Beckman Service Centers in the Time of COVID-19

By Sarah Williams

The Beckman Center News / Fall 2021

A willingness to try completely new ways of doing things helped the Beckman Service Centers continue to support researchers.

On March 16, 2020—the day before Stanford closed its doors in a campus-wide COVID-19 shutdown—Michael Eckart, Ph.D., was cleaning out the Beckman Center’s Protein and Nucleic Acid (PAN) Facility when the phone rang. It was the Stanford Clinical Virology Laboratory staff and they needed the PAN Facility to stay open, to support their essential work of making a SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic test.

“We had literally already shut down our machines and my staff was on the way home, but we booted everything back up,” recalls Dr. Eckart. For the next several months, while most of the Beckman Center remained deserted, Dr. Eckart’s team designed and produced the probes and primers needed for a new viral diagnostic; those critical components were impossible to get commercially at the time.

That kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants flexibility has been integral to the functioning of all four of the Beckman Center’s service centers over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The services and expertise provided by the service centers have always been key to keeping research moving throughout Stanford departments—and the early months of the pandemic were no exception.

Today, the service centers have, for the most part, returned to their full pre-COVID-19 functionality. But some of the changes they made to implement social distancing and biosafety worked out so well that they’re here to stay.

FACS Adds Drop-Off Service

For the Fluorescence Activated Cell Sorting (FACS) Facility to reopen in June 2020, director Lisa Nichols, Ph.D., worked closely with a team from the Stanford Office of Facilities Planning and Management. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, the FACS space had been crammed with instrumentation; social distancing wasn’t possible. To reopen, they completely rearranged the space—an undertaking that involved pulling down cupboards, moving heavy and high-tech pieces of equipment and borrowing new lab space.

“The FACS instrumentation is used as a workhorse for a lot of labs on a day-to-day basis, so we really needed to get it up and running in accordance with social distancing,” says Dr. Nichols.

But even with the new arrangement of lab spaces, it still wasn’t safe for researchers to move in and out of the FACS Facility and work alongside Dr. Nichols’ staff to carry out their experiments. So FACS reopened only as a drop-off service at first. Researchers could bring samples to Dr. Nichols’ team, who would run experiments and provide data in return.

Since then, FACS has slowly transitioned back to allowing researchers to run their own FACS experiments. But in some cases, Dr. Nichols says, scientists are content to continue keeping their distance.

“Honestly, I’ve been surprised how well it works,” she says. “A lot of people realized it’s a big time-saver for them if they don’t have to stand by our side the whole time we’re running their samples.”

Training Goes Virtual

In addition to providing services and instrumentation, a core mission of the Beckman Service Centers is to educate their users. In the past, that education has mostly been in the form of in-person training on how to use equipment or prepare samples for the service centers. That kind of training wasn’t possible during COVID-19 shutdowns and phased reopenings, so the staff of each service center hurried to assemble alternate ways to offer training.

At the Cell Sciences Imaging Facility (CSIF), Jon Mulholland and his colleagues shut down their training in the early stages of the pandemic.

“It was really difficult to envision doing remote training on these expensive microscopes that people can break if they use them incorrectly,” says Mulholland. “So when we reopened, we initially gave access only to experienced users.”

Slowly, however, the CSIF team rolled out remote training, with one staff member available from home to virtually train scientists on how to use the facility’s light microscopes and to troubleshoot problems. That remote training has been so well received that it’s still offered today.

“I was very dubious it was going to be as effective as it has ended up being,” says Mulholland.

More recently, the CSIF has reopened in-person training for their more advanced microscopes—however, the training is now offered only in one-on-one sessions, rather than in groups, to continue meeting social distancing recommendations.

Similarly, the FACS Facility created a series of videos to teach scientists and students about their technology and how to use it. They discovered that many students preferred the videos, with the ability to watch and rewatch them at their own pace, to the traditional in-person classes. So, even as COVID-19 restrictions lift, the FACS staff is creating new training videos, while also offering in-person training again.

“The pandemic actually forced us to create this new educational toolset,” says Dr. Nichols. “Moving forward, as we release new equipment, we’re planning to keep these videos as a key component of our education program.”

Remote Access Becomes Key

After researchers left their labs in March 2020, many spent that spring analyzing their existing data and writing up manuscripts that they’d been putting off. For some of the service centers, this meant a calm few months without clients. But for Lee Kozar and his staff at the Computational Services and Bioinformatics Facility (CSBF), it meant an uptick in work.

“People needed to have their computers set up and all their data analysis software installed at home,” he says. “It was busier for us at first, having to do more troubleshooting and acquire more licenses.”

In the years prior to COVID-19, the CSBF had already decentralized most of their resources—storing software on the cloud and offering online chat software for diagnosing and solving technology problems. That infrastructure paid off when the pandemic hit; Kozar’s staff could easily work from home and help their clients virtually.

For other service centers, it took some extra steps to go virtual. At the PAN Facility, for instance, Dr. Eckart’s team set up Amazon Fire tablets around the lab so they could chat with scientists while carrying out their experiments and consulting on new jobs. The tablets served double duty though, when they began using them to video conference with vendors about broken equipment.

“Since the tablets are portable, we can move them around the lab to where we need them,” says Dr. Eckart.

Similarly, Mulholland’s group at CSIF installed cameras in their microscope bays, along with remote access to the microscopes. This allows the staff to help scientists from afar, instead of leaning over their shoulders.

“This might not be the last time we face circumstances like this, so I think remaining extremely flexible and open to new solutions in terms of how people work is extremely important,” says Mulholland. “It was challenging for my staff to adapt to change, but it’s ended up working better in some circumstances.”

For more information (media inquiries only), contact:
Naomi Love
(650) 723-8423

Protein and Nucleic Acid Facility

Fluorescence Activated Cell Sorting Facility

Cell Sciences Imaging Facility

Computational Services and Bioinformatics Facility