The New Reality for Gene Therapy Researchers

Edith Pfister, Ph.D. - April 16, 2020

Dr. Pfister shares what her life has been like while working from home during the pandemic.

In my life outside of the lab, I’m a runner and a triathlete. In fact, I was at a training camp in California when the country started to shut down. First, my kids’ schools closed. Then I heard that we had to wind down laboratory operations and I found out that the Boston Marathon was postponed. Finally, camp was shut down as the pools were closed. I spent a morning on the phone trying to re-book my flight home and worrying. For the first time ever, I wiped down my seat on the plane with Lysol wipes and the couple next to me moved because they were worried about a man wearing a respirator in the next row. Stress levels were high.

Back in Massachusetts, I decided not to go in to work, just in case I’d caught something on the trip. I had people freeze down my cells and put my things away. I tried to redirect my kids’ energy to something more productive than video games.

The first week was rough. People were texting me questions from the lab as they were trying to shut down, we hadn’t yet gotten the hang of Zoom, and I just wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through several weeks of this. It seems funny to type that now that we are going on a month. We’re scheduled to re-evaluate the closings on May 3 and I fully expect the closings to go on longer. Turns out it isn’t so bad though. We’ve settled into a routine. I still resent the fact that people talk about “homeschooling” the kids. I’m not homeschooling. I’m making sure they get the work that is assigned by school done, but you won’t catch me writing out lesson plans or going on Pinterest to find craft projects. We are surviving.

As for work? I’m limping along. I set up a desk in our living room. The other day I spent an hour on a trip to BestBuy to pick up a keyboard since the one on my laptop mysteriously died. I’ve spent a lot of time editing manuscripts and grants. I’ve been reading and teaching myself some new data analysis techniques. Everyone in the lab keeps in touch over Zoom. It’s a slower pace, but I’ve accomplished some things that I’d been putting off.

We’ve mostly shut down work in the lab for now. We have technicians who go in once a week to take care of animals. This mostly consists of checking for weans and harvesting mice that are part of ongoing experiments. We’ve scaled back breeding so that we’re only keeping colonies going. The school has implemented a universal masking policy so every employee receives a mask upon entry into the building and must wear the mask in all shared spaces. All of our labs are shared spaces, so effectively this means that people working in the labs are always wearing masks.

I happen to be in the department of medicine, so I’ve been listening in on the calls about preparations on the hospital side. So far that has been encouraging and helps to keep my anxiety in check. I’ve enjoyed not having a commute every day and I’ve been using the extra time for extra workouts. If nothing else, I’ll come out of this as a better athlete but hopefully we’ll submit a couple papers as well. For the first time ever this year, I chose a word for the year. My word was compassion. I said it was to remind myself to show some compassion toward myself. It has never seemed more necessary than in this moment. I need to have compassion for myself on the days when I am not productive, the days when my kids are the source of constant disruptions, and the days when I let them watch videos all day. These are weird times and the only thing we can do is to do our best, whatever that is, every day.

Dr. Pfister is assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and chair of the ASGCT Communications Committee.

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