From The New York Times: “When Coronavirus Closes Your Lab, Can Science Go On?”

From The New York Times

March 23, 2020

Plenty of work can be done from home, but the pandemic is forcing some parts of the scientific process to be put on the shelf.

In recent weeks, coronavirus led to the shutdown of many university campuses and other institutions for research and learning in the United States and around the world.

There’s always work that you can do from home. But parts of the scientific process can only be completed in the lab, or at another location where fieldwork or other hands-on research occurs. What’s a scientist to do when it’s time to put some of their experiments on the shelf?

Here is a collection of stories from around the world on how professors, graduate students and others in the sciences are coping with the effects of coronavirus on their lives and work.

Throwing away fruit flies

Itai Cohen’s physics lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., uses genetically engineered fruit flies to study how insects fly. It turns out that the flapping of wings is an unstable motion that requires constant wing muscle adjustment.

Usually, the flies live the usual life of a fly. But their nervous systems have been genetically booby-trapped. Shine a red light on some, and that will activate a neuron of interest; a green light will turn off a neuron.

“Then all of a sudden, they can’t do what they were doing before, and we see what the difference is,” Dr. Cohen said. “Some of them fall out of the air. Some of them do back flips. Some of them start rolling.”

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Dr. Itai Cohen of Cornell University at home. Credit Courtney Asztalos for The New York Times.

With the shutdown of research at Cornell, about a month’s worth of fly breeding will have to be thrown out. The researchers will not have to start from scratch later; they are storing more flies in refrigerators, although someone will have to go into the laboratory every two weeks to check on them and feed them.

Until that work can resume, they have other work to do. “Hopefully, we’ll get more papers written during this time,” Dr. Cohen said. “That’s the optimistic view.”

But research is not what he is most worried about. His wife is pregnant, her due date in late April, when the coronavirus pandemic may be peaking. “In a month, are all the beds in the maternity ward going to be commandeered?” he said.

They are planning for her to give birth at home. — Kenneth Chang

You can’t stain rabbit tissue at home

Lauren Boller knew her lab at Vanderbilt University would shut down when an undergraduate student came back to Tennessee from spring break and tested positive for the coronavirus.

Ms. Boller, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, studies the properties of tissue-engineered bone constructs. She and her lab mates started taking steps to prepare for the shutdown. She froze her human stem cells, and discarded some experiments that would have otherwise taken two months to complete. Unfortunately, these were the last few experiments she needed to complete two papers she planned to submit for publication. Another ongoing experiment required her to stain rabbit tissues — something that couldn’t be done outside the lab.

On Sunday, she went into the lab to retrieve data from a computer.

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The commandeered computer. Credit Lauren Boller

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Lauren Boller with the large computer, at bottom, she retrieved from Vanderbilt University. Credit via Lauren Boller

“The lab has a software that I can’t download for free,” she said. It costs a few thousand dollars. “My lab manager was like, ‘No, no, no, just leave and go home and take the computer with you for the next few weeks/months.’”

So Ms. Boller lugged the processing unit the half-mile to her parked car. She plans to spend the upcoming weeks analyzing the data she needs.

Ms. Boller is eager to get back in the lab once the restrictions lift. Holding up the experiments delays not only her ability to submit her papers, but also her ability to graduate. “It’s always a fluid conversation in research about when something will be done, because there are always setbacks,” she said. She’ll have to work at an accelerated pace once the lab reopens. For now, she’s making the best of it and analyzing her data and starting to write. — Wudan Yan

Glowing through a dark time

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Bioluminescent plankton studied in the lab of David Gruber, a biologist at City University of New York. Credit David Gruber.

Luckily for the glowing plankton under his care, David Gruber, a marine biologist, lives only six blocks from his research lab.

Even with City University of New York’s campuses shut down, Dr. Gruber said he will continue cultivating his subjects: about 100 vials of bioluminescent dinoflagellate. “We have to put everything on hold,” he said, “but we don’t want to leave the lab unattended for a month.”

