A look back at TripLab’s second year

2020 was quite a year for our lab. Moving to working 100% remotely. The lab tripling in size. Getting multiple grants (and plenty of rejections). Initiating exciting collaborations. Training the leaders of tomorrow.

For me, everything about 2020 comes back to the pandemic and how it fundamentally changed how we do science. My initial fears - for the well-being of my family and my lab members - gave way to relief when I realized that the majority of the work that our lab does can be done remotely. I feel so lucky and privileged, especially in contrast to my wet lab colleagues for whom working during the pandemic was either impossible due to lab shutdowns or so so so much harder because of social distancing, gowns, masks, gloves, etc. And my heart especially goes out to my colleagues with small kids at home or those directly fighting the pandemic in the clinic and in their homes.

Working from home

I was so surprised how much of the day-to-day of dry-lab science can be done from home. We used laptops and VPNs to access our computing resources, Zoom for meetings, and Slack replaced office banter and people stopping by my desk to ask something quick. Don’t get me wrong - virtual doesn’t replace in-person, but I’d say it’s like 90% as good. I found discussions in weekly Zoom lab meetings to be less spontaneous than before, but were mostly ok. Because we could have folks join Zoom from anywhere, I often invited guests from outside the lab to join in on meetings from afar. We also had a couple in-person outdoor hang outs when it was warm enough and safe enough to do so, and those hangouts felt really special after only seeing folks through a Zoom window for so long.

While Zoom and Slack served my lab pretty well over the last year, being virtual made certain things harder. I found “difficult conversations”, especially related to personnel, even more difficult when done virtually. You just don’t get the same nuance from visual cues over Zoom and it’s easy to misinterpret something said in a Slack chat window. Also, while I’m fairly happy with my lab’s level of social cohesion and collegiality, there’s no comparison with the “team cohesion” that you’d get from water cooler or lunch time banter and having the ability to walk over to someone’s desk.

For me, the major challenge of working from home was over-work and finding a way to establish boundaries between “work time” and “non-work time”. I share a modest 1-bedroom apartment with my partner and having my “office” in our bedroom was terrible for my sleep and mentally disconnecting from work. But on the flip side, working from home has so many benefits, including eliminating commutes and between meeting transit times. I enjoyed getting to spend more quality time with my partner who was also working from home and we arranged our schedules to have lunch daily and go on frequent walks. All of this led to an overall feeling of having more control over my schedule. After the pandemic, I will genuinely have to think twice about whether I want the lab to stay remote vs go back to in-person or something in between.

Science and the lab

The makeup of the lab is completely different from last year. Last year was a year of rapid expansion and we’re now at a healthy size of 3 post-docs, 3 grad students, many ugrads, and we’re actively hiring for a number of positions. Because we’ve been working from home for so long, there’s a fair number of folks whom I’ve either never met or have only met a few times in person. But despite the circumstances, I’ve gotten to know each of my lab members as people, and genuinely enjoy getting to work with each of them.

We were really lucky with the grants we had applied for in late 2019. My fear in the early days of the pandemic in March and April 2020 was punctuated by shrieks of joy and disbelief when we got funding notices for my NSERC Discovery grant and our massive, collaborative NeuroNex proposal. These allowed me to feel like I could step back and focus on science instead of having to chase every grant that might seem relevant to the lab. But I still (weirdly?) enjoy writing grants, and especially helping out on grants led by my talented collaborators.

I finally learned what the overarching goal of my lab’s research is: to bring the fruits of our emerging knowledge of the brain’s cell types into practice for improving psychiatric care. Practically, this meant that the lab’s research areas expanded beyond our traditional wheelhouse of genes and cells and ephys to include analyses of large population-scale datasets, like ROS/MAP and the UK Biobank and internal datasets on the delivery of psychiatric care at CAMH. The lab has 6 papers in review with more at the draft stage and I’m expecting that 2021 will be a bumper year for our scientific output.

I learned that mentorship and training the leaders of tomorrow is as much a “product” of TripLab as our science (and possibly even more so). My most joyous moments over the last year were working with my trainees and sharing in their excitement of scientific discovery or even just watching them level-up their R or Python skills. And I’ve enjoyed leveling-up my own mentoring skills and learning what my particular mentoring style is like - very hands-on and motivating my students through frequent, cheerleader-like encouragement.

Shreejoy, the scientist

I still experience some of the anxiety that I talked about in my summary document last year. But a lot of the existential dread for the long term viability of my lab and feelings of imposter syndrome have given way to more mundane anxieties related to the day-to-day of running a growing lab. I often hear from mentors and colleagues that my lab is doing well but I struggle with internalizing this positive feedback. I want to get better at this going forward, but without letting it go to my head!

What’s helped most over the last year is learning to rely on the talents and strengths of others. Sophie Lafaille, our centre’s shared research coordinator, has been a gift from the heavens and has solved most of my struggles navigating the 10 circles of hell of organizational bureaucracy. Having systems for keeping documents and information organized has helped a ton too as the lab continues to grow. And delegating some routine lab responsibilities like data organization and some mentoring duties to more senior lab members has helped take a lot of this burden off of me.

I don’t get to code as much these days as I’d like (about once a week, if I’m lucky). But being pretty good at R and ok at Python has been critical in helping me quickly help students debug code or throwing myself into a preliminary analysis of a dataset to quickly assess the feasibility of a project. Though I’m quickly losing my title of best coder and data analyst in the lab, I’m mostly ok with that.

Looking forward

The biggest unknown for 2021 for our lab is what the “return to normal” following the pandemic will look like. Will we all go back to our physical space 100%? Will we keep working from home? Will it be a mix?

Whatever this coming year will be like, what (the mostly horrible) 2020 taught me is that TripLab is extremely adaptable and we have a good chance of succeeding whatever 2021 and beyond throws us.