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This as-told-to essay from Jessica Hebert, a postdoctoral fellow in OB-GYN at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Shaena Montanari. Shaena and Jessica spoke Thursday, March 19.
I am a placentologist at Oregon Health & Science University, where I am a postdoctoral research fellow. Yes, a placentologist is a real job! I study the placenta, which connects a fetus with its mom so they can exchange nutrients and waste. When something with the placenta goes wrong, it can lead to numerous issues, including low birth weight and stillbirth.
The lab I work in is preparing for a potential full lockdown, where no one will be allowed inside. Right now, we are already running on a limited capacity, and nonessential staff will not be allowed next week, but it may escalate, so everyone is bracing for that. The machine that tests how mitochondria are working in our lab is booked for 12 hours a day every day until the end of the week, which is atypical, as researchers scramble and try to finish experiments in case they aren’t allowed in next week.
It is extremely unusual to have to close down a lab unless it is closing down permanently. Closing down a laboratory and pausing experiments for an undetermined amount of time under these circumstances is unknown territory for us. One of our biggest concerns right now is the placenta repository we run. It contains samples of donated human placentas that we’ve been banking since 2016. These samples stored in our lab need new liquid nitrogen every three weeks to stay frozen. If something happens, like if the power goes out and we’re not there, it could be really bad. We’ve put alarms on everything and posted emergency phone numbers—but in the highest level of lockdown, we still might not be able to get inside.
Another major issue is the thousands of animals in our university’s laboratories—mice, ferrets, rats, and sheep—that need care. We have dedicated animal care staff at the university who will be allowed inside if there is a full lockdown, but they are only able to take care of animals that are not on special diets for specific experiments. We have had some lines of mice for around 15 years, and if we lose them, they are gone forever. We are being encouraged to downsize the number of animals via euthanasia to streamline care in case of closure.
Even now, before a shutdown, we are losing valuable time. We can hardly do any experiments. I can’t start a weeklong or even overnight experiment in fear that I might not be able to make it back to the lab. I had to cancel a mouse pregnancy experiment that was supposed to start next week because I need them at a specific pregnancy stage (gestational day 12 of 19), and if I don’t get them at that day, the experiment isn’t useful to me.
I’m talking with other early-career researchers about this, and we’re all scared. We don’t know how we can get our next funding grant if we aren’t continuing experiments. We don’t know what happens to funding for projects while we are shut down. The National Institutes of Health seems to be funding projects while we are shut down, but for how long?
But even with labs shutting down, deadlines aren’t changing—we still have a conference abstract submission due next Friday. I can submit something with data I already have, although I would have loved to run another experiment for this submission and now I can’t do it.
I’m making what plans I can for when I’m not in the lab: I am going to work on data I already have collected from various experiments, but because of this experiment and career interruption, my place in this field I love is precarious. I think the people who are going to be hardest hit by this are grad students, postdocs, and people really early in their careers who don’t have a great big body of work already, because we won’t have as much of a research track record to show for our job hunt. We are learning to get by and do our science with fewer experiments and resources, though a lot of us were already living on that edge before all this, so it’s kind of like getting blood from a stone.
I am luckily not worried about pay for myself because OHSU has committed to paying salaried workers through June 30. Early-career researchers are in a lot of trouble, but we’re all doing the best we can. We are low on our own protective equipment for our experiments, and we are donating it to medical professionals who are testing for and treating the disease in our state. It’s a new world out there, and I have a lot of empathy for everyone going through this. At least I know I’m not alone.