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  • Alex Cloherty

A day in the life

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

"I woke up, got outta bed, dragged a comb across my head" - The Beatles

Last week, instead of writing about microbes, I was talking to Sean from the Coast Reporter about them - click here if you want to give it a listen (and let me know what you think - I'm still too nervous to listen to my own voice. Writing is easier!). After a week off, I'm getting back to a question that I've gotten from a few different people: how has daily life changed for scientists in this pandemic?

Being a scientist myself, I can indeed speak to that. As a PhD student, in normal times one of the best things about a PhD is the vast variety of tasks included in the job description. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Every week, my major tasks include planning and executing experiments in the lab, documenting my experiments (including updating my lab journal, updating protocols, writing pieces of manuscripts, and making PowerPoint presentations to share my findings with colleagues), and supervising master students doing practical internships in the lab or written theses. There are also many other smaller tasks that come up. For example, to keep labs running smoothly, usually everybody needs to pitch in a bit. Everybody working in a lab needs to help keep it cleaned and well stocked. In the coming week, for instance, together with another colleague, I will be responsible for decontaminating the week's trash from the higher-security lab where we work with HIV and other relatively dangerous viruses.

Just like all the other jobs, the lab life has been shaken up by the current pandemic. To give you an idea of how it's changed, I chose a week from last summer, and compared it to a week in May. Here goes!



Monday in 2019

Every Monday morning, we have a departmental meeting at 10:00, where two people from the department give updates on their research. Oftentimes, not being much of a morning person, I aim to arrive at the hospital where I work just early enough to make it on time for the meeting. Schedule flexibility is another big advantage of the PhD life. Today, though, I need to arrive earlier to finish planning the experiment I want to start later this week. I work on the setup for the experiment for an hour before grabbing a coffee and running upstairs to the department seminar. After the seminar ends at 11:00, I spend the rest of the morning, and most of the afternoon, until 16:00, updating a manuscript to send to my supervisor to look over. Once that's done, I finish analysing my last experiment until 18:00. It's important to always look over your previous experiments before moving on to the next ones, so that you can take forward what you learned from the week before.

Tuesday in 2019

Today, I'm in the lab for most of the day. When I arrive in the morning, though, I first grab a coffee and make a PowerPoint presentation about the data I analysed yesterday. The research group I'm in, the Autophagy-directed Immunity group, has weekly meetings in which we each discuss our latest data, and give each other feedback on how to proceed with our experiments. I need to have a nice PowerPoint presentation ready in time to show what I've been up to in the last week, and hopefully get some nice ideas from my colleagues and supervisor to consider for my next experiments. For the rest of the day, aside from the meeting, I'm in the lab. I spend the morning with blood cells. I am putting these cells on a 96-well-plate, which is basically a plate with 96 tiny petri dishes on it that each nicely fit 100000 of these blood cells, to prepare for an experiment that I'll continue tomorrow. In the afternoon, I harvest cells infected with HIV (also on a 96-well-plate) from last week's experiment. I'll analyse them tomorrow. After I finish with that, I start another experiment. For this experiment, I am working with donated post-surgery human skin, which is a great model for testing antiviral drugs. I cut the skin into tiny circles, and treat each circle with a drug that I'm testing to see if it can block HIV infection. I am busy with the skin experiment until 19:30.

Wednesday in 2019

From 10:00 in the morning, I am back in the lab continuing my two experiments with the blood cells and skin. Once I'm done with that, I go to a machine called a flow cytometer, to analyse last week's experiment, that I collected yesterday. In this case, I am using the flow cytometer to measure if the cells I collected were infected with HIV or not, and if yes, how bad the infection was. Simply put, this readout lets me see if the drugs I treated these cells with worked, or not. After I finish at the flow cytometer, I go back and add some different drugs to my blood cells in the 96-well plate. Finally, at 17:00, I have a meeting with my supervisor to discuss the latest draft of the manuscript that I sent on Monday. After the meeting, it's time to go home.

Thursday in 2019

Today I arrive early, at 8:00, to harvest the experiment with the blood cells. I'm testing if the drugs that I added can prevent excessive inflammation in these cells - i.e. stop them from freaking out too much when they encounter a potentially harmful microbe. I don't have time this week to measure the inflammation, so I store my samples in the freezer for next week. After harvesting my experiment, I finish my lab duty for the week, and then start another experiment. Together with a colleague, I have to check how infectious the last batch of HIV that we produced is. We are using cells that basically glow when they are infected with HIV - and the brighter they glow, the more infected they are. This gives us an idea of how potent the last HIV production is. Today, all we do is get the cells ready on a 96-well-plate. We'll infect them tomorrow. After lunch, I finish analysing more data that I haven't gotten to yet, and start putting it together into a PowerPoint presentation for a meeting next week with collaborators in a different lab. We want to give them an update on our experimental progress. Then, I leave earlier than usual, at 16:00. It was enough long days already for the week!

