COVID-19 has cast a shadow that few of us could ever have imagined. Around the world, families are grieving, lives have been put on hold, finances are squeezed. The crisis is not yet over, but hopeful stories are emerging.

In a new series, we hear how individuals across the University community have coped with unexpected experiences, found new opportunities and are looking to the future.

Faced with closed laboratories and cancelled conferences, paediatric oncologist Richard Gilbertson kick-started a “21st-century method” for meeting new collaborators – an online matching site called the Open Lab Initiative that rolls out nationally today.

“An idea had been brewing in my mind for a while. The irony is, until lockdown, I was too busy doing the activities that the idea would have made easier.

I’m Director of the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Centre. Outside of laboratory work at the CRUK Cambridge Institute, much of my time is taken up with meetings – conferences, workshops, face-to-face. But these aren’t always the greenest, quickest and most targeted ways of interacting as a scientific community, they are just what we have always done.

Lockdown started, the research labs closed in Cambridge, and all the conferences and networking events were cancelled for the foreseeable future. We were staying connected online with colleagues, but how could we meet new people with the data and skills that would push the research on? We needed a 21st-century method for meeting collaborators.

I floated the idea with Rhys Grant, Birgit Nimmervoll and the other Programme Managers in the CRUK Cambridge Centre and we canvassed leaders in the other CRUK Centres nationally. They all thought this would be a useful idea, so the team got to work and we set up an online platform. It’s a bit like a dating website, with proprietary “matching algorithms” to make “meeting your ideal research partner a breeze!”

Virtual lab meeting in progress

Virtual lab meeting in progress

In essence, the Open Lab Initiative connects research groups with mutual interests so that they can have joint virtual meetings to share their science. Ideas are swapped, funding calls shared and jointly applied for, collaborations are sparked – all with much less fuss with time and travel.

We also have a ‘wild card’ option for random matching to another research group – we like to think it’s the equivalent of the ad hoc connections that you make in the conference bar.  The ability to speak about your science and research to those who are not experts in your specific field is a highly useful skill for researchers to master.

Interestingly, we came across a Twitter thread a couple of weeks into lockdown, where several researchers were asking for this exact resource, so it looks to be something that there is a general demand for from scientists, not just those actively involved in cancer-related research.

CRUK have supported us by developing a central online platform to host the matchmaking service. Six weeks into our pilot phase and over 50 research groups have joined the Initiative from Cambridge, London, Manchester and Oxford to make new research connections, with almost all of the matches connecting groups from different centres.

Feedback has been very positive with groups continuing beyond their ‘first date’. We launched the facility nationally to all cancer researchers on 21 July, and we’ve started to think about how we could launch internationally.

“It’s not just about efficiencies. This also feels like a cultural shift towards a more open community willing to share ideas. And it’s incredibly simple. Now that we have it set up, I’m surprised that no one has done it before.”

The Initiative will continue beyond the pandemic. New groups are still signing up even though labs are returning to ‘normality’. We’re also looking at additional features to extend the Initiative to new audiences.

It’s likely to be a while before conferences and face-to-face meetings can resume, so this kind of online platform will be extremely useful for the foreseeable future. And, when scientific gatherings restart, we think the Initiative will be a place for pre- and post-conference discussion groups – maximising the usefulness of the events in which people have invested time, effort and cost.

Lockdown and the closure of labs was a difficult time, but it did give us some breathing space to think about how we interact – something I had begun to think we don’t always do all that well as a scientific community. We suddenly had the chance to do it better. With the Open Lab Initiative, restrictions of geography were gone – no-one had to get on a train or board a plane.

But it’s not just about efficiencies. This also feels like a cultural shift towards a more open community willing to share ideas. And it’s incredibly simple. Now that we have it set up, I’m surprised that no one has done it before.”

The Open Lab Initiative website can be found here

Words: Richard Gilbertson
Design: Louise Walsh and Zoe Smith
Photography: CRUK, CRUK-CI
Typography: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh