A Lab With All the Comforts of Home—Because It Is

Tufts researchers explore the idea of conducting more experiments from home, with benefits for scientists and society

Professor Michael Levin is seen through an aquarium filled with frogs. Levin argues that conducting experiments from home could be a useful complement to university labs during a shut-down.

As the COVID-19 pandemic closed university campuses this spring, laboratory research at many institutions—including Tufts—had to ramp down. Unable to go into their labs, scientists were limited to mostly computational work at home, rather than conducting experiments.

But what if some of that research could be done remotely? Michael Levin, Vannevar Bush Professor of Biology, wrote an article in the journal The Scientist proposing just that.

Conducting experiments at home, he argued, could be a useful complement to university labs during a shut-down—and make research more efficient at other times as well. Tufts Now spoke with Levin and Caroline Genco, Tufts’ vice provost for research, to explore an idea they call Research@Home.

Tufts Now: What inspired you to think about this idea?

Michael Levin: I was thinking about the effect that this pandemic is having on research—and the fact that this pandemic is inevitably not the last one. Back before science became institutionalized and formalized, you’d have these gentlemen-scientists who would do all their experiments at home. Even today, there are movements for the democratization of science; people who live in environments where a state-of-the-art lab isn’t possible for everyone are finding ways to do “frugal science.” I thought, what if we take this opportunity to hone our infrastructure and ways of doing things so we are not caught off-guard next time?

Caroline Genco: Mike approached me in March or April in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic and said, “You probably think I’m crazy.” And I said, “No, this is a fantastic idea. I love it. Let’s talk about it.” It’s creative. It’s innovative. It’s a little off the wall, sure, and there are some obstacles we’d need to overcome, but it’s definitely something we want to work on and make a strategic initiative for the university.

What kind of science can be done safely at home?

Levin: Tons of good science can absolutely be done at home—basically anything that isn’t too highly toxic or infectious. You have stuff in your garage already that is more deadly than the things I am talking about. People have aquariums in their homes, you can buy a frog tank… 

Genco: We’re never going to go completely remote. But maybe Tufts can do 60 percent remote research. During the pandemic, we’ve come up with HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliance on Zoom so we can still do human behavioral and social experiments from afar. We could start with low-hanging fruit like that and work our way up.

Levin: Animal behavioral experiments that require long observation times are also particularly good candidates—you can cut the head off a flatworm and take a picture every day as it regenerates over time. Why should you have to go into the lab to take a picture? You could pull out a microscope at home. Then every two weeks, you could go into the lab and use fancy imaging equipment for your final data.

How could this make science more “democratic?”

Levin: It’s about the empowerment of everybody. Right now, if you are young and healthy and unencumbered, you can stay in a lab all day—but many people are not at that stage in their lives. We’re talking about people with disabilities, people on parental leave, anyone who needs to stay at home taking care of children or the elderly. If you want to keep your career going and you are able to do certain things from home, why haven’t we made that easier for people?

Genco: What I also like about this is that it could be used to do research in the United States while we deal with things like COVID-19, but we can also use it in developing countries that don’t have the same infrastructure. It’s answering a larger question about how to study what’s going on internationally in real time. If you want to study worldwide problems, you’ve got to study problems where they are.

How might shifting to research at home benefit Tufts?

Genco: One thing COVID has taught us is that maybe we don’t need to go into work five days a week. We spend a lot of money on research buildings. We could be more strategic, more efficient, and more collaborative—and maybe we can also have a better footprint from a greenhouse perspective, not having all these buildings generating pollution.

What would it take to make this a reality?

Levin: There’s a bunch of regulatory stuff. If you are working with animals, you need to be able to inspect labs and make sure they are living up to [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee] standards.

Genco: There’s no reason we can’t figure that out. When people work in a Tufts lab, we have to inspect the space where they do the work. We go to different campuses right now already, so I guess we’d go around to people’s homes.

Levin: After the first time, you could do inspections over Zoom.

What about equipment?

Genco: That’s easy, because we already have a system where people have been working remotely and taking home a computer or printer—so why not do the same thing with lab equipment? You could have some standard equipment you could take out for a month or whatever, like a library.

What about concerns from outside the university?

Levin: We’d need a framework for dealing with legal issues. For example, some towns don’t allow you to have certain kind of animals. Also, journals would need to get on board with this, so if you go to publish data that was obtained in your living room, they don’t freak out.

Ultimately, why is it important to implement this now?

Levin: Science is the only reliable way we make our lives better at a large scale. If we put a lot of research on hold for six months, that’s a lot of suffering that remains unaddressed. We need to keep going in the face of these challenges, and adapt and overcome. It’s really important not to give up on these things, just because we can’t be in the lab together.

For a series of related stories about the university’s early response to COVID-19, please visit our retrospective Tufts Remembers March 2020.

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