How Cell Biologists Work ‘at Home’ with Agathe Chaigne

Agathe Chaigne is a postdoc working at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London, in Ewa Paluch’s lab. Agathe is a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellow investigating the biophysics of cell division in pluripotent stem cells. Her recent work reveals that a change in the timing of the final step in mitosis, called abscission, is a contributing factor in mouse embryonic stem cells’ exit from naïve pluripotency. Agathe kindly volunteered to share her experience with our How Cell Biologists Work @Home project via twitter, where you can follow her @AgChaigne and see more of what she’s been up to at home and in the lab! Thanks, Agathe!

Let’s start with your Name: Agathe Chaigne

Location: MRC/LMCB, University College London, London, UK

Position: Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow

Are you able to work? Yes. I am working in my London flat, with my partner and my cat. My partner is also a postdoc in academia and working from home.

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

To be productive, one of the key things that works for me is to stick to my usual routine. Getting up, 20 min to 1h yoga, which replaces my daily cycling to the lab, breakfast, then work (usually starting between 8:00-9:00 am), lunch at my usual time, and work only until 6:00-7:00 pm.

I am part of several labs (mostly Buzz Baum’s and Ewa Paluch’s), so I try to attend both their Zoom lab meetings. They both also have started Zoom journal clubs, which I really enjoy because it forces me to read papers and it’s a good way to stay in touch with the people in the lab. Both labs also implemented social coffee Zoom meetups, which I join if I am not in the middle of something.

Agathe Chaigne in her current work environment in her flat in London.

What are your daily distractions?

I live in a big city (London), so going out while self-isolating is not that easy. I try to go on a short walk every two days or so, and I try to move around the flat every hour, otherwise, I get really stiff. I have a cat that cries for food every so often and tries to walk on my laptop, which is sometimes a welcome distraction. I listen to a lot of music, podcasts; I like opera, and a good opera on YouTube can carry you for three hours of paper/grant writing. In the evening, I usually watch series/movies, cook, and I knit a lot, which gives a sense of productivity as well.

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

First of all, let me start with a disclaimer: I don’t have any dependent here (kids or people I need to care for). That doesn’t mean my productivity hasn’t been affected (I can’t go to the lab and generate data, I have a paper that’s been in review forever and even if the reviews ever come back, I don’t know how much of the work they ask will be doable, I have friends and family at risk that are in different countries, I am on the job market and all hiring is slowed or frozen, possibly for several years, while my grant is expiring next year, and I am expecting a baby in June in a context where nobody wants to be in a hospital).

I really try to stick to my usual routine. The only thing that really deviates from my routine is that I allow myself no alarm clock—because contrary to usual, I don’t need to be in the lab at a specific time to fix cells, take a microscope slot… So I favor my sleep, especially since I tend to go to bed early and wake up early anyway. Feeling rested is extremely important for my productivity.

Something that is important for me is getting dressed: it doesn’t have to be full-on formal wear, it can be yoga pants or sweatpants, but I make a point of getting out of my pajamas. It may seem random, but that really marks the fact that the “workday” has started.

Other than that, I try to be as optimistic as possible and support my family, friends, and labmates. The situation is stressful for everybody and I am a pretty social person, so I try to keep all lines of communication open and be there for people. In particular, my younger colleagues can be pretty stressed by the situation, so I try to lift everybody’s spirit, which means both being present for important work conversations but also posting a lot of baby Yoda memes on the lab slack. It gives me a small sense of purpose, which is very welcome.

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

Yes, I have been able to write my second paper that was sitting there half-written for a while, and I have much more time for reading and analyzing old data, which is always difficult between experiments. It is the upside of being a senior postdoc struggling to find a job in these difficult times. I have tons of ideas that I wrote in a little book during the 4.5 years of my postdoc, and now I have time to revisit all these ideas, look into old data, analyze very big datasets… So far, I would say my productivity is pretty high, albeit not in the direction I would necessarily prioritize if I had a choice.

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

As I can’t be a part of testing (because I am high risk) or important research on Covid-19 (because it is far from my area of expertise), I partake in several online things, such as scientific Crowdfunding for Covid-19 and the UCL study on mental health during confinement.

Anything else you’d like to share?

One of the things that I have found difficult these past few weeks is the competition people seem to want to do with each other (in particular on Twitter). Some people are apparently showing off how productive they are and making everybody else very stressed (I don’t have that many around me, but I have heard many people complain); other people are complaining about how much more difficult it is for them than for everyone else, which I truly think is a little insensitive. Some things obviously hinder productivity (for example having to care for young kids), but that doesn’t mean that people without kids don’t struggle for other reasons—mental health, isolation, small space, family issues that are not obvious, career uncertainty… it is a difficult time for everybody and I don’t think we benefit as a community from pitting people against each other or making suffering a competition. I think it would be much better if the community accepted that we are all in this together, drop the competition altogether, and rethink on a global scale the ways we do science. On a large scale, I think that means revisiting the way research is funded (it’s pretty unbelievable that most big universities and several funding agencies worldwide are announcing that they are freezing hiring/funding/ending contracts). Do we really want a research system this fragile? On a smaller scale, we could rethink the way peer review is done: I have seen debate on not asking for more experiments that do not change the message of the paper in these times where it is actually impossible to perform those experiments, and I have seen backlash from people saying “yes but it’s unfair because for my paper a year ago I did have to perform those experiments so why shouldn’t you?” Maybe it is now time to not ask for those experiments, regardless of whether there is a pandemic happening?

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.

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Jenny Heppert studies the cell biology of host-microbe interactions. She is currently a postdoc with Heidi Goodrich-Blair at the University of Tennessee. Twiiter: @hephephooray

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