“We've got a really efficient system in place”

© 2020 EPFL Alain Herzog / Laurence Gouzi Abrami / Francisco Sarmento Mesquita

© 2020 EPFL Alain Herzog / Laurence Gouzi Abrami / Francisco Sarmento Mesquita

When the lockdown ended, the restart had to be planned – and that has been no easy task. But it’s all systems go at the Laboratory of Cell and Membrane Biology: experiments are now being restarted, the team has been organized into shifts, and all the necessary authorization requests and equipment orders have been put in to keep things going.

It might come as a surprise, but the restart has actually been more complicated than the lockdown. Laurence Gouzi Abrami, a scientist in the lab, explains why: “To get our experiments up and running again, we had to recalibrate the machines, check whether we had the necessary equipment and, if not, order it. Everything’s a bit more complicated than it usually is. If we need liquid nitrogen, for instance, we have to submit a request to get the storeroom opened. I’m in charge of supplies, so I put in the orders, but then the deliveries don’t always come when they’re meant to.”

Laurence Gouzi Abrami was eager to start again the experiments © 2020 EPFL Alain Herzog

Abrami also looks after the PhD students. She’s worked with Gisou van der Goot for 24 years and is her right-hand person in the lab. “Despite her heavy workload, Gisou keeps an eye on all of the projects. She’s set up lab meetings and journal clubs – all on Zoom, which she uses a lot. She’s very good at delegating and at trusting her teams. She’s got a comprehensive view of everything that’s going on and she helps me to think of everything down to the last detail, especially now that we’re opening up the lab again. We’re very frank with each other, and I like that.”

Getting the team back in the lab
Francisco Sarmento Mesquita, a postdoc in protein biology, is happy to be back in the lab and out of the makeshift office in his living room. “We can see each other again. Or at least half of the team can! It’s not as nice as if we were all together, but it’s a good start. We’ve got a really efficient system in place. A five-person team works from 7am to 1pm and the other does 2pm to 9pm. That allows us to do six hours straight of full-on work, before we go back home to work on the computer. It’s a very efficient way of doing things, and we work in pairs so that we don’t waste time. An experiment started in the morning can be finished up in the afternoon, and if I begin one in the evening, my partner can take over again the following morning.”

Francisco Sarmento Mesquita is happy to see his team again © 2020 EPFL Alain Herzog

I put arrows on the floor – just like in IKEA
In the end, Abrami was ready to get out of the house: “Even if working with my husband and 20-year-old son at home wasn’t a problem, I was ready to get back to work. I missed the lab, the experiments, the culture rooms and working with my hands. I wasn’t worried at all about COVID when I came back to work. I’m quite rational about such things – if you understand what’s going on, then you know what you have to do. And I trust my teammates, and that whoever was there before me disinfected everything properly. We have all the necessary safety equipment, so we’re very well protected. I especially liked EPFL’s welcome kit.”

“Our specialty is microbiology, so safety measures are part and parcel of our work,” adds Abrami. “To keep the distance between colleagues, I put arrows on the floor in the lab to mark the way, just like at IKEA. That means we don’t bump into each other. That can happen a lot in a microbiology lab – you’re always having to go and get samples from shared equipment like the fridge and the incubator. It was a really fun way of doing things.”

Laurence Gouzi Abrami marked the aisles of the laboratory to avoid crossings