The two species of tiny plankton he’s studying light up Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays. To keep them healthy, he’ll put in fresh batches of artificial seawater every few days and make sure they stay on a strict cycle of 12-hour light and dark phases. He’ll also check on other biofluorescent organisms collected during diving expeditions in remote parts of the world, now stored in a freezer dialed to minus 176 degrees Fahrenheit. If the cultures crashed, the team would have to rebuild their stock from scratch.

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Dr. Gruber lives only six blocks from his lab. Credit Gabby Jones for The New York Times

The researchers won’t be able to run new experiments any time soon, so the other four members of his group — who are trying to decipher the chemical symphony orchestrated by glowing marine algae, crustaceans and corals — scrambled Friday to gather material to analyze from home. “It was a frantic moment,” Dr. Gruber said. “We’ll try to squeeze what we can out of existing data. I think we have enough for six months of work — it just won’t be hands-on.”

During the pandemic, he said, the research group’s expertise could also be tapped by public health officials in need of microbiologists. “We’d like to do anything we can to help,” Dr. Gruber said. — Marion Renault

Putting evolution in the freezer

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On March 13, 2017: Rich makes the 10,000th transfer. Michigan State University

Since 1988, a dozen colonies of E. coli bacteria — each its own island — have lived and changed for over 70,000 generations. Known as the Long Term Evolution Experiment, the project has offered a unique window into evolution in action.

The colonies started out the same. But year after year, they have replicated faster and faster, each driven by different mutations.

But on March 9, evolution was put into the freezer.

Richard Lenski, who founded the experiment and runs it at Michigan State University, had kept an eye on the increasing number of coronavirus cases since January. “I think about the mathematics of populations all the time,” he said.

Every day, a graduate student must eye-drop a little of each E. coli colony into a new flask, along with nutrients. But instead of transferring it to a new flask last Monday, the E. coli went into a freezer at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

That will interrupt a recent focal point of the lab’s research. It started with a big surprise in 2003, when one colony evolved to eat citrate, a compound the other colonies couldn’t metabolize. But in recent months, the lab had been studying how some of the citrate-eaters were still getting sick from the compound and dying, even though it was allowing them to access more food. “We’re still trying to understand what’s going on there,” Dr. Lenski said.

While the experiment is suspended, the colonies can get back to evolving about a day after they defrost. And after that?

“The goal is to keep going as long as there are humans,” Dr. Lenski said. — Joshua Sokol

The museum is now closed

Kiersten Formoso had planned to spend her spring break at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles marveling at mosasaurs, plesiosaurs and ancient whales.

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Kiersten Formoso- Currently at USC
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, September 2012 – May 2016

“I was going to get a ladder and get really nice above-angle photographs,” said Ms. Formoso, a second-year graduate student studying vertebrate paleontology at the University of Southern California. She also wanted to measure limbs and other bones of long extinct marine mammals in the museum’s collections.

Her plans are now frozen in time, like the fossilized specimens she was hoping to analyze.

“I finally got to the point where I was ready to start my data collection,” she said, “and this virus made the door slam shut right in my face.”

The museum has closed to nonessential employees, including research students like Ms. Formoso. That will prevent her from pursuing some of her work on how animals with ancestors who once lived on land evolved to swim in the water, like sea lions and manatees.

It was to be the start of research she hoped to present at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting in the fall. But the deadline for submissions is April 30, and she hopes the society will extend it.

“If they don’t, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Ms. Formoso said. “I have no research to submit.” — Nicholas St. Fleur

The work that goes on

Administrators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ordered a “ramp down” of on-campus research last weekend that took effect last Friday.

“There are grad students all over campus rushing to finish experiments,” said Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research. “We’re hoping to reduce density of people in the lab to 10 to 20 percent of what it is now.”

There are a few exceptions — work directly related to the new coronavirus, maintenance of expensive equipment, such as microscopes that operate at cryogenic temperatures to peer at the smallest molecules, and long-term experiments for which important samples or large amounts of data would be lost if they were stopped.

“If someone had an experiment going, they need to collect 18 months’ worth of data, and they’re a year into it, that would be a high priority for continuation so you don’t lose the year’s worth of data you have,” Dr. Zuber said. “That’s sort of the way we’re thinking of it.”

