'A déjà-vu in some regards'

Interview with Joan Mecsas on the COVID-19 situation in Massachusetts, USA

April 20, 2020

COVID-19: Like everyone else, scientists are severely affected by the pandemic and the countermeasures. We have contacted our international cooperation partners to find out how the situation affects their work and how they are dealing with the crisis.

In 2019, Joan Mecsas of Tufts University Boston spent her Sabbatical at MPIIB – in the interview she talks about the measures in Massachusetts / USA and how the Sabbatical prepared her for communication during lockdown.

‘In the US, the response to COVID-19 is very dependent on state and municipality. Massachusetts as a whole has shut down non-essential businesses since the 22nd of March, but the two weeks prior to that, there was a very clear ramping down and more and more people started working at home. I ride the commuter rail and you could already see fewer and fewer people there every day during these two weeks.

Already then, Tufts University – where I work – had declared that labs needed to rapidly ramp down and end all operations by Friday the 20th of March. The whole week prior to that, we had been thinking about how to do social distancing in the lab, but then on Friday it was a complete shutdown for us.

This meant I had to cull a lot of mice colonies. We also do many experiments with organoids, which take a couple of weeks to develop. Some of them we could freeze down rapidly and some we just had to throw away, because we knew we wouldn’t be able to complete those experiments. The public health issues were just too important to try to get a petition for our experiments. I didn’t even consider this! 

We’re now doing group meetings the same way like when I was on Sabbatical at the MPIIB. And we’re having chit-chats once a week, where we don’t talk very much about science – we just check in and laugh if we can about whatever we feel like laughing about. Of course, I also have one-on-one meetings with people. I was using Skype at the MPIIB – now I am using Zoom. But aside from that, it’s all good.

It feels like I’m back in Germany again: only that instead of having all my meetings start at 3:30 in the afternoon, they now start at 9:30 in the morning – I’m now on the same time-zone as everybody else. In Germany I had these six hours where everybody here was asleep and I was working.

So yes, I feel like this is a flashback or déjà-vu in some regards. Although, when I was in Germany, I walked around a lot to discover Berlin and my husband and I travelled all over Europe. Clearly, we’re not doing any of that right now. ‘

Joan Mecsas is Professor of Molecular Biology & Microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. The ultimate goal of her research is to understand how bacterial pathogens manipulate host defenses to establish infections. The major focus of Joan Mecsas’ laboratory is to dissect the interactions between bacterial pathogens, host mucosal surfaces, and the innate immune system. She is investigating how gram-negative bacterial pathogens, Yersinia and Klebsiella, interact with neutrophils and inflammatory monocytes in lungs and other tissues.

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