Starting a lab is difficult under ideal conditions. With the challenges brought about by COVID-19, starting a new lab seems almost impossible. We spoke with new CAMB faculty members Dr. Colin Conine, Dr. Mustafa Mir, and Dr. Ziyue Gao about their experiences starting up their labs in the middle of a global pandemic.
Dr. Conine, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Genetics and Pediatrics, brought the multiple model systems that he worked with during his training to his lab here at Penn. He completed his graduate work and postdoc at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA and started his lab at Penn in January of 2020. When asked to describe his work, Conine notes “My lab uses mice (which I worked on during my postdoc in Ollie Rando’s lab) and C. elegans (worms, which I worked on during my Ph.D in Craig Mello’s lab) to study how RNAs can function as carriers of heritable information from one generation to the next.” His work now centers on “RNAs in sperm (in both systems) and how they are able to regulate embryonic gene expression/development and influence offspring phenotype. [We use] reproductive technologies in mice and worm genetics to manipulate how RNAs are transmitted from one generation to the next, but we also rely heavily on sequencing as a readout of gene expression and phenotypes induced by the RNAs.”
Dr. Mir, Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, joins CAMB with a unique
background in engineering. “I received my PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign... During my graduate work, I developed new optical microscopes which allow for quantitative imaging of sub-cellular scale dynamics without using any exogenous labels (e.g. fluorescent probes or dyes)… I [then] shifted my focus away from pure technology development to studying transcription regulation in embryos and joined the joint lab of Professors Xavier Darzacq and Robert Tjian at UC Berkeley.” Dr. Mir started his lab at Penn in January of 2021. “The goal… is to both develop and apply advanced light microscopy technologies to study how gene expression is regulated during early embryonic development. The microscope we are currently working on allows [one] to probe the vast range of spatial and temporal scales that are relevant to developmental biology, ranging from molecular scale dynamics over milliseconds to the emergence of patterns in an embryo over millimeters and hours and days.”
Dr. Gao, Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics, began her graduate studies in population genetics at the University of Chicago. “In retrospect, I feel I was very lucky to have gone there for graduate school, as this was one of the key decisions that shaped my life and career. Before graduate school, I knew nothing about … “population genetics”. After taking a couple of lessons taught by Dr. Dick Hudson (who is kind of famous in the field, but I had no idea at that time), I was eager to learn more in this area and immediately contacted a population genetics lab for [my] rotation.” After completing her thesis work in Dr. Molly Przeworski’s lab and her postdoc with Dr. Jonathan Pritchard at Stanford University, Dr. Gao started her lab at Penn in May of 2020. “The main theme of my research is to better understand how mutation, demographic history and natural selection shape genetic variation within and between populations and to use this knowledge to learn about human biology, history and evolution… [we take] a computational approach by developing new theory and applying novel analyses to genomic data from human populations and other species.”
As with many, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed how these PIs began their careers here at Penn. Prior to the shutdown in March 2020, Dr. Conine’s lab wasn’t yet operational. “I guess my lab has grown up with these things that most labs consider ‘new’, like virtual meetings and distancing ... I naively thought [we] would be up-and-running and pumping out data within a couple months, but I’ve now realized that even without a pandemic it would have taken much longer, and with one, it has taken nearly an entire year. But luckily, we are there now.” Dr. Mir adds “my interview for this position was held a week after we went into lockdown in California and I was recruited completely virtually. [My family and I] had never been to Philadelphia, so it felt very strange moving across the country to a completely new place, but we are extremely happy with our decision… It is a unique challenge to build a team when face-to-face communication is limited but I am very happy with the cohesion within the group that has already begun to form.” For Dr. Gao, the “new normal” is all work-from-home, as she juggles virtual meetings between feeding and entertaining a young baby. “This is absolutely different from what I envisioned originally. I was looking forward to working in my brand-new lab space, interacting with new colleagues and students, and going to talks and events on campus; and my parents were going to help us out with the baby.”
