Katerina Politi
August 24, 2020 · 4 min read

Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes

“Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes” is a series of articles born within ISA’s blog in collaboration with the Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei in Pavia, whose students community is marked by a strong presence of women in science. Science is research, long hours to carry out experiments in the laboratory or in the field, but science is also communication, grant writing, entrepreneurship, administration, teaching, project management, leadership and many other facets. We will post articles, interviews and short stories on these multiple aspects of the scientific endeavour. Should you like to contribute with your experience, do not hesitate to get in touch with Michela, ISA’s Head and Collegio Nuovo Alumna, here: michela.bertero@crg.eu.

Reflection on Leadership in Times of Crisis

As a laboratory principal investigator (or briefly PI), navigating a global pandemic was never on the list of things that I worried about. There are countless other things: am I mentoring and supporting trainees as best I can, which projects should the lab develop further, and which ones should we not pursue, will the lab sustain adequate funding over the years and so on. The emergence of the novel coronavirus has brought along a new set of concerns but also the remarkable opportunity to witness, experience and reflect on leadership in times of crisis. In my case, from the perspective of a principal investigator leading a cancer biology laboratory within an academic medical centre. I have collected some of these observations here because many of these factors and actions, in addition to being useful for this moment in time during a pandemic, are likely to also have value once we are past this crisis.

If I had to choose a word that comes to mind when I think of leadership during the pandemic, the word “communication” stands out.  It isn’t a surprise that communication is a central component of an effective response to a crisis. Even in the best of times, good communication is pivotal for both personal and professional relationships and when there is a crisis this becomes even more essential. Communication networks are complex throughout an institution, encompassing institutional leadership, departments, programmes, centres and smaller groups like individual laboratories so making sure that everyone has the most up-to-date accurate information is a challenge. Moreover, making sure that people’s perspectives and concerns from every facet of the organization are heard and acted on is crucial at all times and especially during a crisis.

As my lab faced the pandemic, we spent a lot of time on zoom talking about how to approach the process of pausing lab activities and then again to plan our return to the lab.

Katerina on Zoom with her lab members.

There are many aspects to stopping and restarting research activities from planning how to maintain critical resources during the time of lab closure to developing plans for de-intensification of personnel upon return to lab. Taking time to think through each detail and hear everyone’s perspective makes it possible to develop a strategy that works for the team. This process must include a way to make sure that there are ways for people to voice concerns and have them considered. The time spent working through logistical issues also served a dual purpose of bringing the team together at a time when we were all relegated to our respective homes after being used to interacting in person every day. We implemented lab check-ins on alternate days to keep everyone informed on the latest events but, perhaps, most importantly to connect and make sure that everyone was doing ok. We talked about challenges and fears but also about how we were figuring out to cope with the new, uncertain situation. We set-up a dedicated channel, in the Slack communication platform that we use for internal lab information exchange, dedicated to lab support where we posted uplifting news, touching stories or pictures and, of course, the inexorable recipes that delighted and comforted us during the height of the pandemic. Throughout this time, I was frequently moved and proud of the lab and how lab members came together to help each other and the lab as a whole to weather this storm. I also think that it was the reflection of us working together to cultivate an environment that is inclusive, respectful and supportive throughout the years in “normal” times. We were reaping the benefits now, during the pandemic.

Politi’s lab: 10 years of inclusion, support and empathy.

As vitally important as they are, team meetings don’t replace 1:1 conversations between a mentor and trainees and staff. In a crisis like this one, each and every person in a team faces a unique set of challenges, often amplified by geographic separation from family and friends when teams are composed of people from multiple locations and countries around the world.  How do you work and home school children at the same time? What if my parents or grandparents get sick and I can’t go help them? How do I make progress on my project without being able to do experiments, how is this going to affect my career?  As a PI, taking the time to understand what each lab member is thinking about is important both to help the individual and for planning for the team. Again, this is likely to work best if there is an already well-established relationship between the PI and the lab member where, in addition to talking about work, people know that addressing other seemingly peripheral issues is ok to do. Similar to how if we don’t control coronavirus, an economic recovery will be hard, if we don’t help people with their individual concerns, it will be hard to move science forward.

Individual teams and labs function within a larger infrastructure in an institution and decisions and plans that are made at leadership levels need to reach everyone in a timely way. Moreover, divulging information about the status of the crisis regularly is very helpful to avoid people from wondering what is occurring and rumours from spreading. In my experience, Town Hall meetings (virtual in the case of the pandemic), held consistently during the crisis, can be very effective at disseminating information broadly and allowing people to ask questions. These meetings can be held by the institution or by individual departments and centres. Small departmental town hall meetings are especially effective for fostering a sense of community within the group during times like these when people are more isolated.  Another effective strategy to provide information, comes in the form of newsletters containing the most recent information on the crisis at hand and any other salient news.

Transparent, consistent communication throughout an institution and within teams during a crisis can come in many forms to inform people of the most recent news but is also essential to have the community coalesce towards a common goal. Finally, and most importantly, we must not forget that each and every one of us is dealing with unprecedented situations and as leaders, empathy for others through this time must be at the forefront of how we act. In this, I am reminded of the words of the writer Maya Angelou “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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