Returning to the lab safely

DEAR LABBY: I am a fourth-year graduate student in cell biology. Our laboratory is about to be able to open without space or mask restrictions as long as people are vaccinated against SARS CoV-2. It is up to the PI of each lab to be satisfied of the proof for those vaccinations. The unvaccinated are still asked to mask and social distance themselves since they are now particularly vulnerable to infection.

I have been working in the lab on a limited schedule since last fall, when we were masked and on strict rotations to keep the lab population low. While I am eager to go back full steam, and am fully vaccinated, I worry that not all my fellow building dwellers and even laboratory colleagues are vaccinated. And I worry that some of the PIs in the building are not circumspect about those vaccinations, as they too want the labs back pumping scientific iron.

How do I balance my safety and my professional progress with these concerns? I am afraid that if I raise these issues, I will be viewed as not committed to my science and to the success of the lab.

—Vaccinated but Worried

DEAR Vaccinated but Worried: Your concerns are shared by many, many others in the scientific workforce, and we are all taking small steps to be able to be at the bench safely. There are likely others in your building and lab who share your concerns; you all just feel uneasy. It is fine to contact your PI or your department’s graduate advisor to voice your worries and learn what protocols exist in your building for those who feel ill or for those who haven’t been vaccinated. Also consider suggesting to your PI to add check-ins about anxiety levels as well as check-ins about experimental results in the lab meetings. Your lab is a community that cares for each other. In addition, Labby has seen that many institutions are providing counselors to people during these very challenging times. 

Labby does not presume to dispense public health advice, particularly as our understanding of best practices to cope with this pandemic is fluid. For example, as this is being written, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have just revised their guidelines on mask wearing. Labby hopes that you (and your university) will pay close attention to guidance being issued by national and local public health experts.

After a year of avoiding each other, trusting each other to be truthful about vaccination status (or symptoms) can be difficult but everyone wants to be safe, vaccinated or not. There are some experiments that use equipment in close quarters, making spacing from others impossible during short periods of time. Again, follow the recommendations of public health officials about the best way to stay safe under such circumstances. Clearly you pay attention to the progress being made against this continuing pandemic. The science about the virus is what informs public health strategies that allow us to work safely.

Enjoy the activities that allow you to continue your career in the sciences safely, as you follow the science of SARS CoV-2. Take care.


About the Author: