In her cell biology lab in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Development Biology, LSA Associate Professor Ann Miller—along with the research scientist, postdoc, graduate students, and undergraduates who work with her in the lab—examines frog embryos through the lens of very powerful microscopes. The lab is interested in the embryos because of their epithelial tissues, which first coat the early embryo and then its developing organs and form protective barriers that separate different compartments within the organism. Epithelial tissues are made of a tightly connected layer of individual cells, which Miller’s lab captures with live microscopy movies in order to understand how the bonds between these individual epithelial cells change shape and divide, allowing the embryos to grow and transform as they develop into frogs.
Although this work relies on equipment only accessible in the lab, Miller and her team worked to find resourceful ways to both continue their research and their positive lab culture while working exclusively from home during the COVID-19 outbreak. “As we saw things were heading toward leaving the lab, lab members collected as many live imaging movies as they could,” says Miller. “We have been working to figure out new ways to think about and investigate our imaging data, like analyzing movies with new computational coding approaches that lab members are learning while they work from home.” A couple members of Miller’s lab are preparing to write papers, and are organizing, outlining, and making the figures that they’ll use. Others are preparing for a prelim exam, thesis committee meetings, or virtual talks.
It was important to Miller to keep up research momentum despite social distancing, but she and her lab members wanted to find ways to maintain the lab’s sense of community and to support each other as human beings too. In addition to weekly research meetings, Miller lab research scientist Rachel Stephenson suggested they also hold social check-ins twice a week: a “Tea Time” and a “Coffee Time” where members discuss how they’re coping, celebrate birthdays, and share the highs and lows of teaching, learning, and continuing their research remotely.
One week, Miller and her school-aged children even attended Tea Time dressed in formal wear. Postdoc Jen Landino’s toddler also makes frequent appearances at these check-ins, as do the pets of various lab members. “At times it’s more science-focused, like someone telling us about a webinar they thought was cool,” Miller says. “But much of the time, we talk about what we’ve been doing for fun. We also share blunders and triumphs. We used to do this in the lab, talking about mistakes in our experiments, but now we’re focusing on what we’ve been doing while sheltering at home. We’ve shared a lot of baking, cooking, and even some hairstyling snafus.”
Miller and members of her lab have experience finding fun moments to connect over their research, like when they celebrated "Party Like a Frog Day" during Spirit Week in September 2019.
Miller also encourages her lab members to use the same strategic approach they’ve honed while doing experiments and working with data to organize their personal and professional lives during COVID-19. “Each week, I ask people to track on a shared spreadsheet what they're doing in terms of research, teaching and mentoring, service, professional development, and self-care. We have a column for each category, and we also have a column for prioritizing what experiments people want to do when they return to the lab,” Miller explains. “I want to model that I'm trying to take care of multiple aspects of my life. Some weeks, one aspect has more progress and some weeks some aspect has no progress, and that’s okay. We’re just aiming to take at least some steps forward.”
Like the embryonic epithelial cells that Miller’s lab researches, campus—and the world—are undergoing a major transformation. And like the bonds between these cells, Miller and her lab mates have found a way to maintain a connection despite a physical divide. “We try to do things to help the lab have cohesion during good times, and we want to continue that now even though everybody has different home situations and challenges,” says Miller. “Keeping research momentum going and spirits up is not that different from what we always do in the lab. We’re just trying to keep those values going during this time apart.”
- Please visit the University of Michigan’s response to novel coronavirus COVID-19 for the latest information.