most meetings being pre-arranged with specific topics and tasks. The COVID-19 lockdown has likely had quite a different impact on these groups of academics (both the students/postdocs as well as the supervisors) with scientists probably standing to learn quite a lot from their colleagues in other fields about how to monitor progress and “check-in” with people.

I miss it dearly – not just the social interaction that comes with being a lab-based scientist, but the spur of the moment conversations that cannot be pre-planned and are inspirational for where the next set of experiments might go. Also, I feel more on top of what people are doing because they are either asking me a quick question or actually physically walking around doing an experiment. I’ve come to realize through the COVID-19 lockdown that I rely on these passive interactions as a light touch mechanism to check in with people and to help determine if my group members are doing well.

What have scientists retained during lockdown?

As mentioned above, lab-based experimental science is a team sport and for the most part I suspect labs have regular group meetings (typically weekly) and these have been maintained in some form via videoconferencing. Similarly, the relationships built prior to lockdown between lab members makes it relatively easy for them to interact with each other when required. Aside from poor Internet connections (which can definitely be an issue!), it should be easy enough to organize a chat with the person you need to speak with, even easier in some cases because of the lack of experiments. Some groups have also scheduled coffee breaks, journal clubs, drinks nights, gaming sessions, you name it. However, now that we are several weeks into lockdown, I get the feeling that  enthusiasm for a non-essential Zoom meeting is waning. 

What have scientists lost?

Aside from the obvious inability to undertake experiments, scientists have lost one of their most precious commodities – social interaction. This ranges from quick advice on a problem (which has been partially addressed through IM services), through to sharing frustrating problems/situations (like how much this piece of programming has been driving you nuts), through to spontaneous chats that stimulate new ideas and collaborations. In many cases, people don’t even know what their lab colleagues are doing in the run of a week.

What can we (or should we) do about it?

This is where I think lab-based scientists need to do some thinking outside of their normal spaces. The two groups that I think have quite a lot of experiential knowledge to share are group leaders who run groups remotely (e.g., during transition periods when a lab is moving countries) and academics in other disciplines where this type of regular interaction has never existed. The latter is a particularly interesting group to think about, and I encourage any of our arts, humanities and social sciences readers to share their ideas. In these spaces, the welfare and progress of students and researchers still needs to be monitored, but the physical interaction time is far more limited. There are some obvious red flags such as major behavioural changes or the consistent lack of delivering on agreed upon tasks, but I’ll bet there is a long list of other mechanisms that can be adapted by scientific group leaders to better support the early career scientists in their labs who find themselves banished from their normal work environments.

Importantly, when we are allowed to return to the lab, many restrictions will be in place and “normality” will take quite some time to resume. The high likelihood is that individual scientists will be allowed to do experiments with social distancing rules in place, and for the most part group leaders with little to no physical experiments will almost certainly be encouraged to continue working from home. So, we won’t really be “going back to work” and it is crucial to ensure that we find ways to compensate for the loss of impromptu interactions, passive check-ins, and lab camaraderie.

As I sign off on this column, I’ve decided that the very next thing I will do is to set up individual, informal check-ins with my lab group members – nothing crazy, just 15 minutes to discuss how it’s all going and whether there are ways I can support them. COVID-19 is impacting us all in different ways and a worldwide pandemic is bound to throw up some unexpected life circumstances – it is our job as supervisors to be there for our staff and students, even if we cannot (and may not for some time) sit across a table to discuss in person.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Nicola Koper / May 27, 2020 at 14:46

    This is a great article and brings up a really important point – how social interactions drive creativity in the natural sciences. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I wanted to share two things I’ve done to make the most of remote research:

    1) we still have our weekly lab meetings, but I wanted to make these not just a replacement for in-person meetings, but better than in-person meetings. So we’ve had weekly joint meetings with lab groups across the country and from other countries; we’ve had guest biologists from government join us to talk about career development and research in government contexts; and we’ve had colleagues from the UK join us for joint discussions. It’s been exciting, fun, and challenging – and we’ve all learned more than we would have with in-person lab meetings within our lab group.

    2) I began researching impacts of COVID-19 travel restrictions on wildlife, and quickly realized that many other biologists are looking at the same thing. So we developed a research group to bring everyone together (www.c19-wild.org), and that has resulted in my meeting and exchanging ideas with many researchers I never would have met otherwise. Not only do I get the day to day idea exchanges with colleagues via email instead of in-person this way, but it’s brought me friends and colleagues I would not have met if things were “normal”.

    So I would encourage you and other readers to think outside of the box – let’s not try to simply bring back what we’ve lost – but to start something even better.

    • David Kent / May 27, 2020 at 14:50

      These are fantastic ideas – thanks for sharing! We have had a couple of guests in Orr lab meetings and I agree that it adds a new (good!) dimension. I wouldn’t want all lab meetings to be like this, but extending the circle to like-minded groups has been great!

      I also really like the idea of driving new interactions – I just need the nursery to re-open so we can get off the shift work + never seeing each other routine!

  2. Derrick Rancourt / June 1, 2020 at 08:37

    Hi David

    I have been checking in weekly with each of my peeps over the past two months and have started up virtual lab meetings. I did try an informal Brady Bunch Wall on Zoom, but that fell flat on its face! I agree that the spontaneity of our scientific discourse has flattened and its really disappointing. I’m currently taking a Teaching Online course and am hoping to develop online engagement strategies. Hopefully I can apply some of that to help inject some fun into my group again. One thing I did in my teaching last semesterwas to do Journal clubs presentations via chat (which was a lot of fun), so I’m thinking maybe things like that. But you’re right, the idea of spontaneously coming up with a new experiment based upon a journal club discussion is far from happening.