Spotlight on Rachel Ulferts, coronavirus researcher

What’s it like to drop everything and completely change your research focus? Groups all across the Crick are putting their usual work on hold to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Hear from postdoc Rachel Ulferts on how it feels to be part of the global group of scientists studying the virus.

Tell us a bit about the project that you’re working on at the moment.

Rachel Ulferts

We’re trying to perform a whole genome CRISPR knockout screen on the virus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. This means turning off cellular genes that could be important for virus replication one by one, and seeing what the effect is.

Viruses need cells in which to replicate. We want to find out which genes the virus needs from cells to replicate, called host dependency factors (HDF), and also find cellular genes that stop the virus replicating, called inate immunity factors.

What changes have you had to make to the way the lab operates?

We made the decision to put absolutely everything else on hold. Our expertise in virology meant that we knew we could help, but we’ve been working on other viruses like flu for a few years now so we've had to change our work quite a bit.

In some ways it’s easier for us than other groups because our experiments don’t run over long timescales. The cells and viruses that we use can be frozen and stored and then recovered quickly. This is quite different for labs working on cancer for example, where their experiments with animals can take months to set up. It was early March that we could see the direction that things were heading in and we made the decision to stop all laboratory research not related to SARS-CoV-2.

Because we’re all focused on one thing, we’re able to make the most of a huge range of expertise, including people we would have never thought to contact. 

And was it a difficult decision?

Yes and no. It was straightforward for me personally, especially as my PhD focused on coronaviruses and my other projects were at a point where I was looking for new avenues to pursue. But this decision will have much a significant impact on the people in our lab who are on short-term contracts like PhD students and postdocs, so we all had to consider that. Of course, there’s the added impetus of the urgency and the severity of the situation, so that made it an easier decision. 

Has the urgency affected how you work in the lab?

There’s definitely a heightened sense of focus now. But this is also the first time ever that we’ve all been working on the same project, so that helps.

It means that everything has to be a team effort, both within our group and in the SARS-CoV-2 research community more widely. One of my favourite things about academic research is that there is at least some room for following up on interesting tangents. There’s none of that at the moment – we have clear goals.

What does a typical day in the lab look like at the moment?

It’s pretty similar to how it was before. Obviously, we’re all trying to limit our time in the building and staggering the times that we’re in the lab but in reality, the process of science looks quite similar. 

Although we’re well set-up to study viruses, we weren’t working on coronaviruses beforehand, so we’re having to do some groundwork at the moment to get our project off the ground as quickly as possible. There’s lots of background reading to do and the PhD students have been taking the lead on that. They’re all focusing on the area that relates to their long-term PhD projects, so everyone’s developing their own specialisms.

It's not the most exciting thing to hear about, but all the prosaic parts of science still need to happen. We need to make plans and order reagents. I spent two days last week writing safety protocols!

I don’t think collaboration has ever been this effective.

Beyond your own lab, how have you seen science done differently in the past two weeks?

I don’t think collaboration has ever been this effective. Because of the attention on the virus, we’re regularly getting messages from people at other institutions with ideas. 

Because we’re all focused on one thing, we’re able to make the most of a huge range of expertise, including people we would have never thought to contact. It’s the best hope we have of being able to do something about this.

You would normally have a published finished project before you told people about it, but now results are being released as soon as they’re ready. On one hand, it has become harder to keep up with all these developments, but sharing results immediately means that other people can point out flaws or opportunities that might have been missed, so we’re not wasting time doing experiments that aren’t useful.

There are so many more people involved in this effort than the people in the labs. 

Do you think these changes will stick after the pandemic?

I hope so. I’ve always hoped that science would move to a more open way of communicating. Personally, it would have saved me from a couple of instances where I was essentially reinventing the wheel because I later found out someone else was doing the exact same thing! 

A lot of researchers have wanted this more open communication to happen for a long time and this will hopefully spark some real changes. We’re seeing some really interesting ways of working, like Diamond Light Source’s project to crowdsource possible molecules to inhibit the virus. I hope some of these creative approaches can be applied to other areas of research when we’re all able to focus on other things again.

Outside of work, what do people you know think about your work?

I’m getting asked about my work quite a lot, and people seem more interested than they used to when I say I study viruses! I love talking about my work but, especially at the moment, it comes with a lot of responsibility. 

Sometimes people who might not know as much about research and how science works will take your word as gospel, so I have to make sure that everyone understands the uncertainty and how quickly everything is changing. I am fact checking a lot of WhatsApp messages from friends and family at the moment!

And finally, is there anything else that you would want people to know about your work?

I want people to know that we’re aware of how many people are having to work in less than ideal situations for us to be able to do this research. 

Government advice in the UK is to stay at home, but for us to do something simple like get reagents shipped, people who work in plants and distribution centres and make the deliveries can’t do that. Crick support staff need to keep coming to work too. There are so many more people involved in this effort than the people in the labs. 

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