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From the Lab to the Living Room - transitioning cancer research during a pandemic

COVID-19 has had a major impact on research activities across the world. Since the 17th of March 2020, the research laboratories at the Oglesby Cancer Research Building have been closed to protect staff and students, and researchers have been working from home ever since.

In early April, we asked several research scientists how the pandemic has impacted their research activities, and what they are doing to transition their research from the lab to the living room.

 

Anya Golder – 3rd year PhD student, working with Prof. Stephen Taylor

 

Has Covid-19 impacted your current research project/projects? Are you able to continue any of your research in some format?

Covid-19 has meant I have had to stop performing experiments which is disappointing as I had recently been making great progress. However, this has not stopped me. Instead, I have started to write my PhD thesis, even if it is a few months earlier than I intended to. 

 

What have you and your colleagues been doing to virtually encourage work-cohesion and morale?

Every morning, our group have been holding virtual coffee breaks which have been a great way to check in on each other. Once a week we have also been holding a virtual happy hour with the aim of distracting us from the anxiety and stress Covid-19 has caused. So far we have hosted a ‘hometown quiz’ which involves everyone bringing three questions about their hometown, and next week we plan on having a Room 101 themed Happy hour.

 

How have you transferred Cancer Team Science from the lab to your ‘living room’?

I have still been working with colleagues using ZOOM. Last week I had a meeting with a bioinformatician who taught me a new method to analyse my data.  

 

 

Megan Thomson – 3rd year PhD Student, working with Prof. Rob Clarke

 

Has Covid-19 impacted your current research project/projects? Are you able to continue any of your research in some format?

I have had to stop all of my experiments so none of my research is continuing at the moment. I’m planning to write a review during this working from home period. I was already planning to write this at some point this year, so I now have the opportunity and reason to get that done. I’ll also start writing my thesis and collating results into figures as I’m 2 ½ years into my PhD.

 

How have you transferred Cancer Team Science from the lab to your ‘living room’?

We are continuing with our lab meetings and journal club sessions over Zoom. We are also having sociable Zoom lunches as having lunch together was something that the Breast Biology team were very good at!

 

Alexandru Suvac – 2nd year PhD student, working with Prof. Robert Bristow

 

Has Covid-19 impacted your current research project/projects? Are you able to continue any of your research in some format?

I don’t think there is a scientist whose work has not been impacted by the current pandemic. Some are hit harder than others. Generally, the current situation is disrupting “dry” lab scientists (bioinformaticians, statisticians) much less than “wet” lab (molecular biologists, those in charge of animal facilities). Although this has placed a dam on my novel data flow it has also liberated me to analyse my backlog of data and gives me time to reassess old results and place them in the bigger context of my project.

 

I am also putting my efforts into reading more papers on my topic and taking the time to think about new techniques and to brainstorm the applicability of the project. In short, this is a fantastic time for generating ideas!

 

What responsibilities have you and your lab said ‘goodbye for now’ to?

Any experimental work – which was a big proportion of my day-to-day work.

 

What have you and your colleagues been doing to virtually encourage work-cohesion and morale?

The same as everyone else – virtual meetings and group chats. We stay interacting with each other, cracking jokes, chatting about serious issues, updating each other on our lives – the same as before lockdown. We are trying out online quizzes and party games in an effort to socialise. The work group chat has been a lot more alive and vibrant, putting a smile on my face that face-to-face jokes would have before.

 

Has working from home benefitted your team in any way?

It certainly has! It allows us to share ideas and think about them at a slower tempo. It has opened up time for more lab meetings and more journal clubs which keeps us stimulated with fresh ideas and exciting research.

 

Are you currently having to juggle working from home with other responsibilities, e.g. being a new ‘teacher from home’ or a primary carer for family?

I am very lucky with respect to this point. As a 23 year old living alone in a studio flat my only responsibility is myself. This has just turned into one long weekend that I have to work through.

 

 

Jack Ashton – 2nd year PhD Student, working with Prof. Robert Bristow

 

Has Covid-19 impacted your current research project/projects? Are you able to continue any of your research in some format?

My research involves investigating the role of hypoxia and genomic instability in prostate cancer progression, with a primary focus on hypoxia induced DNA repair vulnerability. The primary goal of my research is to facilitate better risk assignment and treatment decisions for patients who present with both tumour hypoxia and highly unstable genomes. While it was tough adjusting to social distancing and lab closures, I feel our lab team are making the best of the situation. We’re a close-knit bunch, so it’s been a big miss not being able to crack jokes in our tissue culture room and catch up each lunch time. Nevertheless, we have been conducting regular lab meetings through zoom, giving us more time to discuss experiment progress, as well as future projects, hypotheses, and plans for when we return to the lab. Alongside this we have also been meeting for weekly journal club sessions and have even maintained our Friday beers tradition once the clock strikes 5pm, virtually now of course!

 

On a personal note, like for many people it has been quite an anxious period given the time limited nature of working towards a PhD and not being able to generate data as I move into a key phase of the project. However, the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute has been fantastic in reiterating support for their current PhD students, both through ensuring stipend security in the short term and also relating to potential PhD extensions if necessary. The Institute Director also holds weekly Zoom meetings to field questions and update us on the Institute’s response to the crisis, which helps us stay informed about how the other groups are doing and how the situation is progressing.

 

Has working from home benefitted you or your team in any way?

I have used the downtime away from the lab to focus on image analysis using the HALO platform and have also started teaching myself R. The institute is organising additional online training in these areas, as well as a regular seminar series, both of which are keeping the community scientifically engaged.  The image analysis algorithms I develop on HALO will be vital for an upcoming project assessing the relationship between hypoxia and homologous repair in patient samples, while I also hope to translate my learnings in R to genomic based analyses in a separate project.

 

Since late April I have been volunteering at the Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab, one of the COVID19 national testing centres. I perform the RNA extraction step of the testing process and it has been great to use my lab skills to play a part in the pandemic response effort.

 


Category: MCRC
Tags: My MCRC, COVID-19

Eve Oliver is part of the MCRC Operations team

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