Challenge Upon Challenge

Starting a lab is hard enough. Now do it in a pandemic.

Two people in masks smile beside a hooded lab enclosure
Fresh off their COVID-19 vaccinations and a cross-country move, Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv, right, and partner Alon Oyler-Yaniv celebrated the first immune cell purifications—fundamental procedures for conducting their research—in their joint lab at HMS in June 2021. Image: Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv

 

This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of medicine, biomedical research, medical education, and policy related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the disease COVID-19.

Ruth Franklin could hardly believe her luck. After three years working in a developmental biology lab in college, two years as a research technician, six years earning a PhD in immunology, and another six years training as a postdoctoral fellow, she was finally starting her own lab—and at Harvard Medical School, no less.

As a newly fledged principal investigator, or PI, Franklin couldn’t wait to take the wheel and steer her own research endeavors, move into a space optimized for her particular work, hire a team, and get to know her world-class colleagues.

There was just one catch: It was July 2020, and COVID-19 had slammed the brakes on science careers the world over.

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Construction on the HMS campus had ramped down that spring as part of university and statewide efforts to protect community health, so Franklin’s space couldn’t be set up before she arrived from Connecticut.

A fellow faculty member gladly gave her a bench in his lab, but the tight quarters meant Franklin could order little of the equipment she needed and hire only one person to help get her research started. Pandemic-driven occupancy limits required the pair to work in alternating shifts, further slowing progress. As the months wore on, supply chain shortages loomed.

Everyone knew the situation couldn’t be helped. No one wanted to risk their own or others’ safety or flout guidelines. Still, Franklin, assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, couldn’t shake a sense of anticlimax.

“You’ve been given this role and responsibility as leader of a lab. You’re ready, you’re excited to get started, and you can’t,” she recalled. “It was very hard.”

It would be nearly a year before relaxed restrictions allowed HMS staff and contractors to complete Franklin’s lab. The joy that followed felt all the stronger for its delay.

“It was amazing. I was so happy to see the lab operational and get equipment set up and start doing experiments,” said Franklin. “My group, one other junior faculty member, and a more senior faculty member all moved in together, and it felt like immediate lab family. And then I was able to have students start.”

Five people in masks smile at the camera in front of a lab bench
​​​​​​Ruth Franklin, far right, couldn’t set up her lab or recruit trainees during her first 10 months at HMS because of pandemic-related obstacles. She is thrilled to now host two graduate students, a postdoctoral fellow, and an undergraduate student in addition to a lab technician, with a second fellow arriving soon. Image: Franklin lab

Launching a lab is no easy feat in an ordinary year. For the half-dozen junior faculty members who’ve started their groups in the School’s preclinical science departments since SARS-CoV-2 emerged, the pandemic has made becoming a PI “an even weirder transition,” as Franklin put it.

The specific challenges have evolved along with each new phase of the pandemic—and so have community members’ solutions. One thing that has remained constant, however, is people’s determination to make the best of a tough situation. No matter the setbacks, Franklin and those in similar positions have maintained an upbeat attitude, pulled together as a team, and soldiered through.

You won’t hear many complaints from the School’s newest PIs on campus. When they talk about what it’s been like to weather these strangest of times, one word comes up again and again: lucky. Lucky that they’ve made it this far; lucky that things haven’t been worse; lucky to be doing science at HMS.

Ghost town

The image that lingers in Lucas Farnung’s mind is of walking onto the Quad in March 2021 during his first days as an assistant professor of cell biology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS. “It was completely empty and very quiet,” he said.

The campus population had plummeted a year earlier as most faculty, staff, trainees, and students transitioned to remote work within a matter of days. Although many had gradually been able to return, continuing concerns about safety and lack of widespread COVID-19 vaccine availability left indoor and outdoor spaces subdued.

“Everybody was very disciplined and showed resilience being able to stay in their rooms, distance maintained, masks always on,” said Farnung. He appreciated the community’s dedication to public health protocols. Even so, life as a new PI felt “a little bit sad,” he said.

Metal chairs are tilted into metal tables. No one is visible.
Chairs in the courtyard of the New Research Building stand unused in this May 2020 file photo. Image: Gretchen Ertl

It wasn’t only a matter of personal preference. Dampened campus life made it hard for the newcomers to meet colleagues, navigate the details of getting everything up and running, feel fully integrated into their departments, and recruit HMS graduate students to train in their labs.

“It takes a village to start a lab, and this village was in turmoil,” said Marco Jost, assistant professor of microbiology, who started a month after Farnung. He laughs when recalling his first day on the Quad, quite different from campus welcomes in the pre-pandemic era. He was led to the COVID-19 testing station, handed a self-testing kit, and reminded that he couldn’t return unless and until the results came back negative. He went home to keep working remotely.

Department leaders and individual faculty members reached out to stitch that village back together, whether in person or virtually. “Kind souls” all around campus offered help, as Farnung put it. Colleagues extended invitations to dinner in their backyards. Warmer weather enabled departmental get-togethers outside on the Quad.

Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv, assistant professor of systems biology, also arrived in April with husband and lab partner Alon Oyler-Yaniv, lecturer on systems biology. Although campus didn’t have the vibrant feel they knew existed from their interview process, “People went out of their way to create a feeling of community, even if it wasn’t in the hallways,” she said.

MacGyver

Global supply chain issues have beset the country for months, and HMS researchers have not been spared. Shortages and delays cause headaches as PIs and staff try to set up labs and keep experiments running without interruption.

“The supply chain can pose significant challenges,” said Susanna Zelter, senior campus planner at HMS, who has been involved in the design of lab spaces for several pandemic-era recruitments. “Production went down. Costs went up. Contractor quotes that used to be valid for 30 to 45 days now expire after 10 days. Items that usually have a 10- to 12-week lead time, like a walk-in refrigerator freezer, now take 40 to 50 weeks.”

