‘What’s Your Plan?’ In Professor Jill Bargonetti’s Cancer Lab, Reopening Means a Change in Rules and in Culture

Professor Jill Bargonetti (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and the CUNY-wide shutdown, Professor Jill Bargonetti, the chair of the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology subprogram at The Graduate Center, couldn’t shut down her lab completely. As with just about all biology labs, essential personnel — in the case of Bargonetti’s lab, a research associate and herself — had to come in once a week to replenish the liquid nitrogen that was keeping her cells stored and alive for future growth. They also had some new cells growing. “We had made some new CRISPR clones, genetically engineered cancer cells that were growing in the CO2 incubators. This had taken years to get to a certain point,” she says. “We kept them growing until we could stock them.”

Bargonetti studies breast cancer. Her lab is based out of Hunter College, where she is also a professor of biological sciences, and located in the Weill Cornell Medical College. During her weekly trips there, she spent hours preparing her space for her students’ eventual return. She cleaned, organized, stacked. She threw away anything that wasn’t needed. And she redesigned the environment, changing it from a place in which students felt attached to particular areas — able to stake a claim to their very own desk or bench — into a minimalist, collective space that can be easily cleaned and in which social distancing is possible. “I would tell everyone when we met online: You’re not going to recognize your space,” Bargonetti says.

It’s a new world in the Bargonetti Lab, which reopened its doors to students just over a month ago. Among the many new rules: The lab is operating at half capacity, with two cohorts following staggered schedules. If students need to be there an extra day to tend to an experiment, they must first see if someone scheduled to be in can do the task for them — and if that’s not possible, they need to make sure their hours won’t overlap. Everyone must wear a mask, wash their hands the moment they enter, and spray their bench with ethanol upon arrival and departure. High-touch surfaces must be cleaned several times a day. 

Beyond these rules, there are even greater differences in the ways that everyone works, and even in how they think about work. Now students must plan experiments and have their plans approved by Bargonetti in advance. “People don’t go in unless they really have an experiment to do, and that includes me,” she says. “All the thinking’s done at home, all the meetings are done online.” Work like ordering supplies or writing grant applications, which previously might have taken place in the lab, is now carried out remotely.

This has meant a profound difference in lab culture. “It used to be people could go in and kind of hang out, figure it out, and say, I’m going to do this experiment, and have more freedom to make mistakes in the experiment, because that’s part of graduate education,” Bargonetti says. “But now this part of graduate education becomes: What’s your plan? What’s your experiment? What are you going in to do? Why? How are you going to do it? Now show me the data. Let’s look through this data before you make another plan.”

There are drawbacks, of course. “We had a beautiful space where everyone would be together and talk,” Bargonetti says. “They miss that. I can certainly see that.” Students didn’t only like hanging out in the lab; the room where they cultured cancer cells had previously had a clubroom atmosphere, with four or five people occupying the small space at once. Now only one person is allowed in at a time, and all socializing is done though calls and texts and their online lab meetings.

Yet Bargonetti sees significant positives in their new methods. “My students are learning about the scholarship in a very different way. Rather than the busy part of the work, they’re sharing data, they’re talking together about the data analysis,” she says. “I can also see that my ability to know where they are in their research is much more accurate, because everybody’s checking in with me, sharing their data, sharing their screen. Whereas before you had to sit with somebody to look at their computer, and you felt like you were in their personal space, now you’re really seeing their whole screen without being in their space. I like that part.”

While some of her usual fall tasks remain on hold, like training new undergraduates to work in the lab — “How can you train at a six-foot distance?” she says — Bargonetti is moving forward on all of the projects she’d planned for the fall. And she is pleased with what she and her students accomplished in the spring and summer. She has had two manuscripts accepted, and another is pending. As the fall semester begins, she's building on the momentum of the last few months. Despite the challenges of the shutdown and the many necessary changes, this time “has been productive,” she says. “It’s not like the work stopped.”

Submitted on: AUG 20, 2020

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