The pandemic has changed how a lot of people work. More than ever we’re relying on technology and data-driven methods to help with out day-to-day roles. In this issue Edd McCracken, Head of News, speaks to a number of our academics about how they have embraced this new way of working.
Before lockdown, Roberto Maluenda Gatica was a self-confessed research traditionalist. Face-to-face interviews, pencil and paper surveys were his tools. Prior to March, using digital methods to gather data would have been considered a “risky experiment”, he says.
Given that Roberto is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology and is researching aspects of psychotherapy, his bond to in-person methods is understandable. The therapist’s couch would be hard to digitise, after all. Wouldn’t it?
Well, like many things in 2020, Covid-19 has challenged this orthodoxy too. Before the pandemic Roberto had planned to travel to Chile with his paper and pencil to conduct interviews. As international travel gummed up, he changed his methods but kept his original idea.
Today he is conducting his research with subjects in Chile via video conferencing software. It has been a revelation.
“As with any transition, it has been challenging,” he says. “However, I have learned a lot. I can say that if the pandemic had never occurred, I would have never learnt as much as I did about these innovative research methods.”
Roberto’s experience is not unusual among the University’s research community. Lockdown and its restrictions on travel, lab work and meeting people in person has been incredibly challenging. But it has also accelerated many academics’ embrace of more digital and data-driven methods – even if it is frequently by necessity.
But the experience – supported by the University’s technical staff and resources – is opening up potential areas of research and sparking ideas of new possibilities.
“Thanks to this new way of working, I can think about expanding my study in different countries with different researchers,” says Roberto. He foresees how he might use digital methods to reach marginalised communities that are overlooked in research because of their geographical isolation.
“I think this will encourage research to be more democratic, and will avoid creating unbalanced policies and programs that can have a further negative impact on the community,” he says. “In this sense, all these new digital-based methods are an excellent option.”
Professsor Francisca Mutapi has also found herself working remotely. In normal times, the Professor in Global Health Infection and Immunity would be on the ground in Zimbabwe, coordinating projects. She has been carrying out research in the African country for more than 20 years.
Yet, through a combination of communications software, a raft of Android devices, partnership working, and the University’s strengths in bioinformatics analytics, she is able to lead a team of researchers across Africa that is supporting the continent’s Covid-19 response.
“During this outbreak we have trialled electronic data collection for the first time,” she says. “This allowed us to collect data efficiently and process it quickly, minimising human contact and observing the biosafety and biosecurity measures put in place in the study health centres in Zimbabwe.”
Last year the University’s TIBA paternship, an Africa-led, wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary research programme to tackle infectious diseases, ran a workshop for partners on real-time viral genomic sequencing.
TIBA and the University’s Arctic Network Partners provided training and equipment to create regional sequencing hubs in Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda. This foresight has proved invaluable.
Arctic is a program developing an end-to-end system for processing samples from viral outbreaks to generate real-time epidemiological information that public health bodies can easily interpret and use to inform key decisions.
At the onset of Covid-19, the TIBA partners in Africa sequenced the virus and deposited the information on an open database.
“In Edinburgh, because we have a fantastic bioinformatics team, we have been able to sequence the data from public databases to analyse and characterise the SARS-CoV-2 genomes in Africa,” says Prof Mutapi. “TIBA were the only ones doing this at the beginning of the pandemic and we shared our findings with our collegues at the WHO Africa Regional Office.”
The TIBA Pandemic Response Team produces a weekly epidemic analysis, which shows how the disease is spreading across the continent and – crucially – the time it takes to double. “If you know how quickly the epidemic is doubling you can make informed mitigation plans,” says Prof Mutapi. “For example, how many hospital beds, how much medical oxygen you are going to need.”
All of this is conducted from her office in Edinburgh via WhatsApp, Zoom and her laptop.
Despite these advances, however, she still believes being in the field is critical. Digital methodologies are a great help, she says, but they can’t completely replace the power of being present. “Being there still makes things a lot easier and avoids operational delays. Our work relies heavily on team work and team decisions.”
Dr Michael Cowley is a bit more content working from home. “I can concentrate better and I’m having more ideas,” says the chemistry lecturer. “I really like working in a quieter environment.”
Lockdown for him, however, meant that things got a bit too quiet. With labs closed, his team couldn’t conduct experiments.
“It’s a bit grandiose, but our experiments are like a continuous conversation with chemistry, we’re exploring a tiny piece of the universe,” he says. “When you have to stop asking the questions, you quickly run out of things to productively think about.”
Robbed of lab time, Dr Cowley and his team – an experimental synthetic chemistry group – found themselves learning a new, digital language in which they could start asking questions again. During the most restrictive parts of lockdown, they learned about computational chemistry.
Before Covid-19, Dr Cowley would gather data by arranging atoms in a fashion that didn’t exist before to create a new chemical compound. He would then crystallise and then characterise it. The aim is to generate new reactions and materials that can be useful in areas such as energy or catalysis.
However, this process is labour intensive. It can take months to create 50 milligrams of one compound.
Computational chemistry, on the other hand, uses computer simulations to help solve chemical problems. It lets the chemist virtually construct the infinite number of atoms and elements, and point towards the arrangements most likely to produce the most interesting results in reality.
“It helps you filter what you imagine into what is reasonable,” says Dr Cowley. “It helps you narrow down and focus. It is a little bit of a play pen to test out whether something might work before you do your month-long, ten-step synthesis of a compound to test your idea.”
Dr Cowley and his team were able to learn the techniques through having access to Eddie, the University’s Research Compute Cluster. It allows researchers to analyse large amounts of data faster than a desktop computer.
He says that the support he received from technical staff in accessing Eddie and learning new digital techniques was “fantastic”.
And now that the chemistry labs are open, Dr Cowley has no plans to sideline his new found data-driven skills.
“It’s an extra skill and a major technique used in most chemistry papers,” he says. “Used best, there’s a closed loop between calculation and experiment – you can use what you learn from one to further the other. I will definitely continue with it.”