When the Science Stops: A Series of Interviews

By Stephanie Baringer

Photo Credit: Picpedia

Are you curious about how different areas of science are handling the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders? We are trained that science never stops, but what happens when it does? Below are mini-interviews with researchers in four different areas of the scientific field: industry, government, medical affairs, and academia and how they have responded to the pandemic. 

Can you just briefly explain your job title and duties before the pandemic? 

  • Industry, Sambuddha (Sam) Basu, Ph.D.: I am a senior research associate with the CNS team at Spark Therapeutics in Philadelphia, PA. We are doing research and development on neurodegenerative diseases, specifically Huntington’s disease. We work to find translatable targets in preclinical models. Essentially, I work as a bench scientist.
  • Government, Beverly Baptiste, Ph.D.: I am a biologist in the Laboratory of Molecular Gerontology at the National Institute on Aging at the NIH in Baltimore, MD. I primarily conduct research on DNA repair and aging using a variety of models. Additionally, I support and help mentor postdocs and postbacs in the lab.
  • Medical Affairs Benjamin Matta, Ph.D.: I am a medical science liaison for G1 Therapeutics and I work in the greater Pittsburgh, PA area. I work in the field and travel to different sites to discuss the science of our products with leading scientists and physicians in the disease space.
  • Academia, Katherine Aird, Ph.D.: I am an assistant professor with appointments to the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology and Cancer Institute, Mechanisms of Carcinogenesis at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA. My lab focuses on early events in tumorigenesis, particularly cellular metabolic processes.

Q1: How has the pandemic changed your daily routine? Are you working from home or still in the field?

  • Sam (Industry): I am staying home full time. Spark was one of the first businesses to shut down completely in Pennsylvania. On March 11th we all went home. Now, of course, this will affect the timelines for R&D teams such as mine. To quote my manager, “We would rather take the hit as a company than risk our employees.” As a result, I am doing data analysis at home. I am also working on data mining to look for new targets the team can use. We are all actively working online from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and doing so has been tricky. When Spark first closed, I was able to use my apartment complex meeting rooms for work meetings. Then the apartment meeting rooms closed so I had to retreat to my apartment. I don’t need to tell you, but pets make Zoom meetings hard, haha!
  • Beverly (Government): We are all working from home. I have been doing a lot of writing and editing review articles. The lab has four in the works right now. I would expect there to be a huge burst of those getting published during this time. We have all of our normal meetings via WebX, and it is actually working pretty well. There has been lots of reading the literature to plan for future experiments and projects. The NIH has tons of seminars for people to stay engaged in science. The NIA has weekly town halls to keep everyone informed on updates. We take orders from primarily the NIH. The NIH has been deciding things on their own, but it is never less strict than the state. If anything, the NIH is more cautious.
  • Ben (Medical Affairs): Some companies have done things differently; some have shut down field operations entirely. For me, all travel in and out of hospitals has stopped for the safety of all parties, and we have a strict work from home policy. I am still setting up virtual meetings with physicians, and they have been very productive. Despite the emphasis on building relationships with key opinion leaders, doctors are still open to meeting in this format. Of course, it has been a mixed bag of scheduling difficulties and finding those who are receptive to conversations. I work a lot with thoracic oncologists and some of these physicians are seeing patients. I catch them in-between patients but others who are working from home can be easier to meet.
  • Katherine (Academia): I am working completely from home. I shut down my lab 6 weeks ago, so everyone in my lab is also home. My days are pretty similar to when I was in the lab, since as a PI, I sit at the computer a lot. We still hold lab meetings. I try to keep normal hours, though it has been challenging to focus. I get distracted by the news and my dog a lot. I closed my lab before the university mandated it, and it was an excruciating decision. I felt very strongly that something bad was going to happen if we continued to work in close proximity and I didn’t want to endanger the people in my lab. A handful of my colleagues also closed their labs before we were forced to and I really applaud people who did that. The people in my lab are doing very well with the change, better than me in fact, haha. They are very positive. I don’t doubt they are anxious but they are handling it very well. This has given them the opportunity to analyze data and do deep literature searchers. They are very resilient.

Q2: What has been the hardest aspect of this change for you? 

  • Sam (Industry): The hardest part for me has been missing bench work. I have been at the bench for 10 years since coming to the US. As scientists, we are groomed to think that our primary goal is to do experiments, so not doing so has been a big adjustment. We typically don’t spend enough time doing the things we can do now, like data mining and analysis. Additionally, I have noticed there is a lack of concentration. We aren’t used to doing these things for 5 hours straight. When you read a paper in the lab, you take a lot of breaks to run experiments. Now your break is going to the kitchen for a snack.
  • Beverly (Government): My struggles with the new normal are more personal things. It has been difficult to focus on work because of distractions at home. With my son home from college and the dog, we have a full house. I have felt a lot of anxiety about the unknown, but I think we all are. Obviously, I’m not able to do lab work, but I have been able to connect with many other scientists that I normally wouldn’t because of the numerous seminars.
  • Ben (Medical Affairs): It has been difficult to try to maintain a busy schedule due to physician availability and willingness to meet while dealing with the changes brought on by the coronavirus. A lot of my time is typically devoted to travelling and now I have to fill that time with other projects and initiatives. That is not necessarily hard, but different. I think it is also difficult for people to be dealing with obligations at home. In general, things in medical affairs have slowed down a bit. Clinical trials may be different, but even many of those have stopped for the time being.  
  • Katherine (Academia): I had a lot of anxiety at first but it has calmed down recently. I am mostly worried on a very large level at this point. I worry about how much people are listening, or not listening, to science. I fear that people will become more polarized and start to distrust science. Of course, as a junior faculty member, I am worried about funding and the trickle-down effects on students.

