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Lab Strategies During COVID-19 Pandemic

Jun 1 2020

Posted In:

20/20 Blog

Palo Alto, CA — As research campuses do their part to slow COVID-19 by social distancing and working from home, it is essential that they keep their research laboratories as active as possible. Although the mandate is to limit personnel in labs to essential functions, there are ways to remain productive from home. 

“Before the labs closed,” Dr. Mahajan said, “everyone in my lab created and shared a “to-list” of what they can accomplish in the current situation working outside the lab. This written reflection was very helpful in coordinating and prioritizing tasks to keep us functioning.”

Communication and Engagement 

Stanford’s Byers Eye Institute’s research program recognized how important it is for trainees, colleagues, and collaborators to remain actively engaged, especially for lab members who are living alone. With this in mind, they defined a number of actionable items that can be implemented immediately.

Calendar Sharing - Shared group calendars like google, outlook, and ical are used by labs to coordinate meetings, show others what people are working on, and help with social distancing for essential functions in the lab.

Video Conference MeetingsEveryone is becoming a Zoom expert! Labs are maintaining their usual lab meetings and presentations via zoom. Daily, informal five to ten minute progress “check-ins” are a great way to keep lab members focused. Larger labs are breaking into working groups and scheduling their own working and sharing sessions. Groups are scheduling conferences with collaborators at other institutions and in other time zones. Trainees are practicing presentations, providing excellent opportunities for friends and colleagues to share supportive ideas and constructive critiques.

Office Hours – One-on-one meetings are valuable. Office hours can be scheduled for people to virtually “drop-in.”

Phone/Text - Sometimes a quick text or phone call is sufficient to spur ideas and problem solve.

Zoom Socials - Scheduling social hours to meet up with department and lab members, and colleagues outside the department, can help keep morale high.

Zoom Lecture – Our grand rounds and weekly research lectures are active in the department.


Many researchers love to do experiments at the bench and put off writing. This is an opportunity to get lab members and collaborators involved in a variety of writing tasks. 

Manuscript Teams - Mahajan lab members routinely “crowd source” manuscripts and grants using dropbox, google docs, and box to share files. Using template text from previous manuscripts and grants that are similar to a new manuscript, multiple people can be assigned a specific section to write. A postdoc or grad student may take the lead on the results section but will assign a specific paragraph to other people: undergrads can look up the background of a molecule, med students can review the clinical literature for the introduction, and technicians can fill in the methods. Once the writing collaboration is complete, the new manuscript can be edited by the principle investigator.

There are a number of important writing categories lab members can focus on:

Grants - NIH Grants, foundation grants, resubmission of grants, trainee grants, seed grants.

Thesis - Graduate student thesis writing, editing, and review.

Review Articles – These manuscripts can summarize a lab member’s area of research based on the literature. Lab members can also write a review summary of their own research. In both cases, this text can then be used for the introduction of grants and papers. Choosing something very narrow and short can make finishing this project very feasible.

Methods and Protocols - This is a great opportunity to get technicians to write down methods that can be shared with others in lab. This text can eventually be converted into the methods section of a manuscript or grant.

Figures and Figure Legends -There are a lot of figures in power-point presentations that are not yet in manuscript or grant format. Lab members can update the figures to be “manuscript-ready” and write the figure legends.

Computational Experiments

So much of what scientists do is on the computer. Now is the perfect opportunity to push that forward. Graduate student Marcus Toral came up with the following list.

Data Analysis - For current projects, shared projects, and old projects, it is a great time to analyze that data and generate text and figures.

Scripts - For data processing, those skilled in writing scripts can create and share methods to make data analysis more efficient.

TrainingThe computational folks can train the non-computational people in how to analyze their own data. 

Administrative Tasks

Online TrainingThis is a good time for everyone to catch up on training requirements and compliances available online.

BackupComputers and servers with critical data can be backed-up to secondary drives, in some cases off-site.

IRBs and Animal - Submit and update protocols for approval. Update and prepare for audits.

Animal Experiments

Cages - It’s a good time to identify animal cage numbers and needs. Are there overcrowded cages? How many cages are needed for ongoing experiments? How can cage numbers be reduced? Should any lines be cryopreserved?

Staffing - What are the minimum number of people needed to maintain lines? Is there a “superuser” and is there a backup plan in case the superuser has to be quarantined?

Clinical Research

Although collection of surgical tissues for research and samples from patients for genetic testing are paused during the current shelter-in-place order, this is an opportune time to improve operations.

Weekly Clinical Research Coordinators (CRC) Meeting - This meeting is now happening over zoom to answer any questions regarding updates, policy changes and changes to Spencer building access.

Redcap Databases- Clinical research databases are being created on Redcap, such as a registry of all patients that have undergone genetic testing, to better organize patient test results. It’s a good time to catch on patient data entry and optimizing database structure.

Reporting Results to Patients- With the reduction in clinic visits, genetic testing follow-ups can be offered via phone or video appointments rather than face-to-face.

Clinical Trial Administration – Site initiations are now taking place over zoom meetings and site evaluation questionnaires are being completed electronically.

External Research Sites – To expand patient-oriented research, IRB and regulatory documents are being set up for external research sites.

Writing – Case presentations for genetic patients, case write-ups, revising manuscripts and conducting literature reviews.

Precautions for Entering Buildings

Don’t ignore the rules. People entering the research buildings should be minimal and essential. Maintain social distancing. For example, there should only be one person at a time in the tissue culture room and in the mouse room. Use standard precautions such as wearing gloves, keeping surfaces clean, and following university protocols should an illness arise.