In this post, Caitlin Thornton, a PGR researching thyroid cancer in the College of Medical and Dental Sciences, describes her return to campus and her laboratory-based research.
On the first day back after lockdown I arrived half an hour earlier, presuming there would be a queue to collect our lanyards and lab coats. Queuing on stickers places two meters apart was part of the “new normal”. Instead, I walked straight into the Institute of Biomedical Research, helped myself to a squirt of hand sanitizer, collected two lab coats and went up to our lab on level 2. I thought this was weird at the time – maybe I had got the return day wrong? – but really it was a hint of what labs are like after COVID. Quiet.
There aren’t more than around 10 people on our floor at any time. Sometimes we will grab 10-minute chats in the corridors holding thermos flasks of coffee because there’s no access to fridges to keep milk to make drinks at work. A lot of our friends and colleagues are still redeployed in the hospitals. Our large communal office which is usually buzzing with people and activity is a graveyard, sometimes if you are drinking a coffee at your desk all the lights go out because no one is walking around to activate the sensors.
On the other hand, the labs are QUIET. Amazingly, productively quiet. Need the nanodrop? Go right there. Forgot to book cell culture? It’s free in 15 mins. Dark Room? Fire away! Our new work pattern means early starts and early finishes if you’re a morning shifter like I am. After the first few days of navigating the new one-way stairs system and new equipment booking platforms, we fell into a new routine. Seminars have gone online rather than everyone piling into the seminar room at lunch- although this means no fruit platters and tiny wraps… is this a good thing or a bad thing?
After 12 weeks out of the lab we returned keen to play catch up, and in that respect it’s been great to have time and space to get on with our experiments without vying for equipment. With so many people working from home for the foreseeable future, I think we are lucky to get to leave our homes to go to work and to see some of our colleagues face-to-face. There is a large element of science that benefits from face-to-face discussions and I took for granted how much I enjoyed working in an institute which was abuzz with busy people running westerns, picking islets, rushing to make the mass spec stop beeping.
Labs after COVID are quiet, and while we can use this time to be as productive as possible, I’m looking forward to see more people back and the noise return.