Ensembl under lockdown – Part 1

Ensembl staff have been working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic for eight weeks now. We transitioned to remote work from 16 March – two days before the closure of EMBL-EBI and a week before the Prime Minister announced the UK lockdown on 23 March.

The transition to working from home has been relatively smooth. This was in part because we work in bioinformatics, i.e. in contrast to many people who use Ensembl, we don’t need a wet lab. We had used a lot of the technology required for remote work already and many members of staff had worked remotely to different extents in the past. The move was also well organised and our amazing team spirit helped to facilitate it: colleagues helped each other to set up access to specialised software or to transport the necessary desktop equipment home.

Of course, we all had to adapt. The lockdown is a challenge for everybody’s work and private life, but the pandemic brought new opportunities too. In this first part of the ‘Ensembl under lockdown’ blog series, Kieron and Bruno share their experiences. Stay tuned to hear from more of us!

Kieron Taylor

What is your job in Ensembl and how has it changed under lockdown?

I am a software developer in the Applications Team who works on prototyping web services and developing data pipelines. Against all odds, my work continues as normal!

What are the challenges for you?

The prevalence of services like Github and a stable VPN have made work fairly frictionless. Communication suffers, video chat latency sucks and the collective roar of labouring laptop fans can make discussions trickier. I’m especially finding the conceptual stuff is hardest to convey without a handy whiteboard. Can I doodle with a mouse? Let’s not go there. I also find I have to live a far more regimented day than I ever would have otherwise. The structure of work, daily(-ish) exercise, time for piano before dinner, and then relaxation thereafter is helping to keep me on an even keel, and without it I think I would be feeling pretty desperate.

Depending on how long enforced work-from-home continues, a little tragedy may befall me. My time at the EBI is coming to a close, and I may not get to meet the majority of my colleagues in person again. I may never meet new staff. It’s a bit sobering.

What positive aspects do you see?

On the up-side I’m really benefiting from less time in traffic and I find I have more energy for other things once work is done. In particular I am enjoying the explosion of online musical creativity and I find I am inspired too to try to create music. Art has always erupted from constraint and hardship, so perhaps my lockdown is just a little too comfortable – everything I’ve come up with so far has been hopelessly derivative!

Is there anything you will take away from this period in the long term?

Now everyones’ schedules have been thrown in the air, I believe they are much friendlier and open to conversation and commonality. Neighbours are holding distanced street parties, I’m talking more often with my brother, there’s a lot of good going on. It is my forlorn hope that this openness continues once agenda is back on the agenda.

Bruno Contreras-Moreira

What is your job in Ensembl and how has it changed under lockdown?

I am the leader of the Ensembl Plants project. I take care of plant genomes in Ensembl together with my colleague Guy Naamati. We usually do a lot of production work, which means curating and importing new genomic data to the database. These tasks require meeting other people from Ensembl, talking to collaborators from the plant community and writing scripts. Most of these tasks can be done from home if you have a good Internet connection, so I have been able to keep up with my work. The main change is that I now work from my office at home, which used to be the guest bedroom, while our children do home school downstairs. 

What are the challenges for you?

It is the isolation you might feel sometimes despite all the virtual meetings and Slack. While I am happy to work from home, I actually miss my colleagues and life at the campus as well.

What positive aspects do you see?

Clearly it has been reducing my commute time to zero. In addition, I do enjoy being able to organise my work around family life much better now.

Is there anything you will take away from this period in the long term?

I guess I have learned first-hand that I can do most of my work remotely, and that’s great for the family balance. However, I have also learned that I really like our campus, I miss that part of the academic life.

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