Remote Collaboration During a Worldwide Pandemic: Macromoltek’s Story

What a year 2020 has been. Many people around the world are now in the 3rd month of quarantine. Within a matter of weeks, “Work From Home” (WFH) became a widespread phenomenon, with an estimated 34.1% of US employees shifting to working remotely. [1] We also experienced this change here at Macromoltek, and we are fortunate to be able to continue our antibody design projects while working within the comfort of our own homes. However, antibody design isn’t easy — it takes a lot of collaboration and teamwork to make accurate predictions and keep things rolling. In this blog post, we’re going to take a virtual tour of the different layers of Macromoltek and see what antibody development looks like during quarantine.

One of our first weekly group meetings this year using Webex Meetings

What We Do

At Macromoltek, we specialize in antibody design. Our proprietary de novo, in silico antibody design platform uses novel algorithms to generate reliable antibody structures. We combine aspects from computational biology, structural modeling, and advanced machine learning in our approach, generating smart predictions with fast turnaround times. To verify our computational results, our lab performs expression and validation experiments on small target sets of feasible antibody designs. Macromoltek works with a growing network of partners to explore new avenues for drug development.

To make this all possible, our work involves positions primarily split into three categories: scientific software engineers, laboratory technicians, and company management.

Our Software Development Team

On the software and simulation side of Macromoltek, we always have many different projects simultaneously underway. More recently, we’ve been tackling the COVID-19 pandemic in collaboration with Cytovia[2], enhancing our Deep Learning Methods[3], and further optimizing our antibody design and analysis process through open-ended research projects. These projects require individual attention, but they often overlap, and we naturally find ourselves grouping into small teams to tackle things together.

When we were all together in our main office, we’d easily be able to walk over to someone and inquire about a topic of interest, but in quarantine we are limited to reaching out over email or Slack for these types of discussions. This means communication is less seamless.

“Collaboration on engineering problems has become much more difficult and less spontaneous. It’s more planned, even when taking steps to allow it to happen naturally.” — Naren, Computