Finding Purpose Outside the Lab: Tips for Being a Scientist from Home

Biotechnology & Healthcare General Knowledge in Biotech & Healthcare
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While many scientists are actively performing SARS-CoV-2 research and surveillance, or developing diagnostics and drugs to combat the virus, many others have been forced to temporarily close their laboratory spaces. By April 3, 2020, an international survey found that 43% of laboratories were fully closed.

The good news: The scientific community has weathered pandemics before. One famous example occurred when Newton fled the plague of 1665, after Trinity College closed. At that time, he witnessed the famed apple fall and identified gravity. While not the norm, this legendary story reminds us that brilliant thinking can be done from anywhere, provided you have the right inspiration.

To help you find that inspiration, we have collated some ideas for scientists working from home, even though they’re unable to generate new data and continue their physical experiments. As you consider these options, remember that your well-being—not your tasks—should be the primary focus, especially if you have children and families that rely on you.

 

Get Yourself (and Your Team) Organized for the Future

When things are stressful, it can be helpful to do some housekeeping and reduce clutter. This definitely applies to researchers, though “clutter” here might represent important tasks that repeatedly fall to the wayside, such as updating résumés/CVs, filing papers, and organizing data files. If you find these tasks laborious, it might be a good idea to check out some organizational software that can make these processes more efficient in the future. For example, if you don’t have a citation manager, find one you like. With one in hand, import all those digital paper files, update references as needed, and start putting them into groups. Remember to create a digital filing system for yourself, where you periodically upload new papers into the citation manager.

If you’re not using an electronic notebook or inventory system, start reading about options and test some out. Larger labs at major companies may not have the power (or permission) to adopt these kinds of tools, but even having a working knowledge of what’s out there may help you down the road.

Help others in your lab do the same. Lab leaders should be checking in on their teams periodically. Use that time to help subordinates get organized so that they can feel more in control during these chaotic times. Start each conversation by asking how they are doing and if they are okay. Being a sounding board can help others clarify what’s in front of them. Then, ask them about what’s on their plates and what they are thinking about, science and otherwise.

Now is also a good time to hold those professional development conversations that otherwise get lost in the day-to-day activity of the lab. Encourage mentees to think about what they want out of their career and offer suggestions to help them get there. There are a number of individual development plans (IDPs) from organizations like the NIH that can help structure these conversations. Planning for the future helps us take some control over our own lives now, too.

 

Prepare, Plan, and Get Ready to Return

The vast majority of scientists are eager to return to their pre–SARS-CoV-2 lives. While it’s unclear how long it will take to get there, it’s okay for you to be chomping at the bit. One way to ease some frustration: Look and plan ahead. What are the first three to five experiments you want to run? Think about the materials and instruments you’ll need to get them running and how long they will take. Write out procedures and specific execution plans, so you can hit the ground running. We have even pulled together relevant resources to help support you, guide you, and get your lab back up and running quickly when it’s time to make your comeback.

For lab supervisors and managers, think about the higher levels of lab functionality that the team relies upon. A good place to start is with instrument reboots and calibrations. Once you have an idea of how long each instrumentation restart will take, build a master calendar and share it with your team for feedback. You can even begin to divvy up the work to help plan employee bandwidth. Then, start collecting a list of reagents and supplies you’ll need. Although you can’t order everything without concrete dates, having a running list will optimize your return—whenever that might be. Furthermore, if your entire team has planned their next experiments, ask them to share the procedures with you so that you can add their reagents to the list as well.

It’s important to build some flexibility into your return plans. Since normalcy might come after returning to the lab, you may need to implement different practices while SARS-CoV-2 continues. This may entail planning for social distancing, creating clear guidelines for sick leave, or even instituting temperature checks. It’s helpful to plan ahead, but be careful not to assume that things will be business as usual. If SARS-CoV-2 has taught us anything, it’s that patience truly is a virtue.

 

Read, Write, and Communicate

Too often we launch into the next experiment, at the expense of all of the reading and writing we know that we should do. In conventional times, many researchers commonly experience some guilt when they’re not explicitly working at the bench. Being forced to shelter in place frees researchers from this guilt, so try to take advantage of this silver lining. Reading and writing is no longer a “necessary evil”—it’s a great opportunity to gain perspective.

Read

Since a long list of reading may be daunting, start by reading only the most important and interesting research articles, and limit it to one to two hours per day. Setting a timer to remind you to take short breaks may help you protect your eyes and brain from overuse. Remember that being a productive reader is more about daily consistency than daily volume. While reading five to ten papers in a day would be incredible, it may be hard or even impossible to maintain. Even one or two papers per day, every day, is a lot. For those who lead or manage a lab, start a journal or book club. If you treat this as a learning opportunity and not a strict work obligation, you can encourage your team to enjoy reading.

To help break the monotony, you should also read about a broad range of subjects. Find some papers outside your typical purview that excite you. Who knows—you might find an interesting research avenue to pursue once you’re back in the lab. Even fiction (gasp!) can help you think differently about your work and motivate you to pick up new challenges. Not everything has to be work.

Write

Sheltering in place has forcibly created an ideal environment for writing. If you’re close to a publication, draft an outline and start writing it. If a few pieces of data are missing, don’t stress. It’s okay to write around those sections. Doing so may even help you to better design those last few experiments to flow more meaningfully with your narrative.

If you don’t have a paper queued up, try reading through lab notebooks and internal reports to revisit older data. Many researchers perform interesting experiments that ultimately end up falling to the wayside due to lack of immediate application. However, sometimes the passage of time and accumulation of new knowledge can help better contextualize work done in the past. Reanalyzing older data in a different way can reveal an interesting finding that can lay the foundation for a new grant or publication.

Finally, if you don’t have a set paper or grant to write, you could sign up for peer review networks or even write a review paper.

Communicate

Writing and reading all day can get stale, so mix it up with other forms of science communication.

Try being more active in the digital sphere. You could make or revamp a website to increase online visibility. If you haven’t had much practice with social media, start learning about the principles. Do you have a poster you intended to present at a canceled conference? Try presenting it on social media. For inspiration, check out the hashtag #twitterposter to see how researchers are sharing their work in new and creative ways on Twitter.

Whether through social media or another channel, like email, it’s a good time to engage with other scientists and start new conversations. Sending a message to a researcher whose work you admire can trigger a fruitful discussion, expansion of your network, and even future collaboration.

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