Research during the pandemic

Scientific research has not been left unscathed by COVID-19. Three people describe everyday life in their labs during the lockdown, and the lessons to be learned for the future.
Like many universities and research institutes, the institutions of the ETH Domain have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the case with this laboratory at EPFL which was closed for several weeks in spring. (© EPFL)

“My laboratory had to stop all its experiments because they were not related to COVID-19,” says Athina Anastasaki, a professor in the Department of Materials at ETH Zurich. On 17 March 2020 her group of seven scientists saw their work brought to a sudden halt by the lockdown.

A new regime was brought in that allowed just one person into the lab each week, for a maximum of an hour, to check that the equipment was functioning properly. Of particular concern was a gel permeation chromatography instrument which the chemists use to analyse the new polymers they develop. “It was crucial to look after the machine and avoid any damage,” explains Athina Anastasaki, “because replacing it would be very expensive and involve months of work.”

The ETH Zurich chemist had anticipated the lockdown by installing a programme to control the machine remotely. Her team can thus ensure a steady flow of solvent, which stops the tubes drying out and causing damage to the machine. They had to improvise quickly. Today, the new set-up is not simply used for carrying out maintenance at a distance, but also allows the scientists to access the data collected in the lab from their own homes. This is a clear advantage at a time when the universities are again having to reduce the number of people on campus owing to the second wave of COVID-19 in autumn 2020.

«We've learned to appreciate access to the labs»      Athina Anastasaki, Professor at ETH Zurich

Remote experiments

At the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), Oliver Bunk was better equipped for the lockdown: several of his experiments make use of robotic arms which enable work to be performed remotely – especially the capture of biomolecule images using X-ray crystallography. The radiation produced during this process can be dangerous to health, and strict safety protocols govern the preparation of samples for experiments. Robotic devices were therefore installed so that samples could be manipulated from another room.

“About a third of our experiments were controlled remotely before the pandemic,” explains the physicist. “We quickly increased this to 100% in spring 2020 and have kept it at a very high level ever since.” Manipulating the samples remotely is not only safer, but also enables work to be carried out faster by eliminating the safety procedures required when entering and leaving the experiment zone, as Oliver Bunk went on to explain. It also makes it possible to increase the number of experiments carried out, thus allowing the research infrastructure to be shared more efficiently. Another advantage is that people no longer have to go to PSI in person. Scientists at the University of Frankfurt, for example, are using these tools to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19.

However, conducting experiments remotely isn’t the whole answer, as Oliver Bunk emphasises: “Research is nurtured by interactions. Coffee breaks are vital because they enable people from different groups to mingle and come up with the slightly crazy ideas that can sometimes lead to major projects. It's hard to recreate this kind of creativity during video conferences.” Another worry which could cause problems in the medium term is the big slowdown in training young people to use all this equipment.

Careers under pressure

Scientific productivity has also suffered during the lockdown. “I’ve devoted a lot of time to preparing my online courses,” says Athina Anastasaki. “All the material has to be available in advance, which detracts from the spontaneity of teaching.” The situation is putting even more pressure on people's careers, with fewer publications and fewer guest presentations at conferences – many of which have been cancelled. “These gaps on CVs will have an impact later,” explains the chemist. “It’s true that most universities have had the same problem, but some have continued without interruption, such as in Australia and Asia.”

A tricky question arose when lab access was permitted once again at the start of June 2020: who should be given priority? “It took me a week to work out a system that was more or less fair,” replies Athina Anastasaki. “I gave priority to the group members who were soon going to have to defend their research projects and needed results, as well as to those working on high-profile and competitive cutting-edge research who were at risk of being overtaken by a rival group.” The chemist also gave lab access to students who had just arrived from abroad and not had time to make a circle of friends, to help prevent them becoming too isolated.

EPFL generally authorised only two types of work during the lockdown, explains Eric Du Pasquier, who is Safety, Prevention and Health Delegate at the Federal Institute in Lausanne. The first was research into COVID-19, and the second was major projects whose interruption would have led to months or even years of work being wasted – such as those involving the regular collection of data on living organisms which evolve over the years. Access to the animal facilities was of course ensured in order to prevent any problems.

The attendance rate at EPFL stayed at a maximum of 50%, even during the summer. Meanwhile, the technological platforms (microscopy, genetic sequencing, etc.) used by all the scientists were brought back into full-time use during the summer. From now on, each person responsible for a research group has to draw up an occupancy plan for the premises, explains Eric Du Pasquier. The lists of individuals who have been in the laboratories are retained for 14 days so that contacts can be traced in the event of infection.

«The crisis has greatly accelerated the switch to remote experiments. Users have come round to it, and now they value the opportunity»      Oliver Bunk, researcher at PSI

The lessons of SARS-CoV-2

“It's true that the emergency reorganisation of the campus during the lockdown this spring was a difficult and tiring time, but I also felt energised,” confides Eric Du Pasquier. “In a crisis, the main thing is to get through it. Managers and leaders need to be given back control and the freedom to make decisions, as well as being empowered to take responsibility and manage the situation.”

Oliver Bunk sees a positive side to the crisis: “It has greatly accelerated the switch to remote experiments. Users were sometimes a bit sceptical. They've come round to it, and now they value the opportunity.” Athina Anastasaki has also drawn some lessons from the lockdown: “We've learned to appreciate access to the labs. We are now preparing our experiments very carefully so we can make best use of the time available. I’ve also got much closer to the people in my group. In normal times, a PhD student doesn't necessarily open up to their supervisor, but during the pandemic I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my team and supporting them as well as I could.” Have these new responsibilities for the physical and mental health of her group made her feel stressed? “Not really,” she replies. “Getting stressed doesn't help you find solutions and just uses up even more of your energy. And anyway, if I were someone who got stressed easily I probably wouldn't have continued in research!”