Friday in 2019

First thing in the morning, at 9:00, I go upstairs in the hospital to donate blood. We have a mailing list in the department, through which other researchers make requests for small blood donations for their experiments. Today, I'm giving 8 small vials of blood for the research of another PhD student. Needles freak me out, so I've been trying to donate small amounts of blood every few months to get over my irrational fear. After my donation, I sit around eating chocolate and fruit until my light-headedness goes away, and then head back to the lab to infect those glowing cells from yesterday with HIV. We'll leave them over the weekend and measure how infected they are early next week. While I'm in the lab, I also collect all the immune cells that have fallen out of the skin that I worked up on Tuesday. The skin tissue stays floating on top of culture medium (a kind of nutritious soup for cells), but the immune cells that I'm interested in fall to the bottom of the little petri dishes. I give these cells a wash, and then put them on a new plate with new medium so that they will stay alive over the weekend. I'll measure the HIV infection of these cells next week at the flow cytometer. Once I'm finished in the lab, I spend the afternoon finishing my PowerPoint presentation for the meeting with collaborators next week, and then make a detailed schedule for next week. At around 17:00, my weekend starts!



Monday in 2020

Surprise, I actually took Monday off! I went kayaking. But, it's not for lack of work to do. It's because I worked on the weekend. Now, because we stick to a maximum of 30% occupancy in the labs, there is no 'typical work week'. We work in shifts, and fit in our lab work whenever possible.

Tuesday in 2020

In the morning, I get a haircut. The hairdressers just re-opened, and my bangs are badly in need of professional assistance. I spend the 45 minutes or so chatting with the hairdresser about viruses, which I must say has never happened before. I walk back home for 10:00, and review the latest version of figures for a manuscript. I cross-check information in published papers online, and make some notes about changes that have to be made to the figures. When I'm finished, I start planning my experiments for two weeks from now. I have to book ahead space in all of the labs I work in, so I plan extra far ahead to make sure I can schedule my experiments properly. In the afternoon, the research group that I'm in has an online meeting. We have started working on SARS-CoV-2, and planning to produce a genetically modified version (to make it safer and easier for us to work with) of the virus for our experiments. Whereas before we each had our own projects and worked relatively independently on them, now we are all working together with the same goal - to find new treatments for the coronavirus. After our meeting, I go to the lab for a short, pre-booked block of time to care for the cells that we'll use in our upcoming SARS-CoV-2 experiments. As soon as I'm done, I come back home for a meeting about the figures I checked over in the morning. We finish the meeting around 19:00, and with that my work day ends.

Wednesday in 2020

Today, the whole morning consists of meetings. The biggest chunk of time is taken up by reviewing and planning SARS-CoV-2 experiments with my colleagues. Directly after the meeting, my colleague goes to the lab to start the experiment, and I will go in the evening to continue it. Before heading to the lab, though, I meet with the Master student who started an internship with me in January. It was supposed to be a practical internship in the lab, but due to the coronavirus-related restrictions, we have had to switch it to a writing-based internship. We discuss her progress and make some plans for the coming weeks. After we finish our meeting, I go into the lab. I get home around 21:00.

Thursday in 2020

Today, I start the day with a meeting with my supervisor, to discuss my PhD progress and make some plans for the future. These meetings are always very inspiring, and I come away with lots of ideas for the next months. After our meeting, I spend the entire afternoon planning and scheduling my next experiments. My brain is totally dull from all of the spreadsheets by about 16:00, so I finish up early for the day.

Friday in 2020

In the morning, I have some meetings again to discuss specific experiments and protocols with colleagues. Usually, we just pop into each other's offices to discuss things like this. I never realized how efficient that system was before these corona-times! In the afternoon, I catch up on my emails, and then head into the lab to care for my cells again, just like on Tuesday - they need to be fed twice a week. While I'm there, I also prepare everything I need for the weekend. I need to check on the SARS-CoV-2 experiment, and also need to book a full day for measuring another non-SARS-CoV-2 experiment that I started last week, so I'll be back in the lab from 9:00 to 21:00 on Sunday.


So there you have it, a week in the life of a scientist... Pre- and post-corona.

See you next week,


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1 Comment

Jun 02, 2020

Hey Alex, what interesting insights - thanks for sharing. You sound very focused in both situations, and maybe a little more animated in the pre-pandemic 'week'. I think that's quite understandable. - cheers, michael

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