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The Student Scientists Behind the (Future) Coronavirus Cure

Scientist Working in The Laboratory

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone differently, even within the relatively narrow profession of basic science research. Some scientists must work from home in isolation, while a small subset continues to carefully pursue research at the bench. The world is desperate for news of scientific breakthroughs, but often the media simply focus on the final conclusions of researchers’ labors rather than the incremental slog that brought them there. So, rather than focus on the (not to be understated, amazing, life-saving) discoveries that have emerged during the pandemic, I would like to turn the camera around and draw attention to the scientists who persist in their pursuits despite finding themselves in a strange new work environment.

For some fortunate student scientists, like me, research can continue almost entirely uninterrupted, since much of our work is computational. For me, this means turning my kitchen table into a workstation, keeping a cup of tea by my keyboard and attending lab meetings in pajama pants.

A Day in the Life of the New Normal

For other students, such as Kurt Weir, isolation has hindered or nearly completely stalled research progress. Weir works in the lab of Seth Blackshaw and is one of the few lab members considered essential personnel, though he is not allowed to perform any research on campus. “Our lab is at the awkward interface of bench work and computation. Obviously, no one is getting experiments done right now, but essential personnel still have to come in to take care of things”, Weir says. His to-do list includes helping to maintain the lab’s mouse colonies, receive packages and, on one nerve-racking Saturday, save irreplaceable lab samples when a lab freezer failed.

Since Kurt spends most of his work hours at home, Weir “can get computational work done, but many lab members are largely spending time reading papers and keeping up with [scientific literature]. Dr. Blackshaw and others are spending more time on Twitter, and the talkative people discuss developments on [instant messaging tools] rather than in-person.”

A few scientists are still mixing chemicals at the bench, such as Jack Goodman, whose research has shifted to fully commit to fighting COVID-19. Goodman is a student in Anthony Leung’s lab, and is “developing a high-throughput screen to identify compounds that can inhibit the infectiousness of all alphaviruses and coronaviruses,” Goodman explains.

The campus is different from pre-pandemic times. “Everything is very quiet,” says Weir. But he only spends a few hours each day in the lab, so he says it doesn’t feel terribly abnormal: “I have to remember to bring my mask, but it’s basically like coming in on the weekend.”

Goodman, who is still conducting research on campus full-time, notices the quiet much more acutely. “It is very lonely during the state lockdown. I miss casually chatting with my lab mates,” he says. “[Interactions with co-workers have] decreased because I just don’t see them every day. Even though we have a coffee hour once a week” — a new social hour created to restore some of the nonscience water cooler talk that organically occurs while working in the lab — “I often forget or have to miss it because of the experiments I’m running. Or even if I do make it, I have to leave partway through because one of my incubations is up.” The Leung lab normally has over a dozen people moving among the rooms, but now only two people are performing bench work and must maintain social distancing guidelines as they do. Goodman explains, “My work has a lot of downtime waiting for reactions to occur, and I’m the only one in my side of the lab. Even when I leave the lab to use other equipment, the lights are often off in the hallway. No one is walking through the halls so the [light] timers go off, and it just seems sad and lonely.”

Hope for a Coronavirus Drug

Despite the dismal shift in research atmosphere, Goodman is enthused about the prospect of being a part of the global team of researchers working to combat coronaviruses. “It makes it a lot easier to get up each morning, get in lab and spend the whole day-and sometimes a lot of the night-doing lab work,” he notes. Goodman is applying to medical schools and hopes to pursue translational research in the future.

Even though scientists like Goodman are the ones at the bench, continued discovery during the pandemic requires a network of support, especially from lab members. Those working from home have contributed to his research, according to their areas of expertise, by providing suggestions for experiments or writing code to analyze his experimental results. Goodman highlights all the support from his P.I. “What Jack is doing is very important for our future, so I follow up much closer than usual,” Leung says. For example, ordering “needs more time and planning to make sure [lab members] have the resources,” since lab supplies are often back-ordered and delivery lines have been interrupted. “Anthony has been great at breaking down the typical bureaucratic barriers and logistics that would normally eat up a lot of time,” Goodman says. In addition to cutting through red tape, Leung helps keep Goodman focused and up-to-date on discoveries.

Coming Back to the Lab: Safety First

As Goodman and other researchers continue to race toward a potential therapeutic drug against coronaviruses, Johns Hopkins is looking ahead and developing rules for lab reentry. Research under these stipulations will look different than before the shutdown and will provide a few speed bumps as labs ramp back up. Among other measures, lab members will still need to follow social distancing guidelines, and their work hours will be reduced to accommodate separate cohorts of researchers.

