University Panel Overview: A Discussion on Post COVID-19 Shutdown Procedures for Safely Returning to the Lab

On Wednesday, July 15th, protocols.io hosted a virtual panel on Post COVID-19 Shutdown Procedures for Safely Returning to the Lab featuring panelists from different universities to facilitate a discussion around what reopening labs after the coronavirus shutdown looks like.

The goal of this webinar was to have an open discussion centered around safety guidelines, lab re-entry plans, laboratory procedures, and utilizing tools to coordinate and structure the lab environment moving forward.

We were joined by Joanne Kamens, Ph.D., Executive Director at Addgene, to moderate this panel discussion.

The panelists who took part in this discussion included:

Mansi Srivastava, Ph.D. | Associate Professor | Harvard University

Ryan D. Leib, Ph.D. | Director of Proteomics | Stanford University

Theresa Jones | Doctoral Student | University of Tennessee

Alice Soragni, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor | UCLA

The discussion kicks off with introductions from each panelist, while touching on the current operations of each lab.

Mansi begins with revealing that since the majority of their work is done in the lab, the return has been taken very seriously. Her lab is currently operating at low density and following a schedule of two weeks in the lab, two weeks off.

Theresa then joins the conversation to discuss how her shared lab space is taking precautions through social distancing and remote work. She reveals that those who need to be in the lab will go in, get their work done, and then leave. Her lab has an understanding that the less contact the better.

Ryan goes on to discuss that he works with around 150 laboratories on campus each year, so once the shutdown began they had to quickly assess how they were going to maintain that collaborative activity in the midst of this pandemic. He goes on to say they’ve been utilizing tools such as Zoom, coming up with procedures to have people safely deliver samples to the laboratory, and ways to have people be able to receive their data digitally. As for the operational side, Stanford is currently at a Stage 2 recovery, and they are working on a shifted schedule to ensure that there is no overlap.

Alice proceeds to mention that her wet lab closed down early in March, even before UCLA had closed down. They had returned to the lab in June at a reduced capacity, accommodating about six people at a time. Alice then notes the unique challenges regarding wet lab safety measures when it comes to training, and that it’s interesting to be having this conversation now while cases in Los Angeles are spiking and things are rapidly changing.

Joanne then presents the question — what types of physical accommodations are you making and how are you going about training?

Ryan begins by stating that Stanford put out a research recovery handbook involving a training component, as well as a daily health check component. The website details potential exposure risk, and they need to be approved in order to come to campus. This provides a system for contacting tracing and making sure others feel comfortable coming into the lab.

Alice mentions that because they rely on their benchwork, it’s been a challenge at times when it comes to training. Her lab has also come up with solutions such as utilizing a repository of protocols, and video collections of procedures that people can go back and look at. For real time communication, she also mentions their use of Slack.

Joanne also notes that the use of video protocols available to us now through technology is a great form of communication.

Next, Theresa discusses how her department would send out updates throughout each phase, outline each phase and what that means. Her department also sent out surveys requesting feedback, comments, and suggestions on what can be improved on by the department and the University.

Following that, Mansi states that it’s been nice to receive a consistent message from University leadership that health and safety come first. “Every lab space and every type of researcher is going to work under slightly different circumstances.” Mansi also mentions that a graph was shared that plots the distance between people and time of interaction. This then indicates what is a safe area and an unsafe area. Her lab then took the University guidelines, and came up with a document that holds their protocols for safe re-entry. In addition to maintaining distance and having masks, they implemented cleaning protocols of shared equipment, and take into account separation in time before the next person can come into the lab. You can find these protocols mentioned here.

The next question Joanne focuses on is the management aspect. From a management perspective, what tips and tricks have you implemented, and how have you approached the emotional component of the lab?

Ryan answers this question by stating they have a weekly group meeting, and they keep morale up by having lunches together. They also set up a system of weekly webinars to discuss lab procedures or sample preparation. This has allowed them to reach out to their community to discuss topics they’ve been meaning to discussing for a long time.

Joanne, then took an audience question to present to the panel. “Some people are at higher risk or have higher risk family members — do they have the option of working from home? And how do we proceed when kids go back to school?”

Mansi takes this question, and mentions that using the two weeks on, two weeks off model has been working well for her lab. This opts for a model that allows for regular work days over odd work times.

Joanne proposes a question for Theresa, how are you preparing yourself to train others and do you have the tools that you need?

Theresa goes on to say that she is TA’ing, and labs are capped at 20 students. She’s had a virtual teaching camp that taught her how to set up a lecture on Zoom, and how to go about grading and assessments. She also states that other workshops have touched on classroom culture and microaggression cultural awareness, something Theresa has been focused on since high school. At her University, a self screening is also done, and face shields are provided upon request.

Next, Joanne takes another audience question — are there any suggestions for interacting with clinical research?

Ryan takes this question, and mentions that a lot of his research collaborators have specific protocols for cleaning. They undergo more routine screenings, they are at higher risk, and therefore have extra procedures in place.

Joanne then mentions that it’s interesting to see academic labs evolving towards an SOP culture. She notes trying to find the silver lining of this; more training, more video protocols, more SOP’s.

Following that, is another point brought up by Joanne. Is it too risky at some point? Is there a situation in which you would tell everyone to go home again?

Alice takes this question, and brings up that they are looking at leadership for feedback in terms of what to do. For her, she is also reminding everyone to be extra careful, and that they are aware and monitoring the situation. She mentions that her lab reopened with the thought in mind that they may shut down again, and if the situation does begin to spiral, it’s fair to do so.

Alice notes, “We can be productive in very weird situations. We can get stuff done from home, we can get very productive work done in a very short span of time in the lab, and if we can’t it’s okay. We’re going to make due, and we’re going to eventually get back.”

Mansi, then mentions the silver linings that will come out of this. The way we do research is going to change, some permanently, and some ways for the better. She then goes on to discuss there’s still that heavy emotional toll that a future shutdown can take on trainees. She explains if that does occur, we would have to rely on our public health experts.

This segways into Joanne’s final question — what do we need to change about the training environment? Are you talking with people about changes to the system, the requirements, the deliverables, the process of the graduate and postdoctoral training experience?

Mansi points out the burden to publish a paper is much higher than it used to be, and that there has been a discussion out there that students need to be able to publish more, but smaller papers. At her University, they are having conversations to re envision what a student may be able to accomplish given the limitations that currently exist.

Alice comments that it’s very important for students and PI’s to have new standards of reviewing, and it’s important to consider that things are changing. She goes on to say that we should be mindful of students, and reassure them that we’re going to make sure that they are evaluated fairly.

We want to thank our moderator, Joanne, and all of the panelists for joining us to take part in this discussion. You can watch the full webinar here.

If you have procedures for re-entering the lab post COVID-19 shutdown that you would like to share with the community, our editorial team is ready to help format and import them to protocols.io for you. To submit your procedure for importing, please go to www.protocols.io/we-enter-protocols and use the code REENTRY.

Referenced Links:

Re-Entering Labs Post COVID-19 Shutdown

https://www.protocols.io/groups/reentering-labs-post-covid19-shutdown

Addgene Covid-19, Back To Work Training

https://www.protocols.io/view/addgene-covid-19-back-to-work-training-bhukj6uw

Soragni Lab

http://alice.mbi.ucla.edu/

Srivastava Lab

http://www.srivastavalab.org/

UTK Microbiology

https://micro.utk.edu/

Stanford University Mass Spectrometry

https://mass-spec.stanford.edu/

Addgene

https://www.addgene.org/

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