Lab Research in the Age of COVID
Running experiments remotely from home
2020 will go down in history as the year when a global health crisis upended industries, disrupting the usual rhythm of life and work all over the world. In the USA alone, 42% of the workforce moved to remote work , up from 8% before the coronavirus shutdowns . Nicholas Bloom, a professor at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), coined a new term “work-from-home economy”, to reflect the scope of the change signalling the shift in the share of remote workers for the whole U.S. economy .
Some industries, especially those which need a simple setup at home — a laptop, desk, and some peace and quiet — noticed that the time saved on commuting or meaningless tasks at work positively impacted workers’ performance. McKinsey reported that 41% of workers felt more productive  while working from home. In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that while there was an overall increase in online meetings for employees as they work from home, the total time spent in meetings decreased by 18 min per employee per day . However, the question is: what impact did this change have on those for whom it is more difficult to continue their work from home? Life science researchers, especially those immersed in experimental science, have never faced a challenge like this.
Unlike Robert Hooke, who discovered cells using a self-made microscope and published his finding in Micrographia during the plague of 1665, contemporary researchers need much more than a room of one’s own to do meaningful work. In fact, the lack of access to proper infrastructure and equipment does not just constitute a simple pause in research, but wastes a frightening amount of resources and time, putting years of scientific research at risk. In a survey conducted for Genome Biology, 57% scientists admitted that they have already lost work because of the pandemic. In fact, 8 out of 10 post-docs surveyed by Nature have reported problems in conducting experiments, with almost as many having issues collecting data . These disruptive trends in research become more urgent in fields that require highly specialized equipment.
Life science researchers, especially those immersed in experimental science, have never faced a challenge like this.
Scientists who conduct experiments and need access to a lab are being disproportionately affected by shutdowns. Researchers in the areas of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, chemistry and chemical engineering have reported that their research time decreased by over 30% . There is an unfortunate gender dimension to this situation, as more women than men work in the wet lab and, on average, they engage in more experimental work (i.e. 70% of women who responded to the Genome Biology survey do mostly experimental work, compared to 60% of men). In the race to publish important findings, a few months often is the difference between making or breaking an early-career researcher’s future and impacting their chances to obtain funding and secure their next job.
The coronavirus pandemic highlights the vital role of biomedical research for societies and economies around the world. The pressure to conduct life-saving COVID-19 research — and to continue research into all other causes of human suffering — is enormous, while the opportunities to conduct experiments have been greatly diminished. From improving diagnostic testing to the work on a vaccine, life scientists have little room to delay their wet-lab research. This is particularly true as research suggests that pandemics are increasing in frequency .
Researchers in lab-based sciences require sustainable solutions to be able to maintain their pace of work during a pandemic. At the moment, they have been forced to pause all wet lab work given the lack of access to laboratories. Working from home, they try to move their research forward through data analysis, peer-review, manuscript and grant writing, as well as catching up with the literature . In other words, spending time on the types of tasks that can be done from home, but that often get pushed back during busy times in the lab. There is a limit, though, to how much backlog data the researchers can process and how many manuscripts they complete with already collected data while working remotely. Work from home for bench scientists is a temporary measure at best. The new reality in wet lab research requires something better than that.
Researchers in lab-based sciences require sustainable solutions to be able to maintain their pace of work during a pandemic.
In the past, shutting down labs was the only option during a pandemic. Now, cloud-labs such as Arctoris can provide remote access to the full range of wet lab capabilities across cell and molecular biology as well as biochemistry. As scientists race to finish their experiments during their funding cycle, or are missing research time because of lock-down or institutional shutdown, Arctoris can support them through a platform that enables them to plan, design, and configure their experiments from the safety of their homes. As the robots execute the experiments in state-of-the-art labs, scientists can progress their R&D and plan for the future.
- A snapshot of a new working-from-home economy. Stanford News https://news.stanford.edu/2020/06/29/snapshot-new-working-home-economy/ (2020).
- Firms Expect Working from Home to Triple. https://www.frbatlanta.org/blogs/macroblog/2020/05/28/firms-expect-working-from-home-to-triple.
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- Longer hours, more emails and shorter meetings — working from home in the time of COVID. World Economic Forum https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/08/coronavirus-working-home-hours-research/.
- Pandemic darkens postdocs’ work and career hopes. Nature https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02548-2.
- Unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientists | Nature Human Behaviour. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0921-y.
- Pandemics: Risks, Impacts, and Mitigation — Disease Control Priorities: Improving Health and Reducing Poverty — NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525302/.
- Korbel, J. O. & Stegle, O. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on life scientists. Genome Biol. 21, 113 (2020).
About Arctoris Ltd
Arctoris Ltd is an Oxford-based research company that is revolutionising drug discovery for virtual and traditional biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical corporations and academia. Arctoris has established the world’s first fully automated drug discovery platform, offering pre-optimised and fully validated processes for its partners and customers globally. Accessible remotely, the platform provides on-demand access to a wide range of biochemical, cell biology and molecular biology assays conducted by robotics, enabling rapid, informed decision-making in basic biology, target validation, toxicology and phenotypic screening. These assay capabilities are accessed using a powerful online portal that streamlines experiment planning, ordering, tracking and data analysis. Thanks to the Arctoris platform, customers can rapidly, accurately and cost-effectively perform their research and advance their drug discovery programmes.