Leung’s perspective on this shift is bittersweet, and he sees it affecting Goodman’s research in three areas: resources, environment and safety. Reopening “adds a difficulty, because there will be competing resources. His ability to work will suddenly be cut in half because of the shift hours,” and other labs will again be ordering supplies, exacerbating the backlog until companies are fully operational again. Even as he wants Goodman’s research to progress as quickly as possible, Leung realizes that in these strange times, it comes at the expense of others’ work. “Everyone needs to go back. Everyone wants their research to move on. So I try my best to find all the necessary [personal protective] equipment. That’s the best I can do,” Goodman says.

COVID-19 and Misinformation

As COVID-19, a word that was entirely novel only a few months ago, becomes a staple in everyday conversation, misinformation about the virus, the disease and research abounds. “At times it is extremely frustrating,” Goodman says, commenting on COVID-19 conversations he’s had with laypeople in his life. “Some of them are picking from the right sources, but it is unbelievable the amount of false information out there and the ridiculous conspiracy theories people come up with.

“One thing that really irritates me is the false information that comes across as a helpful hint from ‘a friend of a friend’s doctor’ about some tips that even at first glance are ludicrous to someone with a strong scientific background. It gives people a false sense of security.” Efforts to combat misinformation are sometimes fruitless, Goodman says: “I’ve done my best to correct [misinformation] at first, but trying to establish myself as an authority relative to them on the subject does not improve the situation. People have been fighting facts with feelings, and once it gets to that point, it is almost impossible to change their mind.”

Communications Tools for Teleresearch

Figuring out new ways to communicate and socialize effectively is not limited to the lay public — scientists too are trying to find a new normal for interacting. From a logistical perspective, basic administration has had to take on new shapes. “I think nowadays in terms of lab management, it needs to be more intentional, and it’s less organic,” says Leung. “Previously, if we’re all in the lab, we bump into each other. Now it’s as if I’m chasing people. The feeling is very different.” Fortunately, the moderately large Leung lab already had some systems in place to keep everyone connected. “The advantage of our lab … is that we have online messaging tools,” he says. “These tools make the messaging much more informal.” In contrast to a crowded email inbox, which Leung believes is overly stiff for keeping up-to-date on all of the lab’s moving parts, these tools provide a flexible, organized chat network accessible only to lab members. The Leung lab’s instant messaging tool has channels for everything — literature, lab administration, socialization, career development, mentoring, technology and innumerable project-specific teams, to name a few.

Online chat alone is insufficient to keep the Leung lab in communication, so it relies heavily on video chatting. But even hours each week of journal clubs, lab meetings and social hours via video chat are not enough to fully bridge the socialization gap during this period of isolation.

Leung says that, despite being in physical proximity to his family members for much of the day, working from home during the pandemic has counterintuitively decreased the time he spends with them. “It is nice to see my family at lunch break and as soon as I am done for the day,” he says. “The downside is that I tend to work longer hours at home,” oftentimes sitting in front of his computer for back-to-back video calls from 9 a.m. (after his two hours of scheduled writing time) until well after 5 p.m., his previous typical end-time at the lab.

A Paradigm Shift: After the Pandemic

One question that scientists keep asking is, “What pandemic-era changes will persist even after COVID-19 passes?” Leung believes that, most of all, this pandemic “will change forever how we remote-work.” Although he says “the interaction in-person is quite important as a lab researcher,” the pandemic “opened up more possibilities that I will work remotely.” Timing was key. “The tools [for communication] were important,” Leung says. “If we didn’t have instant messaging like we do now, I don’t think we could achieve what we have.”

Even though much of his lab is stuck at home, Leung focuses on the positives. “This year, I see our lab computation skills go up,” he says, as lab members take the time to thoroughly analyze their backlog of experimental data at home. Others in the lab have dedicated unprecedented time to catching up on their scientific reading or drafting future papers.

Hopefully, after the pandemic there will be a lasting impact of research, such as Goodman’s, on drug discovery. “The good thing is that what we are developing I know is not necessarily for this [pandemic] immediately,” Leung says. His lab has been working toward a global anti-coronavirus therapeutic drug since 2015, years before COVID-19. “We want to find something that will work by itself or as a combination drug. So, just as it took [for] HIV 10 years before they developed a good treatment plan, maybe here you also need multiple years. The target we work on is not only this [SARS-CoV-2] virus. Every seven to 10 years, there will be another one,” he says, referring to the SARS outbreak in 2002, MERS in 2012 and predictions of future animal-to-human coronavirus transmission. “We need to be ready now.”

The Leung lab is collaborating with multiple groups on campus as they work toward a coronavirus treatment, and many other teams at Johns Hopkins are pursuing other avenues of promising therapeutics. With so many amazing minds focusing on the same problem at Johns Hopkins and around the world, the question is not if a coronavirus drug will be developed, but when.

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2 thoughts on “The Student Scientists Behind the (Future) Coronavirus Cure”

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