Ramping up research

After a long period away from the lab, life is slowly reaching a new normal

Over the course of five days in March, Tom Durcan’s lab at The Neuro went from a bustling centre of neuroscience research to almost complete shutdown, an experience he shares with the rest of The Neuro’s principal investigators. Restrictions on research are gradually being lifted at The Neuro, but the effects of the pandemic will be felt for a long time.

Durcan’s team of 45 research staff and trainees working at the lab at any given time fell to a skeleton staff of seven people, who came in to make sure the freezers were working and liquid nitrogen tanks were filled. The focus became preserving the stem cell research they had ongoing rather than moving it forward. They froze down cell lines to continue growing them later. Lab members worked on data and protocols from home, and the lab held regular meetings virtually to coordinate or just stave off the social isolation.

Now the team is running at 75 per cent of normal capacity, with more members coming to the lab regularly. They have a shift system in place so everyone has enough room to keep physical distance. Staff wear masks and extra hand sanitation and other measures are now in place.

Durcan says they were lucky that some projects were near completion when the shutdown began, although they had to put a number of other projects on hold for now. While things are gradually returning to normal, Durcan says they will hopefully take many lessons from this pandemic, including operating the lab with more flexible schedules.

“It gave us some time reflect on things, how we were doing things, how can we improve, maybe how we can do science more efficiently,” he says. “It would be nice to come back to some sense of normalcy, but maybe we learned some things we can use in our new day to day routine. Maybe instead of everyone in at the same time, some will work in the AM, and others in the PM, creating more flexible schedules and more options for how and when staff can work.”

Pandemic disruption has been “devastating” for some

The pandemic also disrupted the routine of Ed Ruthazer and his lab members, who study brain development at the cellular level using fish and frogs. Ruthazer says the shutdown is “devastating” for researchers who were one or two experiments away from writing a paper. Researchers with children are also disproportionately impacted due to the shutdown of schools and daycares.

Yet some others have used the extra downtime to focus on writing or analyzing data. His lab has learned to use online programs such as Slack and Zoom to stay in touch remotely. At any one time, he says he may have up to nine programs open to talk to his staff.

Ruthazer keeps his lab at half capacity to maintain physical distance, and slowly things are returning to normal. He credits The Neuro’s Centre for Neurological Disease Models for looking after their fish and frogs during the pandemic.

While the ramp up is ongoing, questions remain. Ruthazer says he is not sure if he can hire new researchers for September, given the travel and physical distancing restrictions still in place, not just in Canada but around the world. Ruthazer says this causes more problems for the students than him, because they are the ones who have to arrange visas, apartments and plane tickets.

He was also concerned that the shutdown could have financial consequences for his current lab members, because many of them are being paid through grants and fellowships. Ruthazer says he was happy to hear that Canada’s three granting agencies would extend funding for researchers in certain programs by four months to allow researchers to make up for lost time.

On the week of June 22, The Neuro and McGill University began Phase 3 of its research ramp up process. Click here to learn more about COVID-19 safety guidelines at McGill and at The Neuro.



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The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) is a bilingual academic healthcare institution. We are a McGill research and teaching institute; delivering high-quality patient care, as part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. We are proud to be a Killam Institution, supported by the Killam Trusts.



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