It is Wednesday afternoon, March 18, 2020, a beautiful day hinting at spring, the cherry blossoms beginning to bloom. The city that never sleeps is restless, with many of its 8.6 million residents either incredulous about the growing urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic or fully committed to preparing for quarantined life indoors, a seeming impossibility here where domestic life typically spills out onto front stoops and into city parks and crowded restaurants. In Manhattan, one sacrifice among the millions that residents are making unfolds. One of us (EDJ) tweets, “The first time I have to close my lab in 22 years. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting us all in many ways. Let’s all be part of the solution.” Our institution, the Rockefeller University, officially closed that day.
The decree by our university and city to shut down all non-essential operations became a necessary inevitability. The university leadership, like that of many other institutions, delivered a positive tone among the adversity in an email communication to the campus about its commitment to “protect and sustain our community with the goal of being as productive as possible while off-campus to ensure that we are in the strongest possible position to return to normal operations at the earliest opportunity.” But we soon discovered that the new normal of being as productive as possible from our homes with no laboratory was more of a challenge than we could imagine.
Our lab studies the neural and genetic mechanisms of vocal learning in species that can imitate sounds, such as songbirds and parrots, as a model for how humans learn spoken language. The most important aspect of temporarily shutting down with an abbreviated timeline of three days was to quickly and safely transition laboratory members to working remotely and to ensure the welfare of our research animals. Our lab manager, Samara Brown, in coordination with multiple administrative and resource departments, led the efforts to ensure the preservation and maintenance of unique reagents, animals, data, and critical and non-essential equipment.
This conflict between being productive in our scientific endeavors and surviving a global pandemic can lead to guilt and fear.
Many students, postdocs, and staff scientists transitioned their focus to the conceptualizing and analyzing aspects of science that are as relevant as the data collection itself, including accessing all data on university servers and in lab notebooks, running computer programs, and writing manuscripts for publication. Accessing data online was especially necessary for those who left the city to quarantine with family or friends in other towns of the United States or other countries. For students who had not yet collected enough data as well as rotation students, in addition to reading assignments, we tasked them to help others analyze data.
For the basic scientist, the bench is the foundation of our work. Pausing experiments for an indeterminate period of time, especially for projects that have been ongoing for months to years, is also a moratorium on one’s purpose. And no one was prepared for life in lockdown, given that the last worldwide viral pandemic of a similar magnitude, the 1917-1918 flu, was more than 100 years ago.
Four weeks after our laboratory closed and with no end date in sight, we find ourselves in the epicenter of this pandemic in the United States. Finding the balance between scholarly productivity and remaining sane while physically distancing in our homes is a daily, sometimes hourly, endeavor for most lab members. It is not surprising that the ability to concentrate on being scientifically productive is challenging given the constant news on COVID-19, the hundreds to thousands of people who are sick and dying on a daily basis in this city and elsewhere, the constant ambulance sirens, and the young children at home. Additionally, with working at home and no requirement to be in the lab, no work schedule accountability, and no bench experiments to conduct, it can be hard to find the motivation to do anything other than sleep and eat, and maybe exercise. Laboratory members want to be productive, but day-to-day activities under the cloud of COVID-19 can be overwhelming.
This conflict between being productive in our scientific endeavors and surviving a global pandemic can lead to guilt and fear. Some laboratory members feel aware of their tremendous encumbrance not only when their colleagues or classmates manage to submit a scientific paper for publication during the pandemic but also when scrolling down their Twitter feed to read about the great things Shakespeare and Newton accomplished during their respective pandemics. We feel it is expected that one will accomplish less of your normal work during a pandemic. But that does not mean we are idly standing by.
As scientists, we are receiving inquiries from friends and family, asking if reported new discoveries are real or fake. Not being experts in virology, but being trained in scientific thinking, we can at least give partially well-informed answers, but this can also feel burdensome. Finding a balance of normal work and informing those around us and the public is being productive.
Our ability to respond with meaningful participation in the local and worldwide efforts is also being productive.
Connecting virtually through the many available video conference platforms is also productive because it allows us to engage as we work from home, albeit requiring us to navigate a world of new social norms. How can we speak without interrupting? Is it rude to turn your video off so you can eat your lunch, run to the bathroom, have your child sit on your lap, or kiss a loved one goodbye? Is there an expected dress code? Additionally, the increasing intersection between professional and personal boundaries does not necessarily translate to an equally increasing desire to connect virtually, introducing another aspect of defining balance between work and home life.
One prevailing aspect that has been instrumental in retaining a sense of self and normalcy is redirecting our skills and resources to the pandemic; this is also productive. When local New York City hospitals put out an urgent call for supplies, members of our lab collected our disposable gloves, masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment to donate to the cause. Our graduate student César Vargas, who co-chairs the Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative (RiSI), with many other students in the organization, helped organize efforts to ensure that contracted custodial staff would continue to receive pay during the university shutdown. Our Vertebrate Genome Lab, in collaboration with the international Vertebrate Genomes Project, is now being redirected to produce and compare high-quality genome assemblies of species that are vulnerable versus resistant to COVID-19, including those that harbor and transmit the virus to humans. Our hope is that this research will allow scientists to engineer drugs for resistance to the virus and to identify humans who may have natural resistance. Our ability to respond with meaningful participation in the local and worldwide efforts is also being productive.
It is likely that future funding for our non-COVID-19 research will be a continuing challenge. Pre-COVID-19, our current national administration has continuously shown its lack of support for science. Post-COVID-19, the global economic landscape will be vastly different, with a focus on overall economic recovery to avoid a worldwide economic depression. We argue that supporting science, both COVID and non-COVID research, will be a key factor necessary for that recovery.
Even though we know that this global pandemic will be over one day, our work culture and climate has undergone a profound paradigm shift that will continue to metamorphose. Living in the age of COVID-19 has already changed the scientific, medical, and cultural landscapes. The city landscape itself is changing. The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has docked in Manhattan, and the East Meadow in Central Park has been transformed into to an emergency field hospital. Every evening at 19:00, the city, like others around the world, comes alive for a minute to clap hands, bang pots, and shout to emotionally support the health care soldiers on the front line; we also like to think they are thanking the scientist soldiers working to find the causes and cures of COVID-19 for all humans. We are making plans for reopening the lab, to be ready to spring forward, but in the back of our minds, we also worry about when that day comes: will everyone we know be alive, will we, the authors of this article, be alive? We look forward to the day when another tweet will be sent: “The first time I am opening my lab after COVID-19. The pandemic affected us all in many ways. We became part of the solution and helped beat it.”
Sadye Paez is a biomechanist and physiotherapist who leads science communication, outreach, and fundraising efforts as a senior research associate in the Neurogenetics of Language Laboratory at the Rockefeller University and as the program director for the Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP). Follow her on Twitter @sadyepaez and @genomeark. Erich Jarvis is a professor and the head of the Neurogenetics of Language Laboratory, chair of the VGP, and investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Jarvis, who serves on The Scientist’s editorial advisory board, has been previously profiled in the magazine. Follow him on Twitter @erichjarvis. The authors thank Constantina Theofanopoulou, Samara Brown, and Lauren Shalmiyev for useful feedback on this opinion piece.