'Science Is Going to Save Us': Researchers on How They're Faring in the Time of Coronavirus and Their Hopes for the Future

April 1, 2020

We checked in with researchers from across The Graduate Center to see how they are keeping their work moving forward.

Professors David Gruber, Jean Gaffney, and Mercer Brugler conduct a lab meeting over Zoom.
Professors David Gruber, Jean Gaffney, and Mercer Brugler conduct a lab meeting over Zoom.

Labs across CUNY, including at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center, have largely shut down in the wake of the coronavirus. The vast majority of researchers are making the best of working remotely, spending their time analyzing data and meeting with their lab mates via Zoom. Many are also assisting in the effort to donate medical gear and supplies to New York’s medical professionals — and offering their expertise, often behind the scenes, to city officials.
We checked in with researchers from across The Graduate Center to see how they are keeping their work moving forward, and their hopes high.

mande-holford-200 standing with arms folded

Professor Mandë Holford (GC/Hunter, Biochemistry, Biology, and Chemistry) researches the potential of venom for treating human diseases and disorders:
My lab members and I have shut down all wet lab operations so no one has to risk their lives to come into the lab to perform experiments. We’re working on analyzing data from prior experiments, writing manuscripts, and grant and fellowship applications. It’s been an adjustment, and we’re using the time to bone up on our scholarship in the venom field by reading lots of papers.
We are having virtual lab meetings using Zoom. In the meetings we start with a journal club review of a recently published paper before discussing our own projects. Each team member takes a turn each week to choose the papers we will review. 
Science is going to save us. That’s the message we’re getting daily from the news and with the recent developments of small molecules that are being tested for treating COVID-19. I tell my lab members what we do is important, being a scientist is important, learning how to think critically and analyze data is vitally important. Scientists can donate supplies to hospitals, and they can also donate their time and expertise to anxious parents and students who are home schooling or distance learning, via projects like Skype a Scientist. I’m co-founder of an Ed-Tech company, Killer Snails, and we are making some of our STEM learning games free to educators, students, and parents for the rest of the school semester. We’re in the time of the Microbe Hunters, and our best defense will be a thriving STEM education system so the next generation has capable scientists to meet the microscopic organisms that can lay us to waste. 
Professor David F. Gruber (GC/Baruch, Biology/Natural Sciences) investigates biofluorescence in marine life and has worked with microbes and viruses throughout his career:
I’m going into the laboratory basically every two weeks to maintain the living and frozen biological specimens: We’re just trying to keep our projects alive, and keep our samples safe. We’re not actively doing benchwork right now. We are thankful that we are also a genomics lab, hence we have data that we can work on remotely for many months.
One thing we did when the pandemic hit was to quickly mobilize and try to do research related to COVID — we wrote code to look through every available animal genome database, to see if we could find the needle in the haystack. There were many exotic animals being sold on the Wuhan “wet” market and it’s a possibility that no genome information yet exists on the original animal. We’re now at the limit of what we do short of sequencing animals that were at the market at that time. It does make me sad to realize that this pandemic is most likely attributed to the killing and consumption of a rare animal.
One thing scientists can do at this moment is to increase the level of awareness. There’s a lot of information and misinformation out there — coming from so many places, and it makes people want to crawl under their beds. Scientists can play a role in mediating scientific information, and making sure that the public gets the most empowering, actionable information.
Professor Kevin Gardner is the founding director of the ASRC’s Structural Biology Initiative and the Einstein Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at City College:
Collectively, I think we’re all faring about as well as could be expected. My lab has people in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania with people doing what they can: chiefly data analysis and writing, along with reading more of the literature. We’ve been lucky to have some samples left in high-end NMR instrumentation equipped with robotics and refrigerated storage spots — we can occasionally log in remotely and collect new data there or develop new experiments. This said, the vast bulk of our experimental work is shut down, which really strikes at the heart of being a scientist. If you’re not doing an experiment, thinking about an experiment, or planning your next experiment ... it really shakes something very central to what we do and who we are.
Zoom is absolutely essential, both for professional and community-building experiences. Dropbox for file sharing. While we’re normally used to using these tools to stay in touch with far-flung collaborators around the world, they’ve become essential for us to stay in touch with each other instead of formal or informal in-person meetings. We’re using Zoom actively for everything from one-on-one research talks to floor meetings of 40-plus people to informal coffee/tea meetups. While not quite as good as in-person, these are definitely letting us stay connected.
We’ve received requests for expertise and materials from the state via CUNY-wide requests from Governor Cuomo’s office. I’ve also been told that we may receive complementary requests for expertise from the city. I think it’s essential for scientists to participate in the public discussion on the importance of evidence-based decision-making for situations like we’re currently in, as the skills and tools provided by experts in the field are critical for avoiding steps, which will be extremely costly in human and financial aspects. More broadly, scientists — ranging from our students to our faculty — can contribute everything from materials in their labs to time on Zoom/Skype calls with classes which have been disrupted by this pandemic. We all have roles we can play!
Sarah Moyon is a research assistant professor in the lab of Professor Patrizia Casaccia, director of the ASRC’s Neuroscience Initiative:
We started to ramp down experiments, to reduce commuting and to alternate shifts in the lab, with three to four people max in the lab every day, more than two weeks ago. We are now all working from home: analyzing data, catching up with the literature. Some Ph.D. students are working on their qualifying exams; others have papers to write. I am currently writing some grants due in April/May. But it can be difficult to work 100 percent from home and not be able to experiment! Eventually, we will have a decrease in our productivity if it lasts months (but it is for a better cause and we all agree on that point in the lab). Personally, I have a paper under review, and I hope that reviewers and editors will take in consideration that right now, labs are shut down and additional experiments are not possible.
We have a Zoom chat every Monday morning with our lab to catch up and see how everyone is doing, and have our weekly lab meeting on Thursday afternoon on Zoom. A few postdocs are “meeting” tonight for a happy hour too! We are trying to stick to a schedule, to keep a kind of normality!

Annette (Nina) Gray is The Graduate Center associate dean for the sciences and executive director of the ASRC, which is donating crucial gear and equipment to support New York’s medical personnel:
On a typical day, the ASRC is teeming with over 200 people — faculty, students, and staff  — as well as researchers from other CUNY schools using our core facilities. Now there are about 10 people in the building on a given day: only essential staff to ensure that animals, equipment, chemicals, and precious research materials are taken care of and that we receive critical supplies to maintain them. We are also indebted to the CCNY public safety, engineering, custodial, and facilities essential personnel that continue to keep the ASRC safe and functional even during this unprecedented time. And we couldn’t keep research and education progressing without the support of IT, and their efforts to expand online access. 
Everyone else is now distributed throughout the tri-state area, and staying connected via the internet. Lab meetings, journal clubs, and one-on-one meetings between faculty and their students and postdoctoral fellows are held on Zoom or Cisco WebEx. We are holding our weekly Science Cafés on Zoom as well, and recently had over 60 people join for a discussion of the impact the pandemic is having on pollution levels in China, Italy, and New York City.
Our students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty are shifting from doing experiments in the lab to catching up on the scientific literature, analyzing data, creating figures, and writing papers and grants. But many are also using this time to pick up new skills by taking online courses and workshops in areas such as programming and statistics. Certainly this is a challenge no one wanted to have to face, and it’s a difficult time for all of us to navigate. But I think we may find, when we get to the other side of this, that our science could very well be stronger if we find ways to use this time to explore new ideas and gain new skills we would otherwise not have had time for.