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A cautious return – UK DRI at Cardiff University

Throughout July we were excited to see our researchers heading back to their labs after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of them to temporarily close. We wrote about some of the new rules labs are working under and how they have impacted just some of our scientists.

But we wanted to find out a little more, so we caught up with Dr Meghan Larin, a postdoctoral researcher, and Emma Randall, a research assistant, in Prof Vincent Dion’s lab at the UK DRI at Cardiff University.

What did your research look like while your lab was closed?

Meghan: For me, it was a mix of experimental planning and reading to catch up on the newest research in our field. I started in Vincent’s lab in late August last year, so I’m at the point where I am much more familiar with this new field but am still reading and coming up with new ideas and ways of looking at various issues.

It was difficult to not be able to sit and physically investigate an idea though, especially the exciting ones! I also continued to support the students in our lab, and we had regular meetings as a team, partly to help everyone maintain some sense of “normalcy”.

Emma: I was lucky, as I got to come in three times a week as I was given essential worker status throughout the entirety of lockdown. This gave me some structure and helped me keep up with knowing which day of the week it was!

It was quite surreal though, as the whole building was mostly deserted. All other work was home based, so this mainly constituted reading and planning experiments for lab reopening.

What is it like being back in the lab now it has re-opened?

Meghan: Coming back to the lab for the first time after lockdown felt a bit intimidating. We were given a long list of instructions to follow before returning as well as various rules while working. The first day was a bit stressful with learning how to negotiate the new system, but it has gotten a lot easier over the past couple of weeks. It was definitely nice to speak to lab mates in person after three months, even if it is at a distance!

Emma: Quite strange. It’s great being able to catch up with colleagues, but we have to stand at least two metres apart and talk to each other through masks. It feels awkward at times! We have to be so careful to avoid coming too close to each other which can make it hard to manoeuvre around the lab.

Each group has been split into two and we have to come in for specific time slots, and there is only one person allowed in the small rooms at any time. This means we must be highly organised with our time which can be fairly stressful, particularly for complicated experiments. We also can’t teach each other in smaller rooms, so we are having to make training videos instead!

A much quieter lab than normal at the UK DRI at Cardiff University, with tape marking out the distance people need to stand away from each other.

What is the first thing you did once back?

Meghan: The first thing I had to do was remember where everything was (!) and find all of the deliveries that arrived just before lockdown. When I stopped my experiments in March, I was in the process of starting some stem cell work for the first time, so I had to search for all the necessary chemicals and set up our lab space before I could actually start.

Emma: I was hungry for human interaction so I took any opportunity to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for months! A lot of the very initial stuff was boring things like figuring out what I needed to order for my experiments and cleaning all our equipment that hadn’t been used for a long time.

Dr Marcela Buricova works at her lab bench. New restrictions mean that only one person can be in this space at one time.

How has lab life changed?

Meghan: It’s been funny trying to avoid people in the smaller corridors, and we spend a lot of time dodging between benches to stay out of the way! Because of the new shift patterns our lab has been split into two working groups. This can be hard; it means we really don’t see or interact with lab mates working at the opposite time, so it’s difficult to keep up good communication with them.

Our lab gets along well, so it’s tough to not be able to sit down for a tea break with everyone to discuss problems with experiments or just to catch up on what each other have been up to.

Emma: We can’t have coffee breaks together like we used to! We can’t use our normal desk spaces; we have to use our team leader offices on an individual basis to use our laptops or take Zoom calls. That’s particularly hard to get used to as we are such a social bunch. We have to check in via an app on our phones so that Security can track our movements when we are on site. Cardiff University has made the wearing of face masks mandatory as well.

Dr Meghan Larin and Florence Gidney (a Research Assistant in Prof Dion’s lab) take a socially distanced lab selfie.

What did you miss the most about being in the lab?

Meghan: I missed being able to do something hands-on and actually carrying out experiments. While I really enjoy reading and coming up with new hypotheses for my research, I prefer to have a more ‘balanced’ day with some time up and about in the lab as well as quiet computer-based time. It’s not much fun to come up with new experimental ideas if you can’t test them out!

Emma: PEOPLE. Seeing my friends and colleagues again has been lovely. Also, it’s amazing how much I missed being able to be on my feet, instead of sitting down all day!

Ultimately, we need to be back in the lab in order to make the most progress towards transforming the lives of people with dementia. That’s what we are all here for and everyone is eager to get back up to speed as quickly as possible.

Prof Dion’s group at the UK DRI at Cardiff University focuses on studying specific changes in our genes that happen in diseases like Huntington’s. Dr Meghan Larin studies how we might be able to reverse these changes in nerve cells in the brain and Emma Randall is working to understand if reversing these genetic changes may have any unexpected effects.

To support vital dementia studies like these as they get back up and running, visit https://alzres.uk/donate

About the author

Fiona Calvert