When a new PI is set to arrive in three months and not everything can be ready in time, “you have to come up with creative solutions,” Zelter said. Project teams look for temporary space, alternate equipment sources, and storage options until the final space is ready.

Colleagues in two different departments offered Jost temporary digs until he could move into his renovated lab at the end of October 2021. When production and shipping bottlenecks delayed his office furniture through December, teammates sought “a desk from here and a table from there” to make sure he had what he needed.

With regular lab supply orders disrupted, community members across the Quad have also been sharing whatever day-to-day materials are on hand, lending pipettes to a neighbor one week and borrowing chemical reagents the next.

“We ask nicely when we’re in need. It helps that I’m junior faculty,” joked Jost, “but also people like to help. There’s a sense of belonging and being in this together. It’s a positive message about humanity.”

Empty boxes are piled up in an office
Lucas Farnung managed to procure much-needed boxes of supplies when he moved into his lab at HMS in March 2021. Image: Lucas Farnung

Amid the frustration, those like Jost find solace in pointing out upsides.

Delays teach lab members to plan further ahead and think more creatively than usual, said Farnung. He takes inspiration from TV’s engineer on the fly, MacGyver.

“With, like, wire and apple juice, he builds to save the day. It feels like that with supply chain issues,” Farnung said. “When you have to wait four weeks for a centrifuge, you ask, how can I achieve the experiment without one?”

Franklin, meanwhile, has learned to appreciate the small things.

“We jumped up and down when we got serological pipettes that had been on back order for months and months,” she said. “I’ve worked in a lab for a very long time, and we were never this excited about plastics arriving.”

Those behind the scenes are proud to share in the problem solving.

“In spite of all these roadblocks,” said Zelter, “I’m amazed at our ability to collaborate and function at a very high level so our researchers can keep doing what they do.”

Time, interrupted

Pandemic-related issues have cost countless scientists precious research time. New PIs are among those most vulnerable to the repercussions.

At the top of the list is funding. Researchers early in their careers can apply for special awards and receive boosts on grant applications at major funding agencies to better compete with senior investigators who’ve been running labs for decades. However, within a handful of years after earning their PhDs, the researchers no longer qualify as “early career”—and heavyweights like the National Institutes of Health haven’t extended those time limits to account for the pandemic.

“I’m definitely behind,” said Franklin. “I couldn’t do any experiments for basically the first year, and early-career grant deadlines don’t allow wiggle room for life events.”

A man in a mask holds a champagne bottle in a lab
Pandemic delays meant Marco Jost had to borrow space in other faculty members’ labs for six months. When his own lab on the HMS Quad was completed in October 2021, Jost uncorked a bottle of champagne. Image: Manasvi Verma/Jost lab

Similar deadlines pertain to PIs seeking tenure. Recognizing the problem, HMS leadership extended the so-called tenure clock so those whose work has been disrupted by the pandemic can catch up before they apply to become full professors.

Staffing new labs presents related challenges. Labor shortages have shrunk applicant pools, and trainees don’t have as much experience as would have been expected before the pandemic. Catch-up training sometimes takes longer than usual. Physical distancing protocols in their tissue culture room, for instance, meant Jost had to teach his lab members one at a time how to work with delicate human samples.

“It was tough, and masks made it harder to communicate,” he said.

With his colleagues’ characteristic fortitude, he then added, “One unintended upside is the masks do help reduce tissue culture contamination.”

The consequences of the pandemic on researchers just starting out or experiencing other “tenuous moments” in their careers “will be felt for a long time,” said Oyler-Yaniv, and they are likely to disproportionately affect women and other groups underrepresented in science, she and Franklin said.

“The ripples will affect generations of scientists,” said Franklin. “The question is what can we do about it, and what will institutions do?”

At work, at home

Outside the lab, new PIs face the same COVID-era challenges as senior scientists and non-scientists—including that work and home life bleed together.

Worries over health, family, politics, career, social life, and other issues sap mental well-being. Those with children have had to juggle childcare and work, further hampering their ability to conduct or even think about research.

“I’ve talked to other faculty about it. All of our higher-level thinking went away when we were home with kids,” said Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv. “When it starts to come back, it’s stark. I haven’t been able to think like this in months.”

Here, too, community members brush off their own difficulties in light of others who’ve had a harder time.

“I have had some challenges during the pandemic, but they are nothing compared to what my colleagues with children have faced,” said Kara McKinley, assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, who opened her HMS lab in January 2021 on Harvard’s Cambridge campus.

Whether they’re responsible for family members or lab members, COVID has tested new PIs’ emotional resilience.

“Trying to stay positive and upbeat for yourself and your family and the people in your lab is difficult,” said Franklin. “Everyone’s been struggling. I’m glad it seems like there’s an end in sight.”

As with many who moved during the pandemic, COVID also complicated the logistics for those relocating to Massachusetts—or the U.S.—to open labs at HMS. Oyler-Yaniv and her husband bought a house in Boston having seen it only virtually from their home in Los Angeles. Franklin and her husband took turns house hunting because pandemic restrictions meant their kids had to stay home in Connecticut.

“It was a crazy experience, trying to find a place to live and then moving,” Franklin said. “I am grateful every day we found something.”

To minimize COVID risk, Jost and his partner waited until after their move from San Francisco to look for apartments. As fate would have it, his housing situation echoed that of his lab: They spent three months in a temporary space and are still waiting for their furniture to be delivered.

There’s a sense of belonging and being in this together.

Marco Jost

HMS assistant professor of microbiology