With limited in-person interactions between lab members, professors conducting in-person lab research — tending to live organisms and training new students — are redefining collaboration as social-distancing guidelines continue to challenge how Cornellians can interact safely.
Prof. Kelly Liu, molecular biology and genetics, in addition to teaching two in-person and two virtual classes, runs the Liu Worm Lab. Her lab studies the roundworm organism Caenorhabditis elegans, which serves as a model organism to the human genome because of its many genetic similarities. The lab studies the regulation of a human developmental signaling pathway and uses C. elegans to identify the different mechanisms involved in controlling this pathway.
“Most of our work is really wet lab based. People have to be working at the bench to collect data,” Liu said. Researchers personally conduct experiments in wet labs, as opposed to dry labs, which involve computational and mathematical analyses.
The need for experimentation in Liu’s research proved to be a challenge when all on-campus activities shut down in March of 2020. Liu continued to go to campus to teach her classes remotely and take care of the lab’s C. elegans strains alone. In June, other members of the lab were allowed to return in shifts, with a maximum of four people working in the lab at the same time.
Liu said it was difficult to time the development of the C. elegans strains with each person’s shift.
“When working with living organisms, if your worms are developing and they’re ready for experimentation in the afternoon but it’s not your shift and someone else is there, you can’t do [the experiment],” she said.
Eventually, two people were allowed to work in the lab at the same time, but the way the lab is arranged meant those working couldn’t easily talk to one another.
“It was really depressing at the beginning,” she said. “There’s really no interaction. Even when we have two people in the lab, they are on opposite ends of the lab. They hardly talked to each other.”
According to Liu, morale improved when two people working in the lab were able to stand diagonally from each other, allowing for more interaction. “I felt so much happier, I could hear voices coming from the lab,” Liu said.
Other researchers on campus have also struggled with the lack of in-person lab interaction.
“The biggest challenge is the lack of casual interaction,” Prof. David Erickson, mechanical and aerospace engineering, said. “A lot of times when you’re having ideas or discussing problems in research a lot of that comes through casual interactions. You happen to run into someone in the lab and ask them a question, or you’re standing next to them at your desk.”
He has adjusted to wearing proper personal protective equipment and staying six feet apart from the other people working in his lab.
The Erickson lab focuses on energy systems and health care technologies. Within health care, the lab researches ways to improve person personalized nutrition, infectious disease and cancer diagnostics within developing areas of the world. Since the lab’s research involves health care, researchers returned to in-person research in early May 2020, falling under the “essential research” category from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Erickson said the lab briefly shifted focus to use a technology that rapidly detects the virus that causes HIV-related cancer and adapted it to COVID-19 diagnostics, including rapid blood testing of COVID samples.
The lab has now reverted to the diagnostic research they were doing before the pandemic.
While Cornell researchers have been able to return to laboratories, they were only made eligible for the vaccine as of March 12, later than other faculty members teaching in-person classes. Although Liu has not stopped going to campus since the start of the pandemic to teach her in-person classes and work in the lab, she was only able to receive her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine this past week.
“Early this semester, I feel like the University wasn’t giving us very clear updates on how to get the vaccine,” Liu said. “I was really worried because I’m in the lab every day, including the weekend, and I [couldn’t] get a vaccine.”
Liu said things changed a few weeks ago when the University conducted a survey to faculty and staff on how they handled COVID-19, and when Tompkins County set up a vaccination registry last week to alert those who are eligible when appointments become available.
“I personally feel like Cornell did a really good job on testing to make the campus as safe as possible, but the vaccination process could have been communicated better,” Liu said.
Erickson, who is teaching remotely this semester, doesn’t expect to see any changes in his laboratory safety protocols until widespread vaccination.
“Broadly speaking, the access to consistent and regular screening, testing and the general community bubble that it creates is a very unique thing we can do here at Cornell. The leadership has executed that very well,” Erickson said. “I think that is giving us an advantage going forward.”
Correction, March 18, 2:53 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that on-campus researchers were ineligible to receive the COVID vaccine at the time of publication. On-campus researchers were made eligible to receive the vaccine on March 10.