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  • Sara Lewis, PhD

Scientist working from home turns house into a laboratory


Coffee, racks of flies in the background, and nerdy t-shirt: all the necessities of science

It’s 8 pm March 30, 2020, and the state governor has just announced shelter in place orders due to COVID-19. My husband and I are raiding the lab in our masks, loading up carts with microscopes and equipment, copies of lab notebooks, and my research animals. We pass others in the halls and in the office trying to figure out what to take and what to leave. There is an air of hopelessness as people who have dedicated their careers to research are discarding months of work and facing the possibilities of furloughs and the loss of their positions.


The next morning, I was at the microscope on my kitchen table, larva-poking paintbrush in one hand, stopwatch in the other. I was rolling larva onto their backs to determine if the larva with a mutation in a gene that we think causes hypotonic cerebral palsy have a harder time coordinating their movements. It turns out they do, and the paper is now under review.

It occurred to me that I’ve spent a lot of my time a scientist figuring out how to make science happen, no matter what: I’ve been building my own apparatuses for behavior experiments, adapting protocols to fit my needs, and conducing a thesis with almost no funding for reagents. I have showed up in another lab with an ice bucket and said ‘trick or treat’ to beg for a small amount of antibody to try an experiment. My scientific hero, Rita Levi-Montalcini set up a lab and conducted studies on nerve growth factor while in hiding during the Holocaust (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita_Levi-Montalcini). If she could conduct Nobel-prize winning work under those conditions, I was determined to keep doing the research I cared so much about, despite the setbacks.

“I got this,” I thought as I researched how high schools use flies in their classrooms under less-than-ideal conditions. I started running 2 humidifiers in my home, and I wake up at dawn to work with the animals since I’m not able to entrain their circadian rhythms while they live in a Styrofoam cooler with a toaster heating element attached to an old-school thermostat.

The next day, with equal parts amusement and alarm, I found I may or may not be on the lam from the USDA. I had to let them know I had taken these regulated organisms out of the normally approved environment. I’m one of the lucky ones. I work with flies, and I knew they would be safe in my house. I heard horror stories of researchers having to decide what animals would need to be euthanized with no opportunity to save the research that was already in progress.

There have been numerous challenges to overcome. Immediately, it was clear there would be major funding setbacks due to disappearing grant funding. Budgets were being cut, funding cycles were delayed or canceled as non-profits lost their donations during economic uncertainty.


LED lamps controlling light and the "jacuzzi" controlling temperature

Scientists rely on conferences for networking, learning about new scientific findings and techniques, and exchanging ideas with their colleagues. Initially, all conferences were canceled, but many have been moved online. I have attended several virtual conferences, webinars, and journal clubs from all over the world that I would have never had the opportunity to attend normally. Scientists have been embarrassing ourselves on zoom for years to meet with our collaborators as we trying to coordinate across different time zones and languages. With COVID, I’ve accidently shared several cat butts and had a conversation with a famous scientist while a bird sat on her head; overall this has been a welcome change.

This fall, I discovered that only 30% of the normal number of academic jobs have posted this year. (https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2020/10/amid-pandemic-us-faculty-job-openings-plummet) This will likely set back my timeline for career advancement, and applications are likely to be even more competitive than usual for years.


Cats complicating science

After the initial success studying larva at home, I started adding in other assays, such as watching adult flies climb in small vials. The most challenging experiments have been studying dystonia. I suspected my genetic model would have uncontrolled movements that are heat sensitive. One day my family found me submerging waterproof containers full of flies into our sous vide machine and being incredibly excited about them spasming and falling over.

Washing assay chambers between use

As Adam Savage of Mythbusters put it “The difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.” Since I’ve been writing a lot, I’m comfortable calling my time working from home ‘science’. My lab and I have submitted and revised several scientific papers and I wrote my first review article. I’m working on a grant right now with another one planned. Additionally, I’m volunteering as a reviewer on other’s grant and paper submissions. I’m also learning to create videos, and think this will be part of effective scientific outreaching, teaching, and communication in our changing world. (https://jrnlclub.org/research-films/neuritogenesis-cerebral-palsy)

It’s been 8 months, and I’m still working from home. We had no idea working from home would last this long, and there is little hope I’ll be back by the end of the year. Cases are on the rise again and wide-spread vaccination is still months away. I have been in the lab a few times to store some samples from these experiments, but I’m waiting for my kid to be back in school and the risk to my household to be minimized before I go back full time. My kid is in highschool and my husband also works from home, so I’m able to keep up with most of my work. Others are not so fortunate, and I fear that women will have a harder time recovering from the pandemic and proceeding with their careers (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02006-z).

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by what I’m missing during this time. It’s a mentally and emotionally challenging time for everyone. I remain hopeful that scientists will weather this storm with the same sort of creativity and determination they’ve employed to drive incredible scientific progress for centuries. I’m focusing on tackling my experiments and writing with my usual dogged dedication and keeping an optimistic outlook. In the meantime, you can find me drinking my coffee at the microscope and trying to discourage the cats from sitting on the fly vials.

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