27 September, 2023
The Institute’s Roving Researcher scheme, initiated in 2020, provides support for scientists taking long term leave. The postdoctoral position helps maintain momentum on projects by working closely with researchers on leave. Jayalini Assalaarachchi writes about her experience taking on the role.
Being the Roving Researcher at the Babraham Institute has certainly been an interesting experience so far. To my knowledge, the Babraham Institute was the first institute to introduce the concept into the workplace. It is a challenging role, but one I have come to enjoy, with moments of stress and exasperation here and there!
The beginning of a project for myself, as the Roving Researcher, is when someone intends to take long term leave and reaches out to see whether it is possible to get help from the Roving scheme. If I am free during the time period of interest, a meeting is set up to determine what the work involves and identify further training required. Once the request is approved, I begin establishing contact with the interested party to familiarise myself with the group, lab and experimental protocols. I have so far only supported researchers on parental leave. When they first go on leave, I maintain contact with the group leader through weekly meetings. However, whenever the researcher on leave feels ready, they can re-establish contact and then we maintain this contact till the end of my working period for the researcher.
As someone who works in at least two labs at a time, it is hard to write about my ‘day in the life’ as no two days are similar for me. Sometimes, the day consists of only 2-3 hours of lab work (some cell culture work to maintain cell lines and ensuring any reagent stocks I need soon are in place). On other days, I never get time to sit at my desk as I flit from one lab to another. This is also something I love about the role despite the fact that it can be exhausting at times.
I usually arrive at the Institute sometime between 9am and 10am and I mark the start of the day by checking my emails. Emails can be about lab equipment servicing or from people I work with or plan to work with. I need to input any equipment servicing days and times into my calendar so I don’t end up planning to run experiments which may need that equipment. For example, if the Microbiological Safety Cabinets (MSCs) used for cell culture work will be serviced in the morning on a particular day, I need to ensure I don’t arrange for work involving cell culture during that time period. I have found that solid time and project management skills are essential in this role.
Working on more than one project simultaneously means good coordination is needed to get all the work done. This does not mean my work always goes to plan. Sometimes, I find myself too slow with a protocol, especially if I am new to it, it is complicated or the previous attempt did not work, which results in further work being delayed. This happened frequently when I first began working, but time has taught me to plan more cautiously now and not to be too ambitious.
Going back to my day, after checking my emails and replying to any that need replies, I get ready for the lab work. There is no specific time on when I start lab work though I am usually in the labs by 10-11am. I make a note of the work to be done for the day and if they are long protocols, get the print outs of the experimental protocol to take with me to the lab. Once all is ready, I am off to the labs and spend the rest of my day working between labs. The work I do varies depending on the experiment being run so it alternates between working in tissue culture and at the bench. In between the lab work, I also have a couple of meetings (this can be face to face, email or video calls) a week to discuss the ongoing work as needed.
During a typical day when I have time to spend at my desk, I spend it updating lab notebooks (important for the researcher on leave, myself and for research integrity) or working through a new protocol or experiment due to run the following day or later in the week. If I find myself with no time during the week, I make it a point to do so every Friday afternoon before I head out to ensure everything I have done is recorded and updated.
I usually end my day around 5-6pm and I end it by taking a final look at my emails and ensuring everything is more or less in place for the next day. I also take time at the end of the day to update anyone with any results I may have obtained that day or a previous day when I could not send them through.
The Roving life is interesting. Every day is slightly or very different to the previous day. Thanks to the role, I also get to know more people as I work across different groups. There are, of course, challenges as with any role. My projects have timelines and it is up to me to ensure the dedicated workload is completed during the given time frame and so, struggles with experiments not working does stress me. There is also the fact that the research interests differ from one group to another. So, I find myself working in two different fields simultaneously and it can be overwhelming at times. Thankfully, the people at the Institute are supportive and understanding and this helps a lot.
After a day as the Roving Researcher, I go home looking forward to a quiet evening. I make it a point never to take work home with me if I can so I can focus on just relaxing. Even though I generally start around 9am, if I have a long protocol running, I will come in as early as possible to ensure everything gets done within a reasonable period of time. To relax, I watch whatever is on my Netflix list or read a book - right now, it is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. If I am very stressed out, I meditate or chat with a friend and that ends a typical day for Roving Researcher!
27 September 2023
By Jayalini Assalaarachchi