Research interrupted: Lab groups find their way together

When Mariana Wolfner, a Cornell geneticist and molecular biologist, learned March 15 she needed to suspend all noncritical research as part of the university’s effort to stem the coronavirus outbreak, she had two main concerns.

The first was how best to help her students.

“Everyone is just stunned ..., obviously because of the coronavirus, but also because of their research suddenly stopping or slowing down,” said Wolfner, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). She has emphasized staying in contact with her lab virtually, to create a sense of community and support.

Ciro Cordeiro, a postdoc in Scott Emr’s lab in Weill Hall, organizes frozen cell samples. Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University

“The other thing that’s been hard has been trying to figure out what to shut down without forgetting something critical to maintain,” said Wolfner, a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.

She and other researchers on campus have found that people are making extra efforts to help each other.

“Everyone is working together, pitching in to find solutions to problems as they arise,” said Scott Emr, the Frank Rhodes Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics in A&S and director of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology. “The atmosphere in the lab is very collegial and supportive.”

With universities across the country also suspending research, scientists have offered transition strategies on social media. Students in Wolfner’s lab also consulted friends at other institutions.

“Using that, we’ve come up with a plan,” Wolfner said. Her students canvassed lab members to determine what experiments were absolutely critical. A postdoctoral researcher made a shift schedule for the lab.

Laura Harrington, a professor of entomology whose research seeks to understand mosquito biology and use that knowledge to prevent them from spreading disease, has noticed small but meaningful acts of kindness. Students have made their own hand sanitizer and made it available. Entomology graduate students circulated a list of people willing to provide a room in their homes for students who had no place to go.

“I was really touched by people reaching out,” she said.

Another major consideration for researchers has been what to do with stocks of animals or cultures that are invaluable for their research.

Avery August, professor of immunology and vice provost for academic affairs, said maintaining animal models used in his lab will be essential for when lab members return to work.

“We work a lot with animals,” he said, adding that animals used in research can take months and even years to develop. Along with maintenance, research animals must continue to be bred. A lab member will come in regularly to make sure the animals are cared for, “so that we don’t lose six to nine months if we just stopped everything,” August said.

Harrington and her lab colleagues are in a race to complete an essential research project they’ve been working on for the last two years, on the acoustic behavior of disease-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes, a key for understanding how males hone in on females for mating. “We’ve got a whole bunch of really valuable mosquito strains that we need to maintain,” she said.

Wolfner’s lab does pioneering work with fruit flies, which must be maintained and bred. One student’s entire doctoral thesis is based on a strain of flies the student created. To keep all the flies alive, a team is working at the lab in shifts, so there’s only one person in the lab at a time.

Perhaps the biggest task for faculty has been supporting and guiding students during this transition.

“A lot of people are upset,” said Colin Parrish, the John M. Olin Professor of Virology at the Baker Institute for Animal Health. “The students are trying to figure out what they’re going to do to finish their research projects, finish their theses.”

Postdocs in Scott Emr's lab in Weill Hall work to freeze down cell samples to preserve the lab’s research. Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University

Parrish has been helping his students come up with solutions – ways they can be productive remotely, read papers and write. One of his students who was scheduled to travel for a job interview will now be interviewing online.

“It’s been especially hard for senior undergraduate students, because they are graduating,” Harrington said.

One of her seniors was upset she was not able to finish her honors project research. “I just told her, ‘You’ve done the best you can with the lab work, but it really is the experience that is the educational component rather than the end product,’” Harrington said.

Emr’s group held a pre-graduation ceremony and celebration March 17, complete with a decorated sheet cake with an inscription, for two graduating seniors who feared they wouldn’t have a graduation ceremony.

“A one-hour pause in our day that made us all feel good,” Emr said, “especially the two seniors in my lab who are likely saying a final goodbye to Cornell when they leave Ithaca in the next three days.”

As people leave campus, most lab groups have plans to stay in touch via regular Zoom meetings. Wolfner’s group has already held a Zoom lab meeting where they “discussed a journal article just to do something normal, and it made us relax,” she said. They plan to meet virtually three times a week.

Harrington’s lab had its first virtual meeting on March 16. “We tried to laugh about things, you know, talk to each other and share ideas, support each other,” she said.

“As a community, everyone’s done a great job,” Parrish said. “People are doing what they can to make it a smooth transition, and hopefully, in a month or two, when things settle down, we’ll be able to start moving things in the other direction.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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