Researchers will continue doing whatever work they can from home, like analysis and computation, and save lab time for experiments. Protocols also exist on eating meals and bathroom use.
Each lab developed its own plan for how to meet overarching guidelines, and FAS and SEAS administration then approved them. Details vary by lab. Some have implemented morning and evening shifts to keep density low, and others are rotating the personnel allowed to go into the labs every few weeks.
“The idea is that if any one person shows symptoms or gets sick, only their shift and rotation has to isolate, and not the whole lab,” said Matthew Volpe, a fourth-year graduate student who works in the Balskus Lab in the FAS Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
Among the researchers themselves, the return has many levels of meaning. It’s about getting back into the scientific setting, returning to work they are passionate about, and getting closer to the next steps in their education and career.
“Being displaced from the lab is not a natural thing for experimentalists,” said John Doyle, the Henry B. Silsbee Professor of Physics. “This return is getting back to doing the work that they want to do. It’s what their profession is.”
Doyle’s team, which works with high-precision optics, spent the first few days getting temperature, humidity, and dust levels in the lab to precise levels so their experiments can get clean results. They also spent time tinkering with the lab’s lasers to make sure they were all still working.
“I’ve been missing doing experiments with my hands,” said Dhananjay Bambah-Mukku, a postdoctoral fellow in the Dulac Lab. “I relied on baking to be doing some sort of experiments at home, but I’m very glad to be back in the lab and doing [scientific] experiments, which is really what I love doing.”
Megan He, a graduate student in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology’s Hsu Lab, missed working with her hands, too. There’s only so much that wet lab biologists can do sitting in front of a computer, she said, but admits the time away was useful.
“It really was good to take some time and read some papers and think a little bit more about my projects,” said He, who studies the stem cells that determine skin and hair color. “All this is very important to generating new hypotheses and thinking about what are the most urgent experiments you need to address.”
Other graduate students who are just getting their feet in the research world, like He, described what getting back means toward their degree.
“To progress through my program, I need to go back to the lab to make progress on my project,” said Ally Freedy, a graduate student in Harvard MIT M.D.-Ph.D. Program working in the Liau Lab, where she studies how epigenetics intersects with cancer therapy. “It’s especially important for me to progress through my program because I have two years of medical school left after I finish my Ph.D. [in the chemical biology program at Harvard].”
Volpe, from the Balskus Lab, expressed similar sentiments, including mixed feelings on going back in the middle of a pandemic. But, like many others, he feels safe with the return plans. In fact, when he gets back into the lab in two weeks as part of the second rotation, he’s looking forward to seeing some of his co-workers — from a safe distance.
“It will be nice to see physically see them and not through a Zoom screen,” he said. “It’s funny. As a graduate student, you spend a lot of time complaining about the lab and then when you’re told you can’t go into the lab, it seems like a much nicer place that you want to be in.”
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