Diane Diehl, senior director of scientific operations at lab solutions firm Waters, spoke with Outsourcing-Pharma about the pandemic’s impact on laboratory life, the challenges the virus has created and exacerbated, and what solutions might be possible.
OSP: Could you please talk about the challenges that the COVID-19 created for laboratory research?
DD: First and foremost, access to laboratories was severely impacted. With government lockdowns and businesses restricting access for only “essential work,” lab managers were forced to determine how to keep the labs running.
Scientists had to figure out ways of getting experiments to run efficiently and quickly and then how to safely access equipment remotely, as well as download large data files and process that data. Not being able to easily discuss problems or roadblocks was also severely impacted – there is nothing like a quick coffee break or whiteboard session to advance an idea!
OSP: Were there any existing problems that the arrival of the COVID-19 and all its associated obstacles simply brought to light?
DD: The need for automation and digital connectivity rose to the top. They were always hovering in the background, but being shut out of labs definitely brought these to the top of the needs list.
OSP: Can you share some suggestions to help laboratory teams be more resilient, so they’re better able to weather the next time (heaven forbid) a new pandemic comes?
- Bring automation into the labs – having robots to prepare samples, standards, buffers are a time saver in general and brings more reproducibility to data. In a pandemic, they can be programmed to run when scientists are remote.
- Digital access to systems and data – work on that infrastructure now so it is seamless the next time.
- Ensure you have adequate supplies on hand and multiple vendors for critical supplies – supply chain disruptions for items like gloves, vials, pipette tips can halt work.
- Plan contingencies for child and dependent care.
- Try and have a “home office” space ready to go just in case!
OSP: What suggestions do you have for lab folks on developing a hybrid working model that fits everyone?
DD: One of our big learnings is that scientists do not need to be in the lab or lab office five days a week. There are advantages to being able to work from home – writing up results and papers, data processing, participating in team meetings – and then this gives the flexibility to manage home responsibilities.
However, being together is important for the creative collisions that happen - so ensuring that particular teams or groups are in the office on the same day is important. Also, set core working hours for your team – without commutes, we have extended our days in the morning and evenings – and that is not always workable.
OSP: How does automation fit into the “digital first” mindset? What do laboratory leaders need to know (and not assume) about incorporating?
DD: Automation is critical to digital first – it is part of the overall mindset. Too often, we have viewed automation as a replacement of scientists.
In reality, automation is a very useful addition that enhances data quality (more reproducible) and allows the scientists to focus on more value-add activities such as interpreting results, decision making, and creative discussions.
OSP: Collaboration increasingly is a high priority at pretty much all levels of clinical research. How can the industry increase and sustain collaboration?
DD: The global collaboration that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic was something none of us had ever really experienced in our working lives. That is one of the main reasons why we have the COVID vaccines and the ability to vaccinate as many as we are right now.
Every company can both serve human health, as well as receive revenues for these vaccines. As I think about the still-unsolved issues facing the human race – cancer, safe drinking water, access to food – if we took a similar approach to collaboration, we just might be able to come up with solutions faster, and yet all still be able to run profitable businesses. Definitely food for thought.