Q3: How have things changed for your colleagues that may have more essential tasks?

  • Sam (Industry): Every company has different team formats. Spark has assigned certain groups as essential. For example, there is a team that handles clinical samples. They come in to collect and store the samples, but they are not conducting experiments. In terms of mouse work, there is a dedicated in vivo team that has permission to come in on an alternate basis to perform essential tasks. The continuation of this all depends on state policies.
  • Beverly (Government): Initially, there were two essential staff members that were able to go in for the maintenance of essential samples. It was somewhat reminiscent of when the government shut down, just stricter. We were told to cut down on our mouse colonies and limit experimental cohorts. No one was allowed to do experiments though. Then someone in the building tested positive for COVID-19. Now no one can go in or out. A postdoc in the lab has had monthly sample collections from a cohort of mice for over a year. To go in for that, she had to get permission from the director of the NIA and NIH central. It was a big deal for an hour in the building. Now there is no one until May 1st at the earliest. Even then I would expect it to be a slow transition back with a limited number of people going in each day.
  • Ben (Medical Affairs): There are not many of my colleagues that can’t do their work from home. If the case arises that they have to go into the home office to get something, the company has measures in place to keep everyone safe. They track where in the building people go and clean accordingly.
  • Katherine (Academia): No one in our lab is essential. Right before this happened, we had just wrapped up some in vivo mouse studies. I know some people who do still have mice they need to care for and go in as a result. A fellow junior faculty member has been doing all of her lab’s work on mice to prevent anyone else from coming.

Q4: Based on your experience and knowledge in your field, would you predict a change in the job market of your position?

  • Sam (Industry): The economy is getting hit very badly. Every pharmaceutical company has a set timeline for each product in place to attempt to beat competitors to market. If a company’s timeline is hit badly but another isn’t, that company will be in a worse situation. How a product timeline fairs is proportional to how much or little the team grows. Small and mid-sized biotech’s will most likely be hit the worst. Larger companies will be able to buffer the losses of one timeline with other products already on the market. Since Spark is now part of Roche, it has a little more safeguarded.
  • Beverly (Government): I would not expect there to be a huge decrease in funding or hiring as long as things don’t go very south. We probably won’t get raises, haha, but we’ll see. I would predict that FDA positions will increase, as well as positions and funding for infectious diseases. The pandemic is shedding light on the importance of scientific advancement and its importance to human health.
  • Ben (Medical Affairs): It is really hard to say because there are a lot of factors. Positions are still being filled and recruiters are still active in seeking out new hires. In my eyes, this hasn’t affected us too much or even slowed down hiring. Companies have to stay on schedule and teams have to keep expanding. I am more interested in how this will affect things long term. If MSLs can productively meet with physicians and scientists virtually, will there be a push from companies to continue that? It would definitely save money instead of paying for flights, rental cars, and hotels.
  • Katherine (Academia): Yes, I expect the job market will be very bleak for a few cycles after this is all over. I have seen colleagues on Twitter who had faculty position offers rescinded due to the pandemic. Johns Hopkins is very transparent the amount of money they predict they will lose, and it is a lot. I think there will be a reduction in startup money. Academia may be most affected in comparison to other fields in science. I think this additional lack of stability to an already unstable landscape will result in a lot of people new to the job market going into other fields like industry. I am sad to say that I predict we will see a loss of brain power and talent in academia.

Q5: What has been a personal silver lining in these trying times? 

  • Sam (Industry): Personally, I think as bench scientists we tend to spend maybe too much time at the bench. It is our equal responsibility to explore more in development. Being forced to stay away from the bench is taking a step forward. We now have the opportunity to come up with creative ideas that we can experiment with when we can go back. We have the opportunity to explore the rest of the field.
  • Beverly (Government): I have been very productive in my hobbies. I have gotten to spend a lot of time with my son since he came home from college. This has been a great time to do more reading and go down rabbit holes. Recently, I found an old model that would be really interesting to explore. I would have never dived that deep had I not been stuck at home! I take comfort that no matter how much or little I get done in a day; I can reset. It is important for scientists to rest and not burnout. I am glad it will be slow going back in for everyone. Do a little and rest a little. It is all about balance.
  • Ben (Medical Affairs): I have five kids so this has provided me more time to connect with them in the absence of extracurricular activities, school, and work-related travel. I think this can be a good opportunity for everyone to take a step back and remember what is important and start to prioritize that going forward. You can ask yourself, what I have been missing because life got so busy? Bigger picture, I feel like the environment is enjoying the break from humanity too. I hope that this provides us the opportunity to not go back to normal but change for the better. A lot of times, people feel like they don’t have power to make change, but this can make you realize we do and we can.
  • Katherine (Academia): I have struggled with finding positives in all of this. I always come back to the fact that I still have a job that I love and have always wanted. My husband has a job and can work from home. Everyone in my lab and inner circle is healthy. I know things could be so much worse. I keep trying to hold on to this.

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