Like people across the world, we’ve rushed to get off our campus and we’re now regrouping online.

We’re thinking about how to best support the professional and other needs of the lab. And we’re learning.

The first thing we’ve learnt, of course, is about pets. At work people talk about pets sometimes, but when we’re online pets push their way in all the time, and try to get attention. Fortunately, only one of my dogs has yet joined the meetings, and the cats and my favourite chicken haven’t yet been in the frame.

Work and home life are, and probably should be, separate, but the pets don’t really think too much about that. Nevertheless, their very presence reminds us that people like companionship and community. My simple philosophy of life is that what you need is: (1) community and (2) purpose. So, as we think about working from home, we need to pay attention to those things.

The first thing that happened was a great suggestion – that we have a daily video conference at 10 a.m. each morning. This provides routine and it sustains the community. It’s sort of funny seeing each other on the screen, arrayed, as they say, like the Brady Bunch. We have difficulty working out who should speak first, and deprived of body language, we keep interrupting one another. On top of that I’m slow at muting (to prevent my dogs’ barking/snoring being heard) and unmuting to speak. But we’re working things out. I’m reasonably confident that we can maintain the lab sense of community while we’re at home.

The purpose thing is going to be more challenging. At present, I’m loving it. There is a sense of urgency and agency. Decisions have to be made and the pace is exhilarating. Every day is full and there is one challenge after another. But I realise this won’t be the same for everyone. Our purpose as a lab is to understand defects of the blood and of metabolism – anaemia and obesity. Having shared purposes is critical to building a sense of community and identity. These are interesting problems, but we aren’t a corona virus lab so we’re a little peripheral just now. Our purpose is still important but has perhaps slipped down the priorities a little.

This is not such a worry, since as researchers we are very used to working carefully on topics that are important, if not topical. The big question is whether we can continue to deliver achievements to sustain our sense of purpose. Both of the secrets of happiness – community and purpose – require positive feedback. You need to experience appreciation in the community, a sense of belonging, value, security. And in terms of purpose, you need to feel you are making progress towards a goal. People need to achieve things. Group achievements sustain the community.

For some members of the lab it will be possible to keep notching up progress towards the purpose. There are manuscripts to write, analyses to do, and bioinformatics projects that can be continued. But for others it is necessary to change direction. To turn away from the immediate goals and set new goals, to move the goal posts and dedicate oneself to a new task. This can be done but it takes effort and a little time.

I’m quite excited about this as there are quite a lot of things I’ve felt the lab should be exploring but we’d been in a routine and were chasing one thing after another at the bench. Now we can step back a bit and do some on-line sleuthing. This will work but it is important that we take an individual approach and recognise that for some of us working from home is no big deal, but for others it entails a re-prioritisation.

The move will also cause some of us – separation anxiety. Not just separation from friends in the lab, but separation from the soap opera of science, from the chase, from the constant desire to find out – what happens next! There are a couple of projects where we have very clear hypotheses and even I am itching to know whether we are right, half right, or wrong. I have no choice but to be patient.

We’ll all be learning patience as we grapple with cabin fever and confinement. Being separate from the world for a few weeks sounds appealing, but isolation and confinement can become wearing over time. On top of that, all sport has been cancelled and instead of scoreboards and daily news the rising tally of disaster overwhelms our media feeds. Never has there been so much information and never have we needed information so badly.

One hopes that the messages will sink in and that locally, nationally, and globally, thoughtful responses to the unfolding challenges will be made. While this happens in the front line we will endeavour to keep the lab projects going and in a small ways keep our community together and our corner of the world turning.

The  Crossley Lab appears in CMM Friday


Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic


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