With on-campus lab work halted, researchers forge ahead

With on-campus lab work halted, researchers forge ahead

Experimental research groups in Arts & Sciences share how they have adapted to the shift to remote operations.

Across the university, labs that normally serve as vibrant hubs for knowledge-making lie dormant, the silence broken only by the whir of equipment needed to maintain essential samples. Researchers find themselves confined to their homes, unable to continue experiments on campus or even to meet in-person with their lab groups.

Haswell zoom lab meeting
Haswell's lab group meets online several times a week to check in, share scientific updates, and discuss ideas.

The shutdown of on-campus research has derailed the plans of many lab groups. Meredith Jackrel, an assistant professor of chemistry, does very little computational work and has no way to run experiments from home. This presents a huge obstacle to her group because “the graduate students in my lab are in the early stages of their thesis research where they need to be doing experiments in the lab to make progress.”

Likewise, Erik Henriksen, an assistant professor of physics, and his team were forced to halt their experiments mid-stream. “So much of what we do involves making devices and then measuring them,” Henriksen said. “As experimentalists this [shutdown] is the worst thing we can face.”

Such a major disruption will carry long-term consequences for research groups across the university. But in the past month, scientists in Arts & Sciences have begun paving a path forward, determined to make the most of a difficult situation.

Those who have been forced to put projects on hold are finding other ways to gain knowledge in their field. Jesse Balgley, a graduate student in Henriksen’s lab, took home electronic components in order to build basic circuits and study their properties. In doing so, he is building a stronger understanding of the fundamentals underlying the electronic measurements that he makes on lab experiments.

Yashika Kapoor, another graduate student in Henriksen’s group, is using the time to explore MATLAB, a programming language widely used by physicists, and analyze previously collected data in a new way.

Many researchers are strengthening their theoretical knowledge by reading recently published papers and learning about topics that they would not have time to explore otherwise. Chandrashekhar Gaikwad, a physics graduate student in the lab of Kater Murch, dove into the literature on random walks and gravity. Although these topics are not directly related to the lab’s quantum mechanics work, Gaikwad hopes that “opening my brain to some new ideas” will spur his creativity when he returns to campus.

“We can design for new experiments. We can read some papers for that. But for us there's a point where the rubber has to meet the road, and there's no road.”

Other experimenters have devised ways to collect data remotely. Murch, an associate professor of physics, and some of his lab members already controlled their quantum mechanics experiments with computers, so in early March they rewired their equipment for remote access.

“I've found that the work itself has not changed very much for me,” said Jonathan Monroe, a graduate student in Murch’s lab. “As opposed to being in the lab, I can probably still do 90% of what I need to do in terms of data collection. By and large I have most of what I need.”

Beyond the lack of access to the lab, researching from home presents a host of difficulties. Members of several lab groups mentioned the distractions inherent in working from home and the dissolving line between professional and personal life. 

Slack chat
Many groups use Slack to share information and chat.

Murch recalled a recent Saturday when he found himself running an experiment instead of spending time with his family. “I'm drinking a beer and coding and I get this incredible result that matches the theory amazingly. And I ran this crazy circle around the house, posted this really ecstatic Slack message to the group. It was this moment of intense joy of seeing scientific progress from my kitchen. But also, I was supposed to be hanging out with my family, and instead I was running the experiment. It’s a double-edged sword.”

For many professors, balancing family and work has proved the biggest challenge. In recent weeks, they have suddenly had to adapt to teaching and running their labs online while taking care of children. Henriksen describes himself as “running a daycare now,” while Elizabeth Haswell, a professor of biology, is homeschooling her 10-year-old daughter on top of all her other responsibilities.

Haswell spends two days per week on campus maintaining essential plant tissue cultures, but other than that she works from home, finding creative ways for her group to make progress without continuing lab experiments.

“Most of us are in a good spot to do some reading and writing, and everyone is making great progress on a paper, a thesis, or on computational aspects of their own projects,” she said. “In a way, it’s been useful to remove the possibility of doing ‘just one more experiment’ before sitting down to read and write.”

To stay connected as a group, many labs have established a schedule of frequent lab meetings via Zoom. Haswell’s lab holds a work meeting each Monday, a social hangout each Wednesday, and a journal club each Friday where they discuss a recent paper relevant to their research. Murch’s entire group also meets three times per week, with subsets meeting more frequently to discuss their collaborations.

Before the pandemic, Haswell and Murch already used Slack, an online message board for organizations, to coordinate their groups. Now this platform has proved an invaluable tool to maintain community and help keep each other motivated during a potentially isolating time.

Henriksen Zoom lab meeting
Henriksen's lab uses Zoom meetings to plan experiments and discuss papers while they can't work in on-campus facilities.

After the cancellation of scientific conferences around the world, the international research community is exploring creative ways to share knowledge at a distance. Haswell plans to lead an upcoming virtual seminar hosted by the American Society of Plant Biologists. Sophia Hayes, a professor of chemistry, has attended webinars led by the American Chemical Society and the International Society of Magnetic Resonance. And in physics, quantum thermodynamic researchers at Trinity College Dublin are live-streaming a series of “Quarantine Thermo” seminars on YouTube.

WashU’s Center for Quantum Sensors will soon host a virtual workshop with international attendees. According to Henriksen, planning was already underway in February, before anyone knew how important virtual gatherings would be. In the past month, collaborators at the center have accelerated the planning process, and they now hope to hold the workshop in June.

For Henriksen, the current situation provides the opportunity to write papers based on previously unpublished data, but he worries about what might happen if his team cannot run experiments for an extended time. “I feel like we have enough to get along for a bit, but having planned for a really active summer it's going to be hard if we're not really in the lab,” he said. “We can design for new experiments. We can read some papers for that. But for us there's a point where the rubber has to meet the road, and there's no road.”

Haswell, too, hopes to return to the lab as soon as possible. “Of course, there are experiments that we wish we could be doing, and some that we really need to be doing,” she said. In the meantime, she is trying to stay optimistic and learn as much as possible.

“It’s my hope that we’ll hit the ground running when we finally get back to campus — and that everyone’s chance to breathe and read and think will end up paying off with better-designed experiments that are even more grounded in the literature.”