Reopening labs without leaving people behind

My lab does bench work. We can analyze data and do a bit of modeling, but in the end, we make and test things at the bench. If we’re not at the bench, there are questions we cannot answer. I love our work, and I want to get back to it.

Beyond running a lab, I help to mentor faculty, and I sit on a committee to discuss how to reopen labs safely. These three tasks are coming to head now. Like many institutions, we want to reopen research labs with a low density of people. It is possible, and there is interest in doing this before schools, camps, and childcare will be open. Ultimately, we are a state institution who must follow State guidelines, but as we talk about what would need to be in place from our perspective to open, childcare is not on the table as a requirement.

I and many of my colleagues are desperately trying to juggle taking care of family members, a full time job, homeschooling, and figuring out how to manage things during the pandemic. (I feel like a hunter returning from the kill when I get groceries or place an online order successfully right now.)

My colleagues who are juggling all of these things are not getting out more grants or more papers. They don’t look like they are sleeping in many cases. I feel their pain.

Reopening labs without ways to support families stinks. It is another not so subtle way of saying how little we value people who have lives and the balance they are trying to find. Even if we don’t mean to say that, it’s awfully hard not to hear it. So, what do we do?

Maybe this is an opportunity to rethink how we do research. When I moved to my current institution, I hoped to be part of a team where multiple PIs worked together and comentored students. We would have each other’s backs. I hoped that we’d be able to build an environment where students could participate at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in more flexible ways that allowed people to be part time or full time in ways that fit with their lives.

In grad. school, I had a colleague who worked from 7 pm to 4 am. He and his partner figured it out so they could both work and raise their families. I’m still not really sure when he slept, but he was an incredible colleague and was always willing to help when I had questions in the wee hours.

We need to change the model. Yes, it is nice to check in, but there are lots of ways to do it asynchronously. It is even nicer to find ways to involve more of us in science and work more broadly. We need more perspectives, and this provides us a way to be more inclusive. We can build teams that provide collaborative ways of working, but we need to be willing to move from the model of one person one project and one person as a head of a lab. If we do it now, we have the potential to help both students and colleagues navigate the pandemic and their work and, perhaps, we can actually do better science in the long term.

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