Member News

Life in the time of COVID-19

We asked ASBMB members how the pandemic is affecting them personally and professionally. Here are their dispatches.
ASBMB Today Staff
By ASBMB Today Staff
March 13, 2020

Have you noticed how quiet it is? We're being told to stay out of crowds and generally avoid each other. We see photos of empty streets, windswept piazzas and cruise ships whose unseen passengers are confined to their cabins. The few faces are mask-covered. Many of us are hunkered down, in preparation mode. We're figuring out how to do our jobs at home, should that become necessary. According to USA Today, as of Wednesday, some 100 colleges were canceling in-person classes.

How does it look from your corner of the research universe? Are you a student whose spring break has been extended indefinitely? A PI or postdoc who can't get into your lab? A professor who suddenly needs to teach online? In short, has your daily life as a scientist been upended by COVID-19?

If so, we'd like to hear about it, and we'd like to share your stories in ASBMB Today. Submissions we've receive so far are published below. Email us at asbmbtoday@asbmb.org.

This virus may keep us separated, but we can still keep in touch.


‘We are one world’

MILAN, March 12, 2020 — I thought it may be interesting to U.S. colleagues to hear what is going on in real life these days in Italy.

I am a full professor of biochemistry at the University of Milano, and, as you have certainly heard from the news, Italy has been completely closed, and every activity has been stopped except pharmacies, hospitals and food stores. Public transportations have been reduced. Milano, usually a very active and alive city, is like a desert. The University of Milano, like all other universities across the country, has been closed. Only minimal activities are still running. Teaching is only via teleconference tools, as well as exams and thesis defense.

Background campus photo by Luca Volpi on Wikimedia Commons
Maurizio Crestani has been an ASBMB member since 1996. His research focuses on adipose tissue in the context of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

I am working from home, communicating with my Ph.D. student and postgraduate via teleconference. We use this time to analyze data from our experiments, running bioinformatic analyses of our RNA-seq and ChIP-seq experiments.

Staying home is the only way to stop the virus right now, and I strongly believe that even those countries that have not been hit as hard as China and Italy should take the same severe measures to avoid the spread of the virus.

Our intensive-care units in hospitals are almost full, and this is the major threat: Those who will become severely ill may not have the chance to get the proper healthcare. Our doctors and all personnel in hospitals are heroes: They are doing an extreme effort to fight the virus.

Chinese experts just arrived to offer their help to fight the epidemic — or pandemic as the World Health Organization declared yesterday. We are absolutely grateful to them, and I think this represents a touching proof that caring for each other, even if we are two very far countries, should be the main message for a better world in the future. 

This is life in Milano and in the rest of Italy.

This unexpected and devastating pandemic is telling us that we are one world; we should all care for each other, irrespective of where we live, where we come from, of our color of the skin, of our political ideas.

Thank you to all ASBMB friends for being close to all of us while we are struggling with COVID-19.

— Maurizio Crestani, professor of biochemistry, UniversitĂ  degli Studi di Milano


‘Thrown a curveball’

LONG BEACH, Calif., March 12, 2020 — My campus has shifted to online classes to decrease the risk of contamination. Both students and faculty feel they have been thrown a curveball. It has been a confusing and worrisome time, especially for my friends who are graduating this semester.

We are all currently wondering what will happen with exams and labs, especially research labs. The professors are doing their best, but even they are still trying to figure things out.

The school is doing a wonderful job at keeping us all informed, but this is a very tumultuous event, and I hope things can go back to normal very soon.

— Jubilee Munozvilla, third-year biochemistry major, California State University, Long Beach


‘We will remain open’

BOULDER, Colo., March 12, 2020 — Here at the University of Colorado, a murmuring of anticipatory dread has nearly been silenced by a determined drumbeat — we will remain open — as COVID-19 approaches our campus.

Last Tuesday, a regular departmental seminar was unusually empty. Meeting with a speaker, we both awkwardly paused and joked before ultimately shaking hands.

