The COVID-19 pandemic impacted researchers’ life and work. What did this period bring in terms of changes and need to adapt? What did it mean for their research? And what role did Oncode play for them throughout this period? Looking back at 2020, we spoke to Oncode Investigator Leila Akkari (NKI) and clinician Jeanine Roodhart (UMC Utrecht) about their experiences during this trying time. 


NKI – Junior Oncode



UMC Utrecht – Internist-Oncologist 

Keeping all balls in the air 

What happened in your labs at the beginning of the year, when the coronavirus started spreading in The Netherlands and the country went into an ‘intelligent lockdown’?

Leila: I remember thinking at the beginning of the pandemic that the virus was never going to affect us, at least not as it affected other places. I certainly didn’t imagine that our research would end up being halted. That seems like such a long time ago now! And when it eventually ‘arrived’ in The Netherlands, the NKI decided quite rapidly to stop all non-essential experiments - such as in-vitro lab work and ex-vivo experiments. Luckily for us, the Institute allowed us to continue ongoing animal experiments, albeit not starting new ones. And we had to switch to working from home as much as possible. So as a group leader, I had to think about ways to guide my group and my trainees remotely.

Jeanine: I recognize I had the same thoughts at the beginning of the pandemic. Then all our lab work and clinical research had to be stopped within a few weeks. And besides the delayed care for cancer patients, we had to disappoint many patients for whom participating in a clinical trial was their last hope. I’m an internist too, so on top of working from home when possible, I had to do lots of extra shifts and clinical work. And what made things harder, was that we ‘lost’ all our fellows and oncologists to emergency COVID care.

Jeanine Roodhart , UMC Utrecht – Internist-Oncologist 

What were your main challenges during these first months?

Leila: It was challenging to keep everyone in the lab reassured, connected, and motivated. Most of us were worried about the advancement of our projects. We set up virtual lab meetings, subgroup discussions, and an extra weekly journal club. And we made sure that nobody was feeling isolated by having digital coffee meetings and tips on how to organize working from home. In that period, we could have only one person in the lab every day, so we invented new ways to do our work – reanalyzing data, designing new experiments, writing reviews. But while me - I had the time to reorganize our lab work - I am in awe of some other investigators, especially of the women group leaders that have children and had to take on homeschooling on top of their work.

Jeanine:  Yes, as a young parent - that was an extra challenge, as work and private time blended completely. And because I had to do extra shifts at the clinic on top of my research work, there was almost no spare time left. There were also many worries in those months, especially for our Ph.D. students from abroad. They couldn’t travel home, and they have a small social network in The Netherlands. Besides this, our medical Ph.D. students were also asked to contribute to COVID care, so they had to balance that and their research. And on the overall, it was difficult to keep all Ph.D. students motivated and happy. One of the nicest things about their work is the interaction with others and they missed that.

"We set up virtual lab meetings, subgroup discussions, and an extra weekly journal club"

How did this lack of interaction affect the two of you?  

Jeanine:  I did miss the interaction. The scientific community quickly organized online conferences, and I attended for example those organized by European Society for Medical Oncology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, but it’s just not the same when you’re at home, looking at a screen. There are fewer opportunities to talk about recent trial results, hear other people’s opinions, and interacting with international colleagues and pharmaceutical companies about research collaborations.  
Leila:  Yes, I miss the networking part too. Live meetings are just more spontaneous. That’s why I was so happy with the on-site scientific meeting Oncode set up in September in Rotterdam. While respecting the social distancing rules, we were able to meet people, and that was amazing! Everybody was happy to meet and talk in person, and that was refreshing and motivating, really. It’s always nice to have the chance to present and talk about your science, but it’s the interaction that counts.

Besides this chance to meet with others during the Annual Meeting – do you feel Oncode managed to help you and your work throughout this period?

Jeanine:  For sure. Oncode assisted me in getting our proof-of-concept trial started. Despite the pandemic, we managed to get the approval of our trial, and the first patients that are receiving a novel treatment are now being included. That brings a lot of positive energy, and it reminds me why we’re doing research. It helps to not let COVID overshadow all other things.  
Leila:  Oncode supported us with continuous encouragement through remote connections, workshops, and remote training. Like the workshops on management and the mentoring available in this period. And of course, with lots of grant applications delayed or canceled, and a huge increase of applications for the available ones, due to the pandemic, the Oncode funding helps us continue our projects.

Leila Akkari, NKI – Junior Oncode Investigator

How do you see Oncode’s role in the future?

Jeanine:  Oncode shows the importance of cooperation. There still are lots of clinicians and scientists who are not used to working together. Oncode enables such collaborations, especially through the clinical workshops and the Clinical Proof-of-Concept grants, for which a researcher and a clinician must apply together. That really encourages collaboration. 
Leila:  Yes, Oncode really puts an effort in connecting these two groups – researchers and clinicians - and in helping them build a relationship. And a good example is the clinical workshops that bring basic researchers and clinicians together. I think those are very constructive, and they helped me connect with clinicians, and that makes you think out of the box and makes you see that your research can go a long way.

COVID is probably going to stay here for a longer while. How do you both look at this new reality, and the way you and your colleagues will have to conduct your research? 

Leila:  The pandemic made us revisit the way we interact with our colleagues in the lab. We haven’t been in such a situation before, having to motivate each other and face this kind of challenges. COVID did hurt our research productivity, but it also taught us to focus on our strengths, reinvent our ways to interact with each other and be flexible. If we take these lessons and apply them to this new phase of the pandemic, I think we will be okay.  
Jeanine:  You’re right, it has upsides too. In a very practical sense, it’s not necessary to travel that much anymore, and that saves time. And I really find it helpful to have structures like Oncode that help us keep all balls in the air throughout this period, and remind us about the importance of research, and that our work is about improving the lives of others. But I hope, in time, we can slowly get back to normal life. 

Credits: interview by Koen Scheerders; photography by Marloes Verweij, Laloes Fotografie

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