Research in most university labs moved from bench to internet

empty lab
A School of Medicine lab member packs up items in a lab in the Couch Biomedical Research Building. Research in most of the universities’ labs has been ramped down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Huy Mach/School of Medicine)

When Washington University Vice Chancellor for Research Jennifer K. Lodge first sounded the alarm about the disruptive impact COVID-19 likely would have on labs across the university, the research community heeded her warning, taking steps to shut down lab work and move as much as possible online.

Those in position to do so began pivoting their research to the novel coronavirus that has caused an unprecedented shutdown of public life across the globe. In a very short span of time, the university’s scientific community has responded to the pandemic with extraordinary research collaborations, all the while finding new ways to keep faculty, staff and students connected as they shift work out of the lab and into cyberspace.

“For all of us who are passionate about our research, we know that ramping down and pausing our work is very difficult,” said Lodge, professor of molecular microbiology who also serves as associate dean of research for the School of Medicine. “At the same time, this unusual situation may provide a rare opportunity for researchers to slow down our typically fast pace and think deeply about our science and connect with colleagues in ways we haven’t before.”

Scientific research is a complex endeavor, and figuring out how to slow or stop research that might involve living cells or mice is not a simple task. The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research is constantly updating its coronavirus information website, “Guidance for Researchers on COVID-19,” and recommends that investigators frequently refresh the site to check for updates on the fast-changing advice and resources available to researchers, including updates from funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The office also has held virtual town hall meetings via Zoom to keep researchers up to date.

Sarah K. England, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Medicine, has moved much of her lab online and set up a small, rotating group of people to take care of lab tasks that need to continue, even during a shutdown. England’s lab focuses on studies of the uterus and factors that might lead to preterm birth.

“We immediately made sure everyone has access to their data online, through Box, so that we all can work remotely,” England said. “Fortunately, quite a few people in my lab can focus on writing or new project planning. We still have a skeleton crew going into the lab to check on things we absolutely must check on. We set up an online calendar showing when people are going in so there’s no overlap and we can maintain safe physical distancing. It’s been helpful to have somebody there because we also were able to collect PPE to donate to coronavirus-focused clinical efforts.”

Farshid Guilak, professor of orthopedic surgery, described similar steps taken in his lab. Many labs, including his and England’s, are trying to maintain special colonies of mice. Even though active research may have stopped, it is important to continue caring for these groups of mice with special genetics and other characteristics that make them unique, so that work can ramp up again quickly when researchers are able to return to the lab. As a backup, researchers also have cryopreserved embryos of such specialized mice to ensure their survival.

“Fortunately, at this point, we are able to continue to feed our mice their special diets,” Guilak said. “We study models of obesity and how that might increase the risk of developing arthritis. We’re doing our best to minimize the impact of not having our typical access to the mice.”

This lab in the Couch Biomedical Research Building normally would be bustling with activity but has been quieted due to a research rampdown ordered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Sabrina Wagoner/School of Medicine)

The School of Medicine’s COVID-19 task force orchestrating research into the novel coronavirus is led by Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Professor and head of the Department of Genetics; William G. Powderly, MD, the J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine and director of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS); and Sean Whelan, the Marvin A. Brennecke Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology. A major focus of this work includes creating mouse models of COVID-19 infection and vaccine development.

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