She said there would also be consideration for graduate students close to finishing their doctoral research or postdoctoral researchers who are just about to enter the job market.

And plenty of research can be sustained by scientists sitting at home instead of at the office.

“A lot of the work that goes on on campus is computational and analytical and doesn’t use a lab where you have to be in there,” Dr. Zuber said. “For example, we take telescope observations from Hawaii.”

She expects plenty of group meetings to continue via video conferencing, and researchers doing the busy work of modern science: writing papers and grant proposals.

“M.I.T. doesn’t have the kind of people who are looking forward to a paid vacation,” Dr. Zuber said. “People want to do their work.” — Kenneth Chang

Paychecks over projects

Whenever Max Liboiron has to make decisions about the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, a plastic pollution monitoring lab she leads in North Labrador, Canada — she looks to three principles: “Equity, humility and anticolonial land relations,” she said. In more ordinary times, this means gathering seafood samples alongside local fishermen and holding community meetings about the lab’s findings.

In the time of the coronavirus, it means keeping paychecks coming. Most members of the lab, which is affiliated with Memorial University, are undergraduates and paid by the hour. “If they don’t work, they don’t eat or pay their rent,” Dr. Liboiron said. “I had to find a way to keep the lab running on similar amounts of hours, doing totally different work.”

Some of this will come from the NGOs and governments that usually hire the CLEAR lab to monitor particular areas, but are now glad to accept literature reviews and statistical analysis instead.

None of it will involve testing samples for microplastics. “We will miss deadlines,” Dr. Liboiron said. She predicts some projects will never be completed, because the money that was supposed to be used for them will instead have been used for wages.

But that’s how the lab is supposed to work, Dr. Liboiron said: “It’s an easy decision, even if it results in less science.” — Cara Giaimo

When field work endangers the field

The development of Bangalore into India’s technology hub has improved the standard of living for millions. But the effects of such urbanization on the city’s surrounding farming regions are less clear. That was a subject that Pramila Thapa, a graduate student studying the impacts of urbanization on agricultural systems at the Universities of Kassel and Göttingen, Germany, hoped to study.

“Everything was set up for a large-scale social survey,” said Ms. Thapa’s adviser, Tobias Plieninger, a professor at Kassel and Göttingen. “We had developed a questionnaire, identified 60 villages and towns with a total of 1,200 potential respondents, recruited six interviewers.”

But with the coronavirus pandemic, the Karnataka state government in India shut down universities and other aspects of public life. And the German institution’s partner in India had an additional concern about doing fieldwork at this time.

“Some people were concerned that we could be made responsible for carrying the virus into the villages,” he said.

Ms. Thapa’s project has been put on hold until the safety of her colleagues and the communities they study can be assured. The delay has been “very painful,” said Dr. Plieninger, especially for graduate students in his department whose projects will likely have to undergo substantial changes. — Annie Roth

Can’t study firefighters during a crisis

At Satchin Panda’s lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., the coronavirus outbreak is pulling away the very people his research might be able to help.

Dr. Panda studies circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycles that rule our bodies. He’s especially interested in how to keep those rhythms strong, and how disruptions harm our health. For example, research has shown that shift workers whose daily lives are out of sync with the sun, such as nurses or firefighters, are more prone to certain illnesses, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Some researchers, including Dr. Panda, have studied intermittent fasting — limiting all of your calorie intake to eight to 12 hours out of every 24 — as a means of strengthening circadian rhythms and fighting some of those conditions.

In an ongoing clinical trial, Dr. Panda and Pam Taub of the University of California, San Diego, have been teaching firefighters to eat in this way, and measuring whether it makes them healthier. But now that firefighters are being called away to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency with the emergency response to coronavirus, the study is in limbo.

“Our study on firefighters was extremely exciting, and we are sad that we may not be able to complete it in time,” Dr. Panda said; the three-year grant for this project was only supposed to go through August. “At the same time, we understand that the community in danger needs emergency personnel more.” — Elizabeth Preston

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