Then Friday, EB 2020 was canceled. The cancellation seemed crushing and premature, as there were only eight confirmed COVID-19 cases in Colorado. Other large conference cancellations followed.

Background campus photo by Laurascudder on Wikimedia Commons
Teisha Rowland wrote for our "Night Shift" essay series about "the nightlife of a scientist–mother." Read her piece.

Then Wednesday morning, the university announced that all classes be taught remotely for the remainder of the semester, effective next Monday. I attended a class at noon, and the teacher had already come up with plans for remote teaching, though students would need to be patient for details. We'd meet at the usual time, though virtually via Zoom. How would homework be turned in? And what about the exam on Monday? It's only the next day now, but already we've learned about tools like Office Lens for scanning in homework and Proctor-U for remote proctoring.

I have been amazed by the resourcefulness and quick thinking of my colleagues. Lab course instructors immediately began recording demos of experiments and preparing pre-generated data points for students to analyze. Some researchers, encouraged to work remotely when possible, plan to switch focus to what they can achieve at home; start writing that manuscript, draft out that grant application, and hammer out the details for that new course offering idea.

My husband and I are planning for when our daycare will inevitably close, possibly by trading off on child-care duties with other daycare parents we know and trust, so we can all continue working at home. While both families have local grandparents eager to help with babysitting, we're urging them to self-quarantine; they would be hardest hit.

There are 33 positive cases in Colorado at this time, and we know many more are undetected. The classrooms and labs are growing quiet. People who walk down the hallways give each other a little extra distance. But we will continue on. We will remain open.

— Teisha Rowland, director of the Stem Cell Research
and Technology Resource Center at the University of Colorado Boulder


‘Genuinely saddened’

Naomi Hogan is set to graduate this year from Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

SALEM, Va., March 12, 2020 — I am a senior at Roanoke College who has very suddenly stopped in-person classes to go online after a possible case of COVID-19 on campus.

Two-thirds of my credits in this last semester of mine are in labs and cannot be done online. One of those is my research lab, in which we are quality assessing medications from third-world countries in partnership with Notre Dame.

I get a lot of personal satisfaction from my research, and now it is on hold until at least April 6. I am genuinely saddened about this.

Any company out there that needs a drug quality-assurance technician: I'm wide open for the next 3.5 weeks!

— Naomi Hogan, graduating senior, Roanoke College 


‘How am I supposed to be a competitive applicant?’

Background campus photo by Eevensen on Wikimedia Commons
Rochelle Knier is an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–Stout.

MENOMONIE, Wisc., March 13, 2020 — I'm a senior majoring in applied biochemistry and molecular biology with a cognitive neuroscience minor.

I'm currently scheduled to have 18 hours of lab a week, nine hours of which are lab-only courses. Most of these are advanced-level labs, where I'm supposed to be honing the skills I've used over the last 3.5 years to produce research that will help me apply to jobs and eventually a graduate program.

One of those labs is the only "Anatomy and Physiology of Neuroscience" course that is offered at my college, meaning it is my first and last chance to gain experience with actual brain tissue before graduation.

I'm also the sole conductor of a research project, which I was granted over $1,000 to carry out.

Two days ago, my college administrators decided that the two weeks after spring break will be online only, with a high possibility of classes moving online for the rest of the semester. I cannot fathom what will happen if they do.

I have paid so much money to be in labs and gain employable skills. If I have an entire semester with nearly no work to show for it, how am I supposed to be a competitive applicant? What about my research? These are such big questions for me, which will affect the rest of my career, and administration seems to be saying, "Safety first!" as a cop-out to answering them.

— Rochelle Knier, graduating senior, University of Wisconsin–Stout 


‘Something we’re thankful for’

ST. DAVIDS, Pa., March 14, 2020 — In the midst of the challenging times, here's a look at something we’re thankful for:

Jeff Lawton is a professor of biochemistry at Eastern University, whose B.S. in biochemistry program gained ASBMB accreditation in December.