In addition to moving their lab activities online and to work-from-home formats, other obstacles including lab stocking and recruiting have presented their own challenges. For Dr. Conine, “trying to order all the equipment necessary… and stock a lab from scratch with consumables has been extremely challenging. Not having face-to-face meetings with the people I have hired (ever!) has been tough. Also, not being in person and able to meet my new colleagues at Penn has been a bit isolating.” Dr. Mir agrees, citing that “a big challenge… out of my control has been equipping the lab. There have been some predictable delays for things like pipettes and gloves but there are some unexpected shortages for things like some electronics components and power supplies.” He also agrees that it’s difficult to recruit people and build new professional relationships without in-person meetings. Dr. Gao’s biggest challenge is recruiting. “There are definitely fewer opportunities to interact with students, especially in casual circumstances… It is also harder to attract postdoc candidates and get to know them well. In addition, because of the visa restrictions and travel bans, it has been very hard to recruit international trainees.”
While circumstances have shaped what the “new normal” looks like for these faculty members, they highlight some silver linings to starting a lab during a pandemic. For all three PIs, time at home with family has been a blessing. Dr. Conine has 22- and 3-month-old boys at home. “It’s been very fun to spend extra time with them and see them progress both developmentally and socially.” Dr. Mir capitalized on time off between the end of his postdoc and the start of his faculty position to be at home with his 3-year-old daughter. “I [also] got to enjoy a lot of the beautiful northern California outdoors which I had neglected during the rest of my postdoc.” Dr. Gao finds balance with her husband by alternating working and taking care of their baby daughter.
Another common theme is the ease of attending virtual seminars. Dr. Mir notes that “it’s much easier to attend and give a lot of seminars which has been great both to learn more about my new colleagues’ work and also spread the word about mine… I hope this [virtual formatting for seminars persists].” Dr. Gao highlights that “these virtual events enable me to listen to talks given by great scientists worldwide and have real-time discussions with them without the trouble of traveling.”
In the meantime, Dr. Conine, Dr. Mir, and Dr. Gao have been looking forward to enjoying more of the fun Philadelphia lifestyle. Dr. Conine is “really looking forward to checking out everything that Philly has to offer like restaurants, breweries, sports, and outdoor events.” Dr. Mir has really enjoyed the Schuylkill River bike trail and the outdoor space at Fairmount park. He adds, “we have also enjoyed spending time in the Italian Market and surrounding neighborhoods, grocery shopping in a mostly outdoor marketplace is not just fun but also pretty ideal for a pandemic, not to mention the excellent choice and great prices!”. Finally, Dr. Gao is a fan of visual arts and is looking forward to visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The farewell gift that my postdoc lab gave me was a family membership there, but we haven’t had a chance to visit despite living within walking distance. I hope to pay a long overdue visit there after getting the vaccine. I also look forward to enjoying outdoor activities in [the] Philly area and welcome recommendations for hiking places!”
All three of our faculty highlights are looking for rotation students. Any trainees interested in learning more about their work can reach out at:
Bonus Content: The PIs in our triple feature share their tips on virtual presentations!
Dr. Conine: Be yourself. I know it can be difficult to have your personality come across effectively virtually, but I think it is very important in setting yourself apart from the rest.
Dr. Mir: One unfortunate aspect of virtual talks is that people are often multi-tasking and not looking at the screen, so I think it’s very important to use your voice dynamically to keep people engaged.
Dr. Gao: When giving virtual talks, one thing I find useful is to encourage people to turn on their videos so that I can see their facial expressions. When I notice someone looking puzzled or unconvinced, I… slow down or explain the message in a different way. Getting this “real-time” feedback from the audience also helps me identify issues in my slides/speech, so I can make adjustments next time. Another tip that probably everyone knows is updating and checking virtual meeting software a few hours before the actual meeting!