Science in a socially distanced world

On a typical day, I wake up, stop by my go-to café, and grab a chai on my way to work. I wait to drink my chai until I get to work so that I can enjoy it with my colleagues during our morning coffee session. My first hour of work is usually dedicated to this routine. Some may see it as frivolous or as a waste of working hours, but to me and many other scientists, these informal social gatherings are vitally important to our work and well-being.

When I first started working in a lab, I thought it would be socially similar to many of the other positions I’ve worked in. I expected to make small talk about the weather and office minutia, hang out at the occasional happy hour, and get to know a few of my colleagues well. What I didn’t expect was an environment that relied on social interaction. I quickly learned that science is highly social.

Whether you’re working together as collaborators, making close friends, or spending marathon nights in the lab, you get to know the people you work with whether you want to or not. Even in the greater community, you end up forming friendships and meeting old and new colleagues at conferences, whom you will inevitably run into time and time again. All of this is fairly typical of any work culture.

Moreover, the social aspect of science serves a critical role in stimulating creativity and diversity in research. On a typical day, most scientists can walk across the lab or down the hall to discuss a project with colleagues. The diversity in training and background changes the dynamics in a conversation that helps us think about our work in different ways. There’s a reason we spend so much time sharing our work with others. Without feedback and critiques from an array of scientists, our work would be more prone to fallacy and lack full creative potential. As we embrace a new work style, we must strive to find new ways to help maintain our social interactions so our virtual community will flourish.

When you are making your lab’s Halloween costume and realize you can have Donkey anti-Grad Student immunostaining! Image credit: Greg Alvarado

At some level, most of us, if not all, are aware of the importance of the social aspect of science. We acknowledge that it takes a village to produce and shape projects through acknowledgments, authorship, letters of recommendation, and more. But when thinking about the culmination of our work, do we acknowledge the everyday part that most of our colleagues play?

For myself, I find these interactions critical. The unstructured format of coffee breaks and hallway chats allow me to discuss aspects of science I wouldn’t normally in a lab meeting or journal club. In this context, I’m not limited by discussing my own work but have the freedom to chit-chat about new breakthroughs, interesting techniques, and rapid-fire design experiments on “how would you actually test that”? I may not ever work on these hypotheticals, but they stimulate the creativity I need.

As many of us shift to remote working, how does this lack of brief and routine social interaction affect ourselves and our work? In our rapid transition to virtual remote work have we taken the time to factor in these engagements? Have we made time to talk shop?

As a second-year graduate student, I spend the majority of my time with my lab mates. In addition to drinking our morning coffee together, we eat lunch with each other and usually end up going out for udon in Little Tokyo, LA. On the weekends, we go to events, bars, and museums together. We rotate hosting parties. We know the intricacies of everyone’s schedule, i.e., who are the morning people, who are our “9-5ers”, who are the late-night crew that are still powering through past midnight. These bonds are not formed overnight, but slowly built through shared space and work.

As I have moved to working online, I already feel a massive shift in my work. If I need to ask someone a question, I now have to send an email or set up yet another online meeting, as opposed to walking a few desks or doors down. Discussion during lab meetings and seminars suffers because people can easily work on other projects with their video stream and audio off. We lost our ability to see when someone else is about to speak and determine the best time to interject into a conversation. By not sharing a physical space, we lose access to social behavior and interaction that is vital to our functioning.

Celebrating the end of our summer intern’s internship! We love all of our students that come to work with us and miss them! Keep up the good work! Image Credit: McMahon Lab

It’s imperative that we consciously find ways to incorporate our social nature into remote work. For instance, I set up Slack, an online dialogue/messaging platform, for my lab. When setting up individual channels I specifically made a “social” channel for us to just say hi and chat. One of my lab mates set up a “plant” channel and it turns out a large portion of my lab loves plants! Seeing everyone’s socially oriented posts throughout the day helps me get to know my coworkers in a way I might not have before. I now see their gardens, yards, and neighborhoods. The “plant” channel inspired a “paws” channel, where now I know who has a pet in my lab and their pet’s name. We have also started a virtual lab happy hour for dedicated social time and interaction.

The McMahon lab wins the coveted department “best Halloween costume” with their immunostaining of the Kidney, upsetting a rival lab that has taken the title for the past seven years! Image Credit: USC Department of Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine, Sergio Bianco

Going forward, we are incorporating work hangout groups to help maintain motivation and direction while working from home.  We are also hosting lunch hours where we can eat and chat like we did in lab. Carving out even the smallest spaces for social interaction has helped our lab stay more connected and in tune with each other.

On a larger level, I started a journal and programming club with a colleague. It became so popular that we have over 200 attendees. What started as a department-specific group to help others learn has become a medical school-wide initiative. From this I have made new connections that I would likely never have made despite being at the same institution. We’ve even had members outside our university join, which has shown me another side to “shelter in place.” With so many of us working remotely, we have unprecedented access to scientists from around the world–making it an opportune time to start connecting through virtual initiatives!

During this difficult and trying time for everyone, as many of us continue to work remotely for an extended period of time, I urge you to consider how this lack of interaction may affect your work and groups. With the plethora of technology available to us, we can work to integrate the social aspect of science into our new remote lives to help us thrive.

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:

Amanda Meyer is a second-year PhD student studying inter-organ communication networks at the University of Southern California. She plays an active role in ASCB’s COMPASS and loves to spend time helping improve the scientific community.