How Cell Biologists Work ‘at Home’ featuring Urszula McClurg

Urszula McClurg is a tenure-track fellow in the Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool in Liverpool, UK. McClurg started her group a year ago to study how cancer cells co-opt meiotic genes to proliferate and progress, in hopes of better understanding this terrible disease and finding novel, specific targets for cancer therapy. Targeting meiotic genes as a cancer treatment would be less catastrophic to the rest of the somatic cells in the body, which she explains well in this video. Due to the disruption of benchwork, the lab is now experiencing the COVID-19 rush to publish with the data collected before the shutdown. McClurg is also busy organizing virtual seminars for her department and attending a weekly meiosis seminar via Zoom. You can catch her presenting virtually in this series on July 30! McClurg kindly reached out to us via twitter, where you can follow her @UrszulaMcclurg.

Let’s start with your Name: Urszula McClurg

Location: University of Liverpool, UK

Position: Tenure Track Fellow (PI)

Urszula McClurg with a photogenic pigeon. Photo Credit: Jamie McClurg

Are you able to work?

Partly. Campus is in lock-down, so all lab work is stopped. I can only do office work (grant writing, finishing papers, any teaching-related aspects, while teaching is only 5% of my contract).

If you are working, where and with whom are you currently working?

For writing-related work, I work in my dining room on my own. I try to catch up once a week with my lab and make sure we are all doing what we can, but obviously this is different for everyone.

If not working, what impedes your work currently?

For any research work what stops it is the fact that the labs are closed, so we literally went to a complete halt. And I worry that even for the writing work there is a time limitation here. I only started my group a year ago. Consequently we are not sitting on years’ worth of data and unwritten projects. We now have to rush out a story that we would rather work on a bit more, and when that is submitted, we do not have another story to write up. Also for grants it is difficult, as we cannot generate any new preliminary data. For a new PI whose work is normally 100% wet laboratory-based, this is an absolute disaster.

What is your daily (or weekly) routine? Any regularly scheduled meetings or activities? Anything you really enjoy or really dread?

I try to keep routine. Every Thursday, I hold lab meeting at 10:30 for two hours. Every Thursday there is a Zoom conference in my field (meiosis)—this is amazing and the absolute highlight of my week. I tried to replicate this system, and I now host a biweekly seminar for my department at UoL every other Tuesday at 3:00 pm.

I have a tutorial with my Yr1 UG tutees every Thursday at 2:00 pm for one hour. Apart from that, all day, every day writing and reading as much as I can…

McClurg’s dining table, where she is working from home. Photo Credit: Urszula McClurg

What are your daily distractions?

I have two stage-4 cancer patient parents in Poland; I spend a lot of my day talking to them as they are in an incredibly difficult position. Also as they cannot leave the house and I am an only child, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out provisions in Poland to secure them food and medicine deliveries online. I also devote a serious part of my day to just thinking and being scared for them. This is always using at least 50% of my brain space.

Do you have any strategies that are helping you stay productive (or sane for that matter)?

I try keeping a routine and setting ringfenced daily goals. Also I have a twice weekly Zoom drinking session with friends all over the world from my previous posts; this is the main thing that has kept me sane.

Is there anything you have time for now that you previously kept on the backburner?

Reading papers, this has indeed been a great thing, and I am really catching up on literature. While for me, because of my dyslexia, it is easier to read a printed out paper and highlight, but at home I cannot print all the papers (my husband is using our office set up for his job), so I find it harder to absorb information.

In light of recent events, is there an initiative (or multiple) in which you have taken an interest or active role?

I love the meiosis in quarantine series. I am organizing UoL Biochemistry in quarantine series. I am also talking at the cilia in quarantine series. The online meetings have been a blessing.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I worry that this is making a huge division with people with kids thinking that no one else has it hard and any other difficult scenarios are overlooked. Having vulnerable dependents overseas is incredibly difficult. I have a disability and was meant to have a surgery to decrease my pain, and that was canceled as hospitals canceled all non-emergency procedures. Life is very hard in quarantine even if you do not have kids. We need to be mindful not to make it a divide. Let’s remember that we do not understand other peoples’ situations, no one is denying that having children will really decrease productivity in quarantine and must be incredibly hard, but it is not the only possible hindrance!

Is there another biologist that you think is handling this situation with creativity/amazing productivity/an interesting perspective? We’d love to interview them, as well!

Paula Cohen at Cornell, she is a super hero!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:


Kira Heikes is a graduate student in Bob Goldstein's laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently studying embryonic development in tardigrades. Twitter: @KiraTheExplora Email: kiraheikes@gmail.com.

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