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Adam Steinbrenner in Nature on adapting to make hybrid academic research work

Wednesday, March 16, 2022 - 09:30

Adam Steinbrenner, UW Biology Assistant Professor, was featured in Nature for the ways he and his lab have adapted hybrid research due to COVID-19.

In the two years since the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, many research groups have established a ‘new normal’ routine that blends working from home with time in the laboratory. It’s clear that many pre-pandemic work patterns are gone for good.

Indeed, academic supervisors are following the same trends as employers in other sectors. Last year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) asked 12,500 employees from 29 countries about their views on the future of work, post-pandemic (see Two-thirds responded that they wanted more flexibility in the amount of time they spent in the office, and 65% reported that they were more productive when they had a flexible schedule that allowed them to do some work from home. On average, respondents wanted to spend 2.5 days per week working from home once pandemic restrictions are lifted. The WEF survey and others show that the predictions that remote work would be disruptive, unproductive or lead to burnout were largely unfounded, and that workers’ desire for flexibility greatly outweighs these concerns (see ‘What hybrid workers want’).

Hybrid lab working has also changed the dynamics of groups. Gerstein’s weekly Zoom meeting with his 40-strong team can last for several hours, but he’s fine with a healthy dose of zoning out, turning cameras off and multitasking for those who don’t need to engage in the main conversation. His group uses a Google Doc to draw up the agenda and the members share screens to annotate it in real time. He then saves the final document to the lab’s Dropbox account.

“It is efficient and works even better than in-person meetings,” says Gerstein, who plans to retain video meetings to accommodate childcare responsibilities, illness and scheduling conflicts. “Now, everyone is equal, even our collaborators in Europe or China. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a large in-person lab meeting.”

Likewise, Adam Steinbrenner’s plant-immunology group holds a 30-person joint meeting with two other labs at University of Washington in Seattle. After someone presents their work, there is a 3-minute pause for people to post their thoughts or questions in a shared Google Doc before the meeting resumes with a question-and-answer session.

Almost all of the PIs Nature spoke to now schedule either weekly or monthly video calls with individual team members. Jean Fan, a computational biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, schedules these on Fridays. “I ask my students to teach me what they’ve learnt, where they might have gotten stuck and what their plan is for the next week,” she says.

And theoretical physicist David Weir is thankful that they share their mentoring load with other group leaders in the computational-field-theory group at the University of Helsinki. They find their hour-long meetings with individual students easier to manage mentally when other supervisors are on hand to field questions and direct the conversation.

For similar reasons, Federica Di Nicolantonio no longer tries to squeeze her monthly one-to-one meetings into one day, instead conducting them over the course of a week. “My brain can’t manage meetings from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and this way I am fresher for each person,” says Di Nicolantonio, a cancer researcher at the Candiolo Cancer Institute in Turin, Italy.

Inducting and training new lab members can be especially challenging when done remotely. Rather than sitting alongside the trainees to troubleshoot coding errors, as they would have done in previous years, the mentors in Weir’s group had to share their screens over video calls. That was certainly more awkward and inefficient, Weir says, because without in-person expressions and body language, it was difficult to assess trainees’ comprehension.

Di Nicolantonio experienced similar inefficiencies when troubleshooting stalled research: “Recently, I ran into five people [in the lab] and managed to fix things with each of them in 2 minutes. That would have taken me half a day [virtually].”

In March 2020, Steinbrenner had a fledgling group that needed training in several experimental protocols. He took inspiration from Kenji López-Alt, a US chef and food writer who wears a GoPro camera on his head during YouTube demonstrations to explain the scientific basis of cooking. “I totally used his idea and did simple video editing,” he says. “Now, we have internal video files that show the million little steps of doing a Western blot.”

Read the full article in Nature.

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