Bing Ye discusses the impact of a full year of reduced research efforts at the LSI (and it might not be all bad)
On March 20, 2020, the University of Michigan officially shuttered all non-essential research in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. As we mark our first “Panniversary,” LSI professor and research associate dean Bing Ye reflects on how the institute has navigated a year of reduced research efforts, and the potential long-term impacts — both good and bad — on the scientific enterprise.
In addition to leading a lab through the research ramp-down and re-engagement, Ye served on the LSI COVID leadership team, which also included LSI Director Roger Cone, Associate Director Janet Smith, Managing Director Anna Schork, and Director of Operations Cathy Andrews.
Looking back to a little over a year ago, do you remember a specific moment or occasion when you first realized that things were about to change?
It’s difficult to recall one specific moment, because all of it came as quite a sudden change. We had our worries about shutting down, but I didn't think it would be that fast. I think it was a Monday when the university asked us to start planning for the possibility, and by Friday, we were already fully ramped down. We had to act fast.
That’s right — on March 16, the university was encouraging researchers to promote social distancing in labs. And then on March 18, the announcement came out that all non-critical research had to fully shut down by 5 p.m. on March 20. Do you remember what your lab was going through during that week?
Right away — in response to the instruction that we should prepare for increased social distancing, not the complete shutdown —we were starting to discuss the preparations that we needed to do. We created a Google Doc where everyone could list their ideas. For example, how would we deal with our large number of fly stocks? There are thousands of fly stocks that we have to maintain. And for that short time, we were still thinking about what experiments we could keep doing, trying to maximize productivity with fewer people in the lab together.
How did those plans change once the full research ramp-down went into effect?
Well then we had to stop thinking about experiments and start thinking just in terms of maintaining our model systems. In addition to our Drosophila stocks, we also work with mice and with wasp colonies — and those are even harder to maintain. So we had to designate two or three members who would come in for that essential work.
But there’s a challenge there, because not everyone in the lab can do everything. A few people can handle the mice, someone else can maintain the wasp colonies, and several other members can maintain the flies. And then we also had to consider everyone’s comfort level. Some people didn’t feel comfortable coming into the lab, or couldn’t because they had young children who were at home doing remote school. Others really wanted to come back as soon as possible. So it was important to consider all the aspects — not just who had which essential skill, but who was able or willing to come in.
We were lucky; we were able to balance everything and maintain all of our reagents. But it was such an uncertain time and there was so much to balance.
What approach did you take to leading your lab through the ramp-down period, while trying to balance all of those various considerations?
One important thing for me early on was to engage the lab members throughout the process. Shutting down doesn't mean the lab is gone. Everybody in the research lab — postdocs, research staff, students — they are committed to their research, and we are committed to their training and their work.
I think every PI [primary investigator] wanted to keep a full workforce, so we had to change the way we work and find ways to keep everyone engaged. Instead of lab research, we did literature study research and journal club discussions early on. We also tried to develop ways that we could continue work remotely —computational biology, writing manuscripts, for example. These are things that we could do remotely, so we put more focus on those projects during that period.
Did you find that you had to increase the frequency of virtual meetings to keep everyone connected?
We initially increased the Zoom meetings and paper discussions during the shutdown period, and that worked fine.
Then when the university began the gradual reengagement of research in May, more lab members had the opportunity to come to the lab. But they were working under very strict safety requirements — social distancing, new cleaning procedures, mask requirements. And lab members also had to carefully plan and prepare their experiments ahead of time, to minimize their time in the lab. At the same time, people were very concerned about contracting the virus. There were just a lot of extra stressors that we were learning to deal with.
The journal clubs are important learning opportunities; but under special conditions like what we were experiencing, they can become a source of extra stress. So when research started to ramp up more, we actually reduced the journal clubs to help reduce stress. Throughout this process, there has been a great need to factor greater understanding — and compassion, in fact — into the decisions we are making for how we run the lab.
As the LSI’s research associate dean, you have had a central role in setting and implementing not just lab policies, but building-wide policies. How has the LSI balanced all of these rapidly-changing needs — maintaining social distance, keeping building density low, keeping everyone safe, supporting mental health — with scientists’ and labs’ needs to keep their research moving forward?
The balance between safety and productivity has always been central to scientific research procedures. But at the beginning of the pandemic, we really had to shift it out of balance, fully in the direction of safety. Safety is still the most important. But, over the past six or seven months, productivity has started to come back into the equation. We aren’t back to an equal balance yet, but we are working back toward a better balance of productivity.
We have a COVID leadership team at the LSI, and we have worked very hard during the shutdown and ramp-up to be responsive to all of these various needs. Throughout the summer, especially, we were constantly getting updated policies from the state, the county and the university. So after every policy was announced, our team would figure out how that would work at the LSI and make sure we were communicating that to our researchers. And we also communicated in the other direction — taking feedback from the individuals who were working on the ground, in the labs, and sharing that with university leaders to try to help strike the most reasonable balance.
As that balance shifts back toward pre-pandemic capacity, do you foresee long-term impacts of the decreased productivity over the past year?
It definitely has had an impact on research and training for everybody in the life sciences research enterprise, and I think that will weigh more heavily on younger scientists. A Ph.D. program is usually five, six years, and this has been an entire year of that typical timeframe. Life sciences research is mostly experimental science — and if you don’t have access to the research facility, you're just not going to be able to get the same level of productivity and training.
There’s an impact for junior faculty, too. They are facing the tenure clock, trying to meet criteria for numbers of publications, numbers of grants, etc.
The University of Michigan and the LSI have considered this impact on junior faculty when creating our policies. As we were ramping up, the LSI was limited in the number of people we could have back in the building. We prioritized junior faculty in our process for deciding who could come back at each stage, as capacity allowed, allowing more researchers to come back to junior faculty labs more quickly. And the university is allowing junior faculty to request a delay in their evaluation for tenure, which I think is reasonable. That should be the case.
But even with these efforts, there is going to be an impact on everybody’s research, and I think more so on young scientists and junior faculty.
On the flip side, do you think there are changes we’ve made that will stay with us?
I do think we’ll be able to take some of the things we’ve learned from this past year and make long-term changes that could have positive impacts on productivity. For example, I think we’ve found that a lot of work can be done remotely as efficiently and effectively as in-person — and I imagine that much of that will continue to be done remotely.
Another thing that I think will be beneficial even post-pandemic is the adoption of new technologies that improve efficiency, like using Zoom instead of requiring everyone to be in the same room at the same time. That can save time for everyone. We’ve found ways to work together, remotely, and I think a lot of those will continue to help improve productivity.
What have you found most inspiring about what you've seen across the LSI in the past year?
The LSI community, together, has really proven to be such a remarkable group. I’ll start with the faculty. When this all started, we were having faculty meetings almost every week to figure out what to do. This was a very high-stress time — we were dealing with a disaster, and no one was complaining. Everyone was so constructive, and everyone was just focused on what we can do to maintain safety.
We have been able to really build a safety culture. Every day, a volunteer from the COVID Leadership Team or from the faculty walks through every floor to monitor for compliance with the safety policies. This was especially crucial in the beginning of the re-engagement process, because not everyone was accustomed to these new practices. Having someone check in every day to help provide that reminder about staying six feet apart, or wearing masks correctly, that helped to form a culture of safety in the building.
The staff have made such an impressive effort to make sure everything continues to get done remotely. And the facilities staff stepped up to keep the building operating even on a skeleton crew.
And these efforts for safety and productivity would not have been fruitful if those in the labs — the students, postdocs and research staff — did not work together toward the same goal. Our researchers have not only complied with the safety policies while trying to work efficiently but also provided crucial feedback to the leadership team. We owe them a lot for building a safety culture successfully.
Throughout this whole process, I’ve seen our community working together to come up with solutions to a very difficult challenge and move forward together. And that’s what you want when you’re facing a disaster — people who are willing to find new ways to get things done and protect each other.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.