The B.S. Biochemistry program at Eastern University, a small, private college in suburban Philadelphia, earned ASBMB accreditation in December. Our graduating seniors in the program sat for our first-ever administration of the ASBMB certification exam on Tuesday, March 10, right after spring break.

The following day, the university administration notified the campus community that, effective immediately, all ground-based instruction would transition to an online format due to the COVID-19 epidemic in our area. The day after that, the neighboring county where many faculty and staff reside was placed on lockdown as confirmed cases grew.

We are very thankful that our first administration of the certification exam was completed just in time. Though the remaining weeks of the spring semester will be a new experience for us, many of my students see new relevance for their careers as they are preparing to enter the healthcare profession or biomedical research.

— Jeff Lawton, professor of biochemistry at Eastern University 


You have to become imaginative in these times

ALBANY, N.Y., March 17, 2020 — The Wadsworth Center in Albany, N.Y., has been at the epicenter of U.S. and state coronavirus testing for weeks. I’m not directly involved, but I noticed that staff and resources were shifted significantly to meet the challenge of overwhelming sample testing and 20- to 22-hour work days (two shifts per day). The dedication of those folks was impressive — and made me (more) proud of my institution.

Robert Keefe is chairman of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at the Wadsworth Center at the New York State Department of Health in Albany.

New York’s governor just announced that (nonessential) state employees must stay at home for two weeks starting today, and, alas, I am one of those.

I am on the organizing committee of a regional science and engineering fair for junior and senior high school students that was scheduled to be hosted at a local university on March 21. But that campus now won’t allow gatherings of  more than 50 people (and may have even sent all their students home by now). So, this year (first time in 40 years of event), we’re going to try and pull off this science fair remotely. It’s all new territory, and I’m as interested as everyone to see how successful we’ll be in pulling it off!

— Robert Keefe, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health


A call for mending fences to save lives

KINGSTON, Ontario, March 19 — As I was recently reading ASBMB Today, I was struck by the comment (above) of the Italian biochemist Maurizio Crestani, who said: “Chinese experts just arrived to offer their help to fight the epidemic — or pandemic as the World Health Organization declared yesterday."

Donald R. Forsdyke is an emeritus professor at the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at Queen’s University at Kingston in Ontario, Canada.

Now, one can get immunized in two ways: by formal vaccination when an appropriately tested vaccine is available, or informally, by contracting the illness in question. Current data suggest that most of those infected with COVID-19 are fully recovered within a few weeks and are thus readied not only to return to work but, alternatively, to help with the treatment of those still afflicted.
Indeed, a significant proportion of the fully recovered will be either healthcare workers or those with skills that can be rapidly translated into caring for the sick. The mathematics says it quite forcibly: when the number of people newly infected rises exponentially, the number of healthy, recovered individuals rises at an even greater exponential rate.

At this time, the number of people newly infected with SARS-CoV-2 continues to drop in China and South Korea. Thus, it is likely that these countries will soon be in a position to permit their recovered healthcare workers to travel to North America. In anticipation of this, and in light of Chinese and Russian medical teams arriving to help in Italy,  we would hope that North American politicians would be excessively polite, even apologetic, to Chinese and South Korean politicians.

There is also a third path to a protected populace —passive immunity. Around 1900, in the pre-antibiotic era, if your child had diphtheria, you could allow them to be injected with the serum of a horse that had been injected with the bacterium. The specific horse antibodies could help the child through a crisis of the infection, although they might later develop what became known as serum sickness. Today, we have both human monoclonal antibody technology and recovered patients who carry coronavirus-specific antibodies in their sera. By scaling up production, as is being explored in both China and in the United States, we might be able to meet the present crisis long before formal active immunization becomes possible.

— Donald R. Forsdyke, Queen’s University at Kingston

ASBMB Today Staff
ASBMB Today Staff

This article was written by a member or members of the ASBMB Today staff.

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