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The Department's buildings are currently open for wet laboratory work only. We have carried out a comprehensive COVID-19 risk assessment process and have introduced a number of new measures to ensure the safety of our staff, including reduced building occupancy, strict social distancing, 'family'-based working, and increased cleaning and hygiene regimes. All staff who can work remotely will do so for the foreseeable future. Please continue to contact us by email until further notice.

Department of Biochemistry

 
Homemade face coverings.

An update from the Head of Department, Professor Gerard Evan, regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

 

The best way to predict your future is to create it.

Abraham Lincoln

Welcome to a cloudy but wonderfully green June. A lot is going to happen over the next few weeks: we will partially (and progressively) re-open our Departmental buildings, we need to complete examination of our Part II students and assessments of Parts 1A and 1B, and we need to crystallise our plans for undergraduate teaching over the upcoming academic year. When you re-enter the Sanger and Hopkins buildings you will immediately see that the world is different now. Extensive signage directs you to a one-way flow around the buildings, with provision wherever possible for physical distancing, and we are working on a modification to our card access system so that it registers when people depart as well as when they arrive. This latter will enable us to monitor capacity at any one time and so keep within the new occupancy limits, but it is also a much-needed safety upgrade that will facilitate evacuation in the event of fire.

The big news is that we plan to re-open the Sanger Building this coming Wednesday (June 17th) – in time for a visit from the Vice-Chancellor the following day – and hope to be able to re-open the Hopkins Building the following week. This is all very exciting and a great relief to all of us. However, it will not be business as usual because we will be constrained by greatly reduced occupancy limits due to the need for physical distancing. The Silver Team has painstakingly assessed all the available space within both of our buildings and used this as their metric to determine safe numbers. Such low density is important because physical and social distancing are the principal mechanisms we will use to maintain safety and limit transmission. Some have asked me whether we will in addition be requiring people to wear masks. Anyone is, of course, welcome to wear a mask should they so wish but we will not at this time be requiring mask wearing except for work in certain shared and/or more crowded areas (e.g. communal tissue culture rooms). Available evidence shows that aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2 virus is not an especially significant risk in more sparsely populated buildings (advice from Professor Catherine Noakes, Chair of the SAGE Environmental Working Group) and anyway the supply chain for approved masks remains unreliable. The far greater risk of virus transmission comes from touching contaminated surfaces, hence the need for extensive and repeated cleaning throughout.

To achieve sufficient physical distancing, we aim to reduce overall occupancy to around 25% of 'normal' for the foreseeable future. However, because the criteria for physical distancing are set by objective physical space, not pre-lockdown occupancy, the impact on headcount will, I'm afraid, not be distributed evenly across all laboratories and more crowded laboratories will be disproportionally more affected. We will also try to keep cohorts of people together in 'families' since, by keeping the same persons working together in each cohort, we can minimise the risk of any infection (heaven forbid) spreading outside of that cohort. It will be up to individual Research Group Heads to prioritise who can restart work and when, and for organising the way in which their teams work (e.g. in shifts, or not). Overall, the Department will be open for business from 08.00 to 22.00, seven days a week. The one exception is that each laboratory will have a weekly cleaning day when it will instead open at 09.00. For safety reasons, overnight working is not permitted except in a dire emergency and only if you have been given express permission (by the Departmental Administrator or me). This does not, of course, mean that anyone is expected to work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week!! Rather, this is the time available for you to plan your experimental wet work, in consultation with your Laboratory Head. Furthermore, all such work is voluntary and Principal Investigators have a duty to make appropriate allowances for the domestic childcare and caring needs of their personnel. As before, any work that can be conducted at home should be done there.

So, we will open the Sanger this coming Wednesday for a short initial week and see how things work out. Please do let your supervisor/line manager know of any problems or issues that arise so that we can address them in time for the following week. We have no idea when the reduced occupancy limit will be raised, so I would advise everyone to establish a comfortable work regime that is accommodated by the current limitations. Please be tolerant of each other: this remains a stressful time and most of us are making it up as we go along. We need good will and kindness to get through this in good shape.

 

Other news

After his spectacularly successful tenure as the Department's Head of Undergraduate Education and Deputy Head, Chris Howe will be stepping down at the end of summer and I have appointed Dee Scadden as his successor. Seldom can any head of a Cambridge department have been graced with two such superb colleagues, educators, and friends. Chris took up the reins from the legendary Philip Rubery in the early 2000s and, buoyed by his unfailing commitment to teaching excellence, his deep knowledge of undergraduate education at Cambridge, and his steady, calm and unperturbable wisdom, he guided us through a string of successful Learning and Teaching Reviews. His leadership, supported by the stellar contributions of Christine Thulborn, Sandra Fulton and Dee Scadden, has established the peerless reputation that Biochemistry undergraduate teaching now enjoys. I can confess now that I had little notion of the scope and complexity of undergraduate teaching when I arrived in the autumn of 2009. But that was OK because it was all in such capable hands. Thank you Chris! The Department's debt to you is incalculable.

When Dee Scadden joined the Department's teaching leadership it was like a whirlwind had struck. Ideas and innovations pour out from Dee and have underpinned the remarkable initiatives in digital learning for which our Department is now famed. Even without COVID-19, it was fast becoming clear that the way we teach is going to change, with increasing emphasis on novel, creative on- and off-line teaching methods. The lockdown and its fallout have forced the issue and because of Dee we are more than ready for it.

There are changes to the University's policy on testing for COVID-19, prompted by the availability of testing kits and, in partnership with Addenbrooke's Hospital, the University is now offering a swab test to all University of Cambridge and College staff with symptoms of possible COVID-19 infection. To increase its ability to detect mild cases, the team behind the testing has broadened the symptoms for which the test can be offered. It would now like to test anyone experiencing fever, cough, a change in their sense of smell or taste, or any other 'flu-like' symptoms such as a sore throat or muscle aches. Any University or College member of staff experiencing any of these symptoms is asked to get in touch with the Addenbrooke's Occupational Health Team, stating that they are University or College staff members. More information may be found on the University coronavirus website.

Great news about Qkine, the growth factor and cytokine production company spun out from Marko Hyvönen's laboratory: they just successfully closed a £1.5M series A investment round with leading life sciences investors to support Qkine's global scale-up of commercial operations. Given the very challenging circumstances right now, this is a formidable achievement and a huge vote of confidence in their technology and their company.

Val Wood and PomBase, the comprehensive public database for the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe, are promoting 'community curation' during lockdown. This community curation effort seeks to engage publishing authors directly in the fair sharing of their data derived from diverse, hypothesis-driven experiments. The database provides detailed, standardised, sharable annotation from research publications. You can read more about Val's curation efforts on the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre website.

A cool paper from Kathryn Lilley, Markus Ralser and colleagues describes their development of a platform for ultra-high throughput serum and plasma proteomics in the analysis of diverse biomarkers for use in COVID-19 diagnosis. The publication was featured in The Times and The Sun.

Ben Luisi's group has been featured on the cover of this month's Structure journal, in which they present a beautiful paper using cryo-EM to elucidate the structure of the bacterial transporter AcrB. AcrB is a member of the widely distributed RND family and is the energy-transducing component of a tripartite, multi-drug efflux machine that spans the cell envelope of Gram-negative species. Using cryo-EM, they resolved the structure of AcrB in a complex with its partner transmembrane protein AcrZ and in the presence of antibiotic chloramphenicol, all visualised within a membrane mimicking environment. The beautiful cover figure was prepared by Syma Khalid and Firdaus Samsudin.

And Christopher Morton (who used to be in Luca Pellegrini's Group) has been using a 3D printer for various cool things: collecting rainwater from greenhouse roofs for watering plants and constructing ear savers for masks.

 

Finally, I want to say something about the terrible murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th. I know we are all shocked by this awful event and are left frustrated and angry. It is incumbent upon us all to look around, around our department, our university, around this country and this world and to ask ourselves not only how this could happen but also why. I watched the demonstration last Saturday from a safe, and masked, distance because I, like many of you, wanted to be counted in this international rejection of racism. But it doesn't stop at a single demonstration: discrimination (and worse) against BAME fellow humans is a persistent and appalling evil against which we must maintain constant awareness and guard. So let me just state that discrimination of any kind, against any person or group of persons, on whatever pretext, is utterly abhorrent and will play no part in any aspect of our department. Nelson Mandela said "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." That is our motivation, our practice, and our goal.

 

No human is an island entire of itself; every human is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any human's death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne (with updated pronouns)

 

Stay well and look after yourselves,

With all best wishes,

Gerard

Image

Homemade face coverings.

Credit: Mairi Kilkenny, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge.

Author

Professor Gerard Evan,
Head of Department and Sir William Dunn Professor of Biochemistry

Publication date

13 June 2020