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Running Successful Lab Meetings during a Pandemic

Running Successful Lab Meetings during a Pandemic

Lab managers share their general advice, plus their tips for virtual gatherings

by Sara Goudarzi
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Running an efficient laboratory requires holding regular in-person meetings to check in with peers and employees on their projects, share ideas, and bond with others. On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, many lab operations and meetings had to be altered to fit the new paradigm of a world that called for distance. Lab managers then scrambled to ensure that their routine get-togethers continued in some manner.

At the Chiappinelli Lab at George Washington (GW) School of Medicine and Health, lab meetings are typically strictly scheduled for specific days and rarely impromptu. This is so everyone is aware of when they need to be available. Typically held in person, these meetings were quickly moved to take place in virtual spaces.

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“Now we have a day in the week where we all get together on a Zoom or Webex at GW,” says Melissa Hadley Beaty, laboratory manager and research associate at the Chiappinelli Lab at the GW Cancer Center where the staff focuses on ovarian cancer epigenetics and methylation.

Though the meeting space has switched, the agenda stays similar to before the pandemic. “We go over joint topics or deliver work that maybe we have questions about or need some advice on,” she explains.

The team also holds coordinated meetings with another lab within the Cancer Center at GW that they work closely with. They hold these joint lab meetings every other week and, every several months, present data to receive feedback from one another. However, since lab members were not producing as much at the beginning of the quarantine, there was a lull in data. Now, they are starting to go back into the lab again, so data is trickling back in.

For Hayk Simonyan, research associate at GW, there’s also a distinct line between pre-pandemic and the current situation. He manages Colin Young’s laboratory, which focuses mainly on mice and certain areas in the brain that have connections with cardiovascular and metabolic changes during obesity, with side projects that include the liver as related to the brain and glioblastoma. Pre-COVID-19, for the past five years, the team met twice a month, typically on Thursday mornings. However, things changed in late February into early March, becoming rather hectic after the pandemic hit stateside, and the lab began to meet online—first on Webex, then Zoom, and now on Google Meet.

“We initially started to do the meetings to understand how we’re going to work things out because the labs were shut down and there are only a certain number of people allowed into the labs,” he says.

By April, the team managed to get back on a regular schedule of meeting roughly twice a month, though that schedule isn’t strict.

Currently, they don’t hold meetings on a set day, but more on an as-needed basis, Simonyan explains. “That’s because you need more time since we’re working shifts [and] don’t generate a lot of data, so people working would need more time to finish up the experiments and have enough data and information to talk about.” The meetings, therefore, may be twice a month or one to three times a month.

Meeting format

To keep meetings flowing in an organized manner, Simonyan and his colleagues follow a sequence. They begin with general comments and concerns, such as those related to surgeries, or inventory, followed by going around the room and having each lab member present their projects and related updates.

“I start talking about general stuff and go over that for 10 to 15 minutes and then we’ll discuss what can we change and what new implementations I have for them and ask their opinion about that,” he explains. “After, each person will talk about his or her questions [and] if anyone has a presentation or talk coming up, we’d also do a separate day just for [that].”

At the Chiappinelli Lab, team members hold individual meetings with their principal investigators (PIs) to talk about specific projects. Additionally, they convene in a group to talk about what’s going on in the lab, what projects are currently up and running, any specific issues the staff may have, and to go over journals in an effort to stay up to date with literature and ongoing research. Further, if needed, the team might assemble spontaneously.

“For example, if we’ve shared a protocol for, or with, another lab, it’s a lot easier to ask for a meeting or phone call to go over questions or concerns about a project,” says Hadley Beaty, who explains how these quick, five- to 10-minute meetings can clarify information that in emails could get confusing or take more time to decipher.

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Such connections also help any members currently working on review articles. “It’s definitely imperative to make sure that those live members connect, and sometimes I might need to be the one that facilitates [the] connection or schedules a meeting,” she adds.

“One of my roles as lab manager is to kind of make sure we all have time to meet and we all meet at times that are productive and easy for everyone to attend, especially now,” Hadley Beaty says.” Everybody’s kind of working from home. Our PI has children, I have a child. And so it’s not only working around work schedules, but also children at home.”

Hadley Beaty’s meetings are strictly scheduled so that everyone knows when they need to be available. “We used to do these in person, but now we have a day in the week where we all get together on a Zoom or Webex at GW. We go over joint topics or we deliver work that maybe we have questions about or need some advice on.”

While the meetings are planned in advance and they have some structure, their format allows for flexibility.

“We don’t really have it structured in terms of who presents first, but we do tend to have everybody present basically one to three slides if they have slides to present on data or a topic,” she says. “Then everybody kind of chimes in, or if there’s a topic that we need to talk about, like a lab-related issue or something, we’ll talk about that.”

As team leader, Hadley Beaty will either go first or last in the meetings. This way she can discuss lab-related issues or a topic that is important for the lab members to discuss.

For the joint lab meetings, she opts for more structure because the discussion includes two labs, which means it involves at least double the amount of people. If it’s one of their data retreats, she makes sure to send out a schedule ahead of time so each person knows their time slot and allotment. When and if a person takes longer, she nudges them along so they can keep on schedule.

After the meeting

Having team members leave with a clear sense of what needs to be done after a meeting is over is critical to the success of that gathering. For some lab leaders, that’s achieved with an actionable items list for the members to take with them as a result of the meeting. For others, it’s taking stock of what everyone is up to prior to the start of the next meeting.

Simonyan asks team members to report on what each member has done since the previous meeting, which is typically a two-week period. If something on a person’s list has not been completed, they go over why it hasn’t been, what needs to be implemented, and any changes necessary that would help that person successfully follow up or carry out their assignment. Further, he tries to follow up with team members during the two weeks between meetings.

“Let’s say we’re working on a paper—people who are working on it will update the other lab members during the lab meetings,” he says.

Hadley Beaty leaves her team with a discussion at the end of the meeting which either involves a new schedule of who needs to do what or an email she’ll send that will outline what was discussed and what new schedule or rule will need to be implemented and the next steps.

“And then, usually the day after the meeting, I actually set the next week’s meeting, so they also are reminded that if they have something to discuss again, there’s another meeting next week at this time so we can talk about it then.”

Further, Hadley Beaty has a weekly check-in log where her staff write out what they did the previous week and anticipate in the upcoming week. This helps streamline the issues or research that need to be discussed and keeps meetings on track.

Similarly, Simonyan’s team sends one another a summary outlining what they will discuss, helping everyone come into the meeting with an awareness of the upcoming discussion as opposed to showing up without a concrete idea of what to expect.

“The other thing is to send a reminder the day before about the meeting and the way it’s going to take place because I found out that just putting it on a calendar doesn’t always mean people are going to look into the calendar,” he says.

Utilizing such tools, these managers have not only kept their meetings on track for years, but also continue to do so during a time where daily lab life has been anything but routine.