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Infectious disease

Chemists work around coronavirus restrictions

C&EN looks at how scientists are adapting to travel restrictions and working from home

by Laura Howes
March 9, 2020

 

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Credit: Courtesy of Julia Chan
(L-R) Amy Prieto, Julia Chan, and Jamie Neilson caught up in Colorado despite the American Physical Society canceling its spring meeting.

Since the outbreak of a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 started at the end of 2019, countries around the world have been working to contain the spread. As numbers of cases and deaths continue to rise, travel and work is being disrupted, but researchers are also racing to find out as much as they can about the virus and how to treat it. Last week, C&EN asked scientists how they’re continuing their work in the face of these disruptions. Here are a few of their stories.

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Credit: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM
A novel coronavirus, named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has caused an outbreak of respiratory illness across the globe.

In the last few days, several firms such as Eli Lilly & Co., Biogen, and Takeda have asked employees to work from home if they can, but Luis Pedro Coelho’s big data biology lab at Fudan University has been working remotely for over a month now. In late January, he says, everyone left Shanghai for the spring festival break and then nobody came back. The university had closed to try to halt the spread of the virus.

Coelho’s lab almost exclusively works on computational projects, so experiments do not need to stop just because people aren’t in the lab. Instead, the researchers can log in from wherever they’re based, and they can communicate using online tools. But Coelho says it is easy to underestimate how much communication in a lab happens informally face-to-face and those interactions can be difficult to replicate remotely. “We are trying to make a conscious effort to make those things more explicit,” he says. Every morning, as each team member logs on to the lab’s Slack group, they share what the weather is like where they are. And remote group meetings also now include everyone briefly reporting on what they’ve been doing outside of research.

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Despite this, Coelho says he still feels he has less of a “finger on the pulse” of what’s going on than before. And because getting the tone right in online communication is hard, navigating how to give feedback and how to ask for updates can be even trickier than usual. “My worry is that the activation energy of writing an email/setting up a call to ask a few questions may dampen some communication,” he says. “This experience has definitely not made me think that we should be all remote all the time.”

Currently, the group is still submitting abstracts to conferences even if they are not sure that the meetings will happen. But Coelho says that what has really been put on hold has been hiring. ”We were hoping to have people visit and potentially join our lab in the near future; that is all on hold for the moment. If travel restrictions drag into the summer, then this will become a serious problem.”

Coelho says that if he’d known this disruption was coming he would have taken some time to sketch out a few weeks’ worth of work in more detail before the shut down. Other researchers that C&EN has spoken to report differing levels of preparation. At the University of Auckland, Siouxsie Wiles put together a plan for her lab and has asked colleagues to be prepared to stop lab work on short notice. Ben Schulz at the University of Queensland says his lab experiments can be easily stopped and started later, but he now makes sure to always take his laptop and charger with him if he leaves the office in case he can’t get back in due to a university closure.

In late February, Quinyang Chen defended her PhD thesis via video conference from her home in China. Chen had worked with Kimberly Kline at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, researching how the membrane lipid composition of a particular bacterium contributes to the formation of biofilms. But in January, Chen’s student visa expired. She went back to China to make minor revisions to her thesis before her planned defense in March. “But by the end of January it was clear that coming in from China was not going to be possible,” Kline explains. “So we initiated the request to do it remotely.”

According to Kline, the university was very flexible in making the new arrangements. Defending remotely required higher level administrative approvals, “but given the situation, there wasn’t really a choice.” So on Feb 28, the thesis committee, Qingyan’s labmates, and her friends all congregated in a seminar room at the university. The only one missing was Qingyan, who joined the proceedings from her home in China via the video conferencing software Zoom.

The defense consisted of a public seminar and a question and answer session between Chen and the committee. Although the organizers discussed requiring someone to supervise Chen during the defense, Kline says that they decided it wasn’t needed. ”It is pretty easy to judge whether the Q & A is occurring naturally,” she explains. The thesis committee was satisfied, and Chen passed.

A virtual defense does have some downsides. Giving seminars without a live audience is awkward for most people who don’t do it regularly, Kline says. She advises people to practice visualizing an audience inside the computer to get comfortable with this format and the absence of immediate feedback. And obviously, the whole process works only as well as the technology, she says. “Doing some trial runs to make sure that connections and audio are working is critical.”

The coronavirus outbreak has also disrupted the spring conference season this year. When the American Physical Society canceled its spring meeting a day before it was scheduled to start earlier this month, many scheduled attendees quickly self-organized to form mini-sessions via video conference. Others put recordings of their talks or copies of their slides online. But Julia Chan was already in Denver. The University of Texas at Dallas chemist had arrived a day early to catch up with a former colleague in Colorado. After dinner, a short email appeared: The conference, scheduled to start the next morning, was canceled. “The very first thing I did,” she says “was to cancel my hotel reservations.”

Because Chan was already in Colorado, and wasn’t scheduled to fly back home for a few days, she decided to stay and make it work. Her colleague agreed to put her and her husband up for the duration of their stay and Chan started contacting friends at Colorado State University to set up talks and meetings. In total, the local universities were able to host many attendees who had already flown into Denver. Chan met a theorist that she says she wouldn’t have met were it not for the fact they were scheduled to give back to back talks at Colorado State.

Other conferences that are going ahead, such as this year’s PittCon meeting, are having to work around lower attendance and empty exhibitor booths. AstraZeneca chemist Per-Ola Norrby was hoping to speak at the AI React conference in the UK this week, but while the conference is going ahead his travel was canceled by his employer. To compensate, the conference organizers have committed to giving him and other speakers video access to the conference.

The American Chemical Society national meeting, scheduled for March 22–26 in Philadelphia, was canceled March 9. ACS publishes C&EN.

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