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Viewpoint: My team’s experience with the CRUK Open Lab Initiative

by Francesca Ciccarelli | Research Feature

1 October 2020

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Headshot of Francesca Ciccarelli

Francesca Ciccarelli’s group at the Francis Crick Institute in London got involved in the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Open Lab Initiative, which matches research teams to promote collaboration. Here, she shares her experience. 

Back in May, we were already two months into lockdown – away from a normal lab routine and trying to find a new normality in a situation that was far from normal. My lab is based at the Francis Crick Institute in London, but I spent most of the lockdown in Milan. As group leader, I was struggling to find ways to keep my group engaged and motivated.  

Science is a lot about communication and exchanging ideas with others. At the Crick, even the building has been designed to favour meeting and mingling with people. Trying to do the same while everyone is isolated at home is hard. 

The CRUK Open Lab Initiative came about as an opportunity to break our routine and meet new people to discuss science with, even if we could only do it through Zoom. I asked Lisa Dressler, a PhD student in our lab, what she thought about it, as she is always very keen to engage in new activities. We decided to take part and went for a ‘wildcard match’, an option where you select no preferences about the research interests or expertise of the lab you will be matched with. 

After a few weeks we discovered that our Open Lab match was Florian Markowitz’s team at the CRUK Cambridge Institute. Both of our labs work in cancer genomics and we know each other quite well. Lisa and Ruben Drews from Florian’s group took the lead and proposed to do ‘crossed’ journal clubs: each team would present a paper from the other team and we would discuss the results together. 

We went first and presented a paper they published last year about copy number signatures in ovarian cancer. We then asked them to present a manuscript we had just submitted that describes a machine learning algorithm we developed to identify cancer driver genes in individual patients. Both discussions were very lively and engaging and we even used some comments from Florian’s group when revising our paper.   

Since then the situation has changed. We were able to come back to the lab in the early summer: thanks to the hard work of many of our colleagues, the Crick offers weekly COVID-19 swab tests to all employees. We still have to keep strict social distancing and not everyone is on site every day, but we have been able to restart our lab work and restore a sense of normal routine. And it feels great to be back. 

Participating in the Open Lab Initiative was a useful experience that helped us stay connected with our community during a challenging time. However, its value goes beyond the lockdown period: it offers an opportunity to meet other researchers, learn what they do and establish new collaborations at any time and any career stage.

About the author: Francesca Ciccarelli 

Francesca Ciccarelli is professor of cancer genomics at King’s College London and group leader at the Francis Crick Institute. Her team’s area of interest is cancer systems biology, with a focus on gastrointestinal cancers. Francesca is recipient of a CRUK Programme Foundation Award and theme co-lead of the CRUK King’s Health Partners Centre and of the CRUK City of London Cancer Centre.  

Update 11 November 2020: The CRUK Open Lab Initiative sign up link was changed and updated with a new link.