Life in lockdown – a PI perspective
In this blog, the current BACR Honorary secretary, Prof Val Speirs shares her thoughts.
As 2020 dawned we were all aware of the Sars-Cov2 coronavirus but it was still confined to China. But the world is a small place and it was no surprise that this was slowly spreading beyond Chinese shores. Nevertheless, academic life continued as normal. My research team returned to the lab refreshed after the festive break and we welcomed two final year students who were about to start their Honours projects with us. Academic travelling is a frequent part of my job and this started again in early January when I caught the early morning flight from Aberdeen to Norwich. Living and working in Aberdeen means I often take the opportunity to take in several meetings when I travel south, and this was no different. I arrived in Norwich and went into a meeting about the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank, where I am one of the PIs. The following day I was external examiner for a PhD thesis at UEA. The next day was a Saturday so I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the lovely city of Norwich, a place I hadn’t visited for 20 odd years. On the Sunday I caught a train to Birmingham where I spent the next 3 days attending the UK Interdisciplinary Breast Cancer Conference. I flew back to Aberdeen on the late evening Flybe flight and went into work as usual the next day. February was even busier. We welcomed a new PhD student to the group and our Masters students were about the start their projects. A day in London to sit on an interview panel for a patient representative for one of the NCRI subgroups meant catching the first flight from and the last one to, Aberdeen. I remember noticing a few people were starting to wear face masks on the tube from Heathrow. Little did I know that was to become the norm. Between trips my regular academic work continued; preparing and delivering student lectures, supervising our project students and looking after my research team, keeping an eye out for funding opportunities as well as keeping up to date with the literature and reviewing the odd paper or grant. My next block of travelling took in Helsinki for a 2-day grant review panel, back to Aberdeen for a couple of days then on to Edinburgh to deliver a talk at the first Edinburgh Breast Cancer Special Symposium, flying the next day to Oslo for a PhD viva. Vivas in Europe are elaborate affairs involving a public defence, followed by a party hosted by the newly minted PhD candidate, to which friends, family and the PhD examiners are invited. This was my first visit to Norway and on my connecting flight to Aberdeen from Stavanger I remember thinking how beautiful the fjords looked from the air and making a mental note to return in the summer. While in Norway there was a growing sense of unease as COVID-19 was now taking hold in Europe rapidly. But life still carried on as normal. I returned from Norway to give a presentation on the cancer research programme at the University of Aberdeen to NHS colleagues at a one day conference at Pittodrie, home of Aberdeen FC and it was noticeable that people were starting to avoid shaking hands, tapping elbows instead. On the Friday of that week, I attended a local event organised by one of our early career researchers, bringing together various speakers from across the university to foster interdisciplinary research. Little did I know this would be my last face to face event for over a year. I enjoyed the weekend, walking with friends in the beautiful Aberdeenshire countryside and returned to work as normal on Monday. However, in the space of a single day, things started to change rapidly. A flurry of emails regarding the escalating pandemic and the implications this would have on the higher education sector landed in my inbox meaning the lab had to be closed suddenly and rapidly. On-going experiments were terminated, incubators were shut down, waterbaths were drained. My group doesn’t use animal models in our work, preferring to work with human tissues instead, but many colleagues had these types of experiments running, which were also casualties of the lockdown. In line with other higher education institutes, the university closed its labs on 20 March 2020 with working from home becoming the default position. Realising that lockdown was likely to be for some time, most of my team relocated to be closer to their families; Glasgow, Norfolk, Belfast, Ayrshire. Masters projects had to be redesigned to incorporate data analysis or literature reviews and contact with the lab team and colleagues was via MS Teams.
The first day of lockdown was strange. I didn’t really know what to expect. No one did. I set up my laptop on the dining table in preparation for what we all thought would be a couple of months of home working. Our first virtual lab meeting brought together a sea of familiar faces on my computer screen. Phrases like “you’re muted” and “you’re frozen” became the norm. To keep things light-hearted, I introduced Tuesday Teasers whereby I set a puzzle with the first to answer getting to choose one of 2 items selected from my lockdown cupboard at the virtual lab meeting the following day. Funny how the chocolate biscuits were always chosen over the tins of beans! We carried these on until the clap for carers ended, though by popular demand we had a special (and super difficult!), Christmas teaser.
My team showed remarkable resilience as we adapted their projects to accommodate home working. including our Masters’ students who did well to complete their projects and graduate, virtually of course. We all took advantage of attending some of the virtual conferences that sprang up almost overnight. You can read my thoughts on these here. Spring turned to summer and in July our labs slowly reopened, but building capacity was limited and shift working became the norm. Alongside the other PIs, I still remained working from home and by this time the University had kindly delivered our office computers and chairs directly to the homes of those who needed it. The relief my back felt after sitting on a dining chair for a few months was immeasurable! My academic work continued, but in a new way. I carried out virtual PhD vivas, both as an external and internal examiner, and continued to sit on grant review panels, but instead of trips to Edinburgh, Helsinki and the likes, I participated from the comfort of my living room. Interviews were also conducted virtually. I even managed to get on campus for a socially distanced catch up with my group in the grounds outside our building. A rare treat!
Fast forward one year. I never imagined we would still be in pretty much the same situation. Most of my team continue to work shifts. The new normal. One was unfortunate to start her PhD just a month before the first lockdown and has remained working from home as a good chunk of her project is bioinformatics-based, however she will be started lab-based work soon, though teaching tissue microarray construction while still maintaining social distancing measures will certainly be challenging! This years’ Honours project students have been and gone, managing to complete their projects without ever being inside the lab or seeing me or any of the team, except on a computer screen, of course. And the BACR dipped its toe into the virtual conference world by hosting a student conference, led by our student representative, Demi Wiskerke and a student organising committee. Thanks to their hard work and diligence the event was a great success and we have others in the planning.
Now the vaccines are deployed (I’ve had my first one!) we look forward to being able to get back into work in some form. It’s just not the same advising on experiments remotely when you can’t see how cells are behaving in culture, look down a microscope at some immunohistochemistry or inspect a gel. And these chance conversations with colleagues in the corridor or at the photocopier that sometimes spark an idea for a new project or collaboration are sorely missed. That said working patterns will never be quite the same. I suspect some virtual activities will continue as it cuts down on travel and overnight expenses and post-pandemic, organisations, particularly charities whose fundraising activities have been so badly affected, will need to tighten their belts. In the meantime, we soldier on. And I’ll get back to Norway to see these fjords – maybe not this summer, but one day!
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c/o Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St James’s, Cancer Genetics Building,
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