Carefully, Yale labs stir to life across campus

As reactivation gets underway, the estimated 4,000 members of Yale’s research community are heading back to campus — with both great joy and great caution.
Vanessa Scanlon

Vanessa Scanlon, an instructor in laboratory medicine, is among thousands of Yale researchers, graduate students and staff who have resumed working in university labs since June 1. (Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

Yale’s research labs are coming back to life — with new safety measures in place and a renewed sense of purpose.

Since June 1, the start of a broad, three-phase reactivation of campus, an estimated 4,000 faculty members, graduate students, and staff representing more than 500 labs around Yale have fired up microscopes, opened fume hoods, or dusted off other essential research equipment.

It is a cautious return, to be sure, with strict new state and university rules in effect to ensure health and safety amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

But it is not without joy.

To actually see our colleagues in person, even from a distance — everyone here is delighted about that,” said Stephen Strittmatter, the Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology and professor of neuroscience, whose lab in the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine reopened on June 1. “We’re all thrilled and excited that we’re able to come back and do our work.”

Most lab-based activity stopped in March, as Yale shifted into largely remote operations, except for designated essential workers, a group that included researchers studying COVID-19. The Returning to Yale website offers details about the reactivation phases, guidelines for conduct, and a list of FAQs.

The enthusiastic spirit Strittmatter observed pervades pockets of Science Hill, the Yale School of Medicine, West Campus, and other areas of campus, as chemists, geneticists, engineers, and a host of other scientists and technicians continue making their way back to the university.

One person in my lab said today she was so happy, it was like seeing unicorns and rainbows as she drove in,” said Diane Krause, professor of laboratory medicine, cell biology and pathology, whose lab is in the Amistad Building, near the medical school. “We care very much about science, and we’ve worked hard at home, but it’s not the best environment for doing science.”

Scanlon in the lab
(Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

The initial phase of reactivation was weeks in the making, university officials said. Yale worked with campus experts in public health and safety, as well as state officials, in planning the reopening.

Each faculty member or facility director in charge of a lab created a lab-specific safety plan to guide work and individual behavior. The approval process for safety plans involved department chairs, departmental committees, deans, and the provost’s office. In addition, there were separate safety plans for core facilities and shared spaces — everything from microscopy labs to dishwashing areas.

Our approach to this initial phase of research reactivation has been one of patience,” said Provost Scott Strobel. “We are implementing a gradual resumption of work that can only be carried out on campus. The care we take now will speed the process of full reactivation later, as health conditions continue to improve.”

Michael Crair, vice provost for research and chair of Yale’s Research Continuity Committee, said the reactivation was planned with an abundance of concern for safety, and required careful coordination with all major university departments, including IT, facilities, and transportation staff.

As a safety measure, shuttle bus service is operating with a limit of 25% capacity. New protocols were established for disinfecting equipment and surfaces, and guidelines have been set for elevator and bathroom use.

This is the beginning of the return to some semblance of normalcy, as well as a return to our mission of education, research, and community,” Crair said. “This work is our passion.”

Each day, Yale lab workers planning to come to campus must first check themselves for COVID-19 symptoms and, if present, stay home, per state mandate. If there are no symptoms, they must report that they assessed themselves. In addition, many labs have created their own digital calendars to coordinate which researchers will be on site at a given time, what equipment they will need to access, and how long they will be present in the lab.

Crair said many labs are scheduling work in shifts. Others are splitting into cohorts, so that the same individuals will consistently be together.

While on campus, lab workers do only work that they can’t do at home. As soon as they finish, they leave the lab, he said. 

On Science Hill, Department of Chemistry Chair Kurt Zilm said there are about 150 people who are able to return to labs. To make that happen, he said, every lab, office, and open room has been reconfigured so people can work while maintaining social distancing.

It was a huge team effort,” Zilm said. “Facilities did a phenomenal job of anticipating our needs. They knew what we needed and got everything done.”

Yale researcher in the lab, wearing a face mask
Associate Research Scientist Yi-Chien Lu in the Krause laboratory doing FACS analysis (Photo credit: Diane Krause)

Many of the chemistry laboratories that opened last week are devoted to experimental chemistry. Scott Miller, the Irénée du Pont Professor of Chemistry, said people in his lab quickly went about the tasks of cleaning work areas, redistributing equipment, and ascertaining the purity of catalysts and reagents.

Miller said he had thought the work might take a couple of days. Instead, by the end of the first day a few people were already eager and ready to start experiments. Overall, he said, the lab reactivations are a testament to the many Yale departments that pooled knowledge and skills in the service of Yale’s scientific enterprise.  

Collaboration has been key,” Miller said. “It is very important not to over-extrapolate one’s own expertise.”

At the Krause Lab, there can be only three or four people working in the lab at any time. Krause said they started by straightening and reorganizing work areas while also trying to initiate scientific work — for example, thawing cell lines that had been cryogenically preserved.

She said the lab is also exploring the idea of using a GoPro camera in the lab: Ideally, a person in the lab wearing the camera could interact with colleagues working at home.

Krause also lauded Yale’s Environmental Health and Safety department. “They’ve been so busy helping, both during the shutdown and now during the reactivation. They have reviewed every single laboratory’s reactivation plan for assurance that the risk of infection remains low,” she said. “They’ve done an incredible job.”

At the Strittmatter Lab, 20 people are part of the lab re-activation plan. They are working in shifts and have a log book in which they record their arrival, as well as which areas of the lab they need to access.

Strittmatter said his lab colleagues greatly appreciated the care and planning Yale put into reopening labs and libraries. Now, he said, they can begin concentrating on tissue culture experiments — and working together again.

It’s a delight to be able to say hello to someone,” Strittmatter said.

Editor’s note: On June 8, Yale University Library resumed some scanning and digitization services and opened a book pickup service in Thain Café at Bass Library. A related story is forthcoming. Please see the library’s FAQ on reopening.

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