August 13, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Scientists try not to lose it with their labs shut by the pandemic

How can we scientists find ways to keep doing our research during the COVID19 pandemic even if it has nothing to do with the coronavirus? Also, how should those of us involved in science communication talk about the outbreak? At a more basic level, how can scientists try not to go bonkers during this dark time?

Patients and scientist patience

light at the end of the tunnel
A light at the end of the pandemic tunnel?

As I’ve been writing here on The Niche during the pandemic I’ve been aiming to focus on practical issues. For instance, can new cellular therapies potentially help patients with COVID19? I’m mostly skeptical. In addition, what would be the risks?

Who is at the greatest risk from COVID19 to start with and why? Are patients who have received stem cells or have autoimmune diseases at high risk? Definitely. You can see our COVID19 pandemic resource page here.

As scientists we have to keep doing our research remotely as best as we can too without being able to be in the lab much at all, although at times it seems that there are so many things that get in the way. Other than essential basics like caring for research animals, keeping an eye on our freezers, liquid nitrogen systems, etc., people really shouldn’t be in the lab unless the team is doing COVID-19 research, is doing essential clinical trial work, and a few other rare exceptions.

This may be changing in the coming days and weeks as some states have started opening up. Here in California we are looking ahead to a partial, cautious opening.

Scientists need to do their parts to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. Remind yourself that you or someone you care about could be the sick patient tomorrow.

Lazuli bunting, birding during pandemic
Lazuli bunting

Non-COVID research

It’s a confusing time and all roads in science these days seem to lead to the outbreak. It’s understandable given how disastrous it’s been so far and how bleak things can feel as the pandemic spreads further. But science has to go on even if it has nothing to do with the novel coronavirus.

My own lab focuses on stem cell and cancer research, which is relatively far removed from the pandemic. We still are doing our research as best as we can without being able to do our usual assortment of wet lab (work at the bench) experiments. Fortunately, we have a good amount of new data from genomics experiments to analyze, we have more genomic data coming, and we have papers to write, grants due, and more. Still, it’s anything but the usual rhythm of our science and I know that’s how many other labs feel. We’re hanging in there like hundreds of other labs around the world.

PIs trying not to lose it, hope more funding?

Those of us who are PIs running labs need to adapt to a period without much new data. Remind yourself that this period will end and think about the big picture. One thing I’ve seen PIs asking is whether NIH is going to help out with more funding for non-COVID research as labs can’t do their research but are still burning funds, but I haven’t seen anything clear on that. NIH is funding new COVID work, but I’m talking more generally here about the 99% of labs not working in anything remotely related to that.

Funders around the world are being much more flexible with deadlines and such, but what some labs may need practically speaking is more funding help. That may not be coming.

Scicomm

Getting back to science communication such as here on The Niche, one thing I’ve been asking myself is whether to consciously try to balance negative pieces with positive stories. When you’re in the midst of an unfolding health disaster it can feel like there’s not much positivity out there.

I’ve also wondered if for the time being people are too stressed and focused elsewhere to want to read and think much about things unrelated to the pandemic. Some such issues like stem cell clinics are still obviously important, but unless they are doing unproven stuff related to COVID19 (e.g. injections of unproven exosomes into COVID19 patients), should we in scicomm put coverage of them mostly on hold? I don’t know the answer to that.

There’s a certain science “politics” to scicomm during the pandemic as well. Biomedical science is also colliding with politics more generally too, such as this odd situation.  Many of us scientists mostly try to stay out of politics but that isn’t always possible and seems less doable during the pandemic.

Looking ahead

For the most part we are stuck in a holding pattern overall. Even as we come out of this, the new normal that emerges is going to be different. I think that staying connected with each other even remotely is very helpful.

Can we escape COVID “doom and gloom” and should we try somehow to stay positive, at least some of the time? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Maybe we have to look for bits of light in the middle too.

I’ve found it helpful to spend as much time outdoors as possible. It’s a fortunate time here in Davis, CA as it’s bright and sunny but most days it’s not insanely hot yet. As I’ve been doing for years, I’ll keep you posted on how my garden is doing. It’s mostly tomatoes, of course.

I’ve also been dabbling with birding, in part inspired by my college Jonathan Eisen (follow him on Twitter) so expect to see some pictures of birds coming up too on The Niche. I got lucky yesterday and “captured” a lazuli bunting (above), although the light wasn’t good. Jonathan’s also been taking pictures of all kinds of cool non-avian wildlife too like opossums and otters.

%d bloggers like this: