Author: Jeffrey Letourneau
As social distancing measures went into effect, laboratory research underwent a rapid ramp-down and is now majorly restricted. With rare exceptions for COVID-19 research and maintenance required to ensure future viability of labs, scientists are now, for the most part, working from home.
For most, the lack of access to critical lab equipment has put lab research on hiatus. That means transitioning to reading scientific articles, writing papers and grants, and analyzing data. This transition has created new challenges for a group used to working with their hands, potentially leading to feelings of boredom and guilt over low productivity. To combat this, many scientists have gotten creative, turning their kitchens and garages into labs. Regardless of whether these at-home experiments have the potential to generate publishable data, the extra time at home has been an opportunity to rediscover the fun in science in a free and relaxed setting.
Strategies for at-home science vary widely. Dr. Jennifer Tsang, a science communications and marketing coordinator at Addgene, put together a microbiology quarantine bingo with some activities that resonate with microbiologists stuck at home. Items on the bingo card ranged from actual work like “organize lab notes” to more mundane microbe-related tasks like “eat cheese” and “wash hands,” and even “miss the smell of E. coli.” Among these activities, Tsang herself has been making sourdough and kombucha. “I like that it's something I'm growing and that I have to check on it every so often. It's like an experiment, but now I get to eat it.” Like Tsang, other scientists across disciplines have found joy in growing, building, and testing from home.
Recreating the Lab at Home
During the warmer months, Charlie Deaton spends a lot of his time in the field, monitoring water quality, bird and turtle nesting, and other metrics of health at the NC Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve (or simply, The Reserve). However, Deaton, a research specialist at The Reserve, says that the field season is on hold for the time being. “It's hard to do proper social distancing in boats, which we need to access most of our sites.” As a result, Deaton has shifted to computational work to understand the reserve’s geography, such as processing drone imagery and updating maps. As a “fun break” from computer work, Deaton temporarily turned his kitchen into a lab in order to filter water samples. These samples will be frozen and shipped to the National Park Service as part of an ongoing water quality monitoring program.
Meghan Barrett, a PhD candidate in biology at Drexel University, also turned her kitchen into a makeshift lab, albeit for a very different type of research. Barrett studies Centris pallida, a solitary digger bee in the southwestern United States. “I've […] had to downgrade my expectations for how much I can reasonably get done this year, without access to all the right equipment and supplies,” she says. Without a lab, Barrett has taken to dissecting bees on the counter next to her toaster. Borrowing a water bath from the lab has enabled her to continue experiments to understand the maximum temperature at which the bees can survive.
Temperature, Barrett explains, is an important environmental factor related to mating behavior in the males of this species, which can exhibit one of two different strategies. The mating strategy of small males, “has them hovering 1-3 feet off the ground near trees (much cooler), while large males are in full view of the sun on a ground that can easily heat up to over 50°C!” Barrett is hoping to answer questions about brain-behavior relationships in these bees. For example, “How long can a large male stay in his hot microclimate before he gets forced out due to lethal constraints?” Barrett’s work also has important implications for understanding how global warming might affect this in other species. “If climate change continues to go the way it's going, will it have selective effects on the behavioral diversity of species?”
This is not the first time Barrett has done science from home. Previously, she studied the solitary wasp, Isodontia auripes, dissecting nests in her kitchen to understand the structures’ architecture. “Once I opened a nest and a cloud of parasitic wasps flew out; my husband was… not pleased. He's not an entomologist, so I don't think he found the moment quite as cool as I did.'
Others, too, have startled family by blurring the lines between home and lab. Emory Wellman, a master’s candidate in biology at East Carolina University recently surprised her family by ordering “a soldering iron, epoxy, and a bunch of other stuff” to build wave sensors in her garage. Wellman researches materials that can serve as a base for self-sustaining oyster communities, and under normal circumstances, she would be working in the field a few days a week this time of year. “Essentially all coastal habitats are being lost or degraded, intertidal oysters among them,” Wellman says, “This project is cool because it has the potential to create a new oyster habitat while also potentially giving the adjacent eroding salt marsh a fighting chance.” Part of the work involves using wave sensors to measure how well the different materials that serve as the base of an oyster reef can reduce the impact of waves. To have a chance at getting these measurements this summer, Wellman plans to build them from home.
Beyond practical reasons, Wellman is looking forward to a change of pace. “I see the wave gauge construction as a way to make the most of quarantine and develop a new skill. It will also be a welcome change of scene from my desk and computer.” Wellman hopes to deploy her newly made wave sensors this summer, even if a few of them get destroyed in the name of science. “Hurricane season is projected to be a doozy, so ‘sacrificing’ a few sensors for the possibility of getting storm wave energy data is attractive.” To that point, one aspect of building wave sensors at home that particularly excites Wellman is having a tangible final product to show for her work. It can be difficult to have that feeling when reading or working on digital tasks, which helps to explain why some, like Wellman, see at-home lab work as a way “to make the most of this forced time indoors.”
Science just for the fun of it
One of the activities listed in Tsang’s bingo card is the Winogradsky column. Named after microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky, this famous experiment is a method for growing soil microbes. As the culture develops over a period of weeks, layers of bright color can form, revealing patterns of microbial growth.
Having just wrapped up a project studying pigments in microalgae, Patrick Colledge, a third year undergraduate Biology student at Swansea University turned to this classic experiment to get a taste of lab work from home. Colledge was inspired to start his own Winogradsky column when sitting in the office of his mentor, Prof. Dan Eastwood, who had multiple well-developed columns on display. “Fortunately, I live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so I was able to find a muddy body of water to collect a small portion of mud and water to fill a column with.”
The Winogradsky column can even be used to compare growth patterns under varying conditions, as Dr. Rob Ferguson, a senior research officer at the University of Essex, has done. By adding different nutrients, such as an egg yolk or a rusty nail, or by varying the environment by keeping one in the sunlight and one in the dark, different results can be obtained. Ideally, Ferguson would love to use some more advanced equipment to analyze his columns. “I would definitely want to be able to do DNA sequencing at home. For example, I could identify the microbes in my columns. Indeed, this is possible with portable platforms like MinION, so maybe for my birthday!”
Ferguson had never made a Winogradsky column before, “but always wanted to have a crack at it.” The inspiration came in part from the extra time, but also the fact that it was a science experiment he could do with his kids. “My kids play with mud in the garden all day so I thought, they might be into this.”
Similarly, Dr. Kendra Maas, a facility scientist at the University of Connecticut, has made at-home science a family activity by hunting for tardigrades with her son. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are eight-legged micro-animals known for their ability to survive in extreme environments. “I've been meaning to go tardigrade hunting with Jack […] for a while but we never seemed to have the time.”
Lessons learned from at-home science
Many have argued that we are all born scientists, but that most of us lose that innate curiosity somewhere along the way. Even for professional scientists, it can be easy to get bogged down by grant writing, competition, and imposter syndrome. Taking the opportunity of being away from the lab to engage in some at-home science for fun is a great way to rediscover the joy and excitement of scientific discovery. And as with research in the lab, an important part of science is sharing your discoveries with others, be that posting pictures on social media, creating a guide to tardigrade hunting, or giving a piece of sourdough starter to a friend.. As we forge a new normal in a post-COVID-19 world, hopefully we can hold onto some of these lessons and remember to take time to find the joy in science.