A photo of the Dhand lab taken before the shift to working remotely. From left to right: Amar Dhand, Liam McCafferty, Ian Corbin, and Amber Nieves (not pictured Archana Podury and Samir Tapiawala)

Amar Dhand, MD, DPhil, a neurologist and network scientist at the Brigham, knows what he is seeing when he looks at network models. The Dhand lab quantitatively maps patients’ social networks, meaning the connections to family, friends and acquaintances. Dhand is a member of the Network Science Institute and it was through this multi-disciplinary research community that he saw a model of the outbreak of COVID-19 at the beginning of March. That model shifted his thinking about how to run his lab this spring.

“It opened my eyes to what is happening,” said Dhand. “I realized, we have to start innovating and we need to do it now.”

All Brigham research communities with lab members who can work from home have been told to have them do so beginning March 16. The Dhand lab was ahead of the curve, moving to a remote-first work environment earlier in the month. Unlike labs that require an onsite presence for work to continue, much of their work can be done remotely. Dhand realized the lab, which uses computational modeling to examine things like social networks and stroke outcomes, interpersonal connections and wellbeing, and connections across hospitals, could, theoretically, continue its work even while lab members practiced social distancing by working from home. This could help slow the spread of the outbreak and the model Dhand had seen.

As someone who thinks about the effects of social isolation on both individuals and society, Dhand was acutely aware of the far-reaching effects that shifting the lab to a remote-first work environment might have on his team. Before making the move, he turned to Ian Corbin, PhD, a research scientist in the lab, who frequently serves as a sounding board for Dhand on these kinds of lab-related decisions. Both agreed that it was the right step to take.

“We both felt that social distancing seemed like a good idea, but we wanted to make sure that, as quickly as possible, we could learn how to stay connected from a distance,” said Corbin.

Tools of the Trade

The Dhand lab is still exploring the right tools to help them stay connected and keep projects moving forward. Some of the tools they are leveraging were already in use and are familiar to all the lab members. But flexibility has been their most important asset.

“We’re still feeling things out to see what our primary mode of communication will be,” said Corbin. “We’ve had some group emails and have set up messaging tools, but it’s cumbersome to toggle between platforms. It is harder to stay connected and you miss being able to stroll over to a colleague to ask a question.”

“How Are You Doing?”

Dhand and Corbin think a lot about the secondary effects that COVID-19 may have on American society.

“Social isolation, especially for the elderly or those living alone, can have negative mental health effects as well as physical effects for those who are less mobile,” said Dhand. “The focus right now is rightly on the direct effects of the virus and the health and financial threats it poses. But second-order effects from being isolated can pose a risk too.”

Combatting the effects of social isolation may mean a shift in thinking about community.

“It’s going to fall to people on a local level to look out for each other,” said Corbin. “We have a friend who has been in Italy. When he returns to the U.S., he’s going to be in self-quarantine and has asked us if we can drop off groceries at his door step. That could be a growing and important function we can play for each other.”

Lab mates from the Dhand lab are finding similar ways to support and check in on each other.

“All of us are feeling anxious and being separated can make those feelings more intense,” said Corbin. “We’ve started picking up the phone just to check in on each other — to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘How are you feeling?’ Getting a call like that helps a little.”

A Time of Creativity

Corbin and Dhand both acknowledge that working remotely is not their first choice — they would much prefer to be in the lab, together with the team. But the constraints have also forced the team to innovate and even given Dhand reason to hope.

“This has actually been a time of innovation and creativity for us — we’ve started work on multiple new projects inspired by the outbreak and the experiences we are living,” said Dhand. “And in our most optimistic moods, we hope that this could revive neighborhood responsibility and turn our attention to taking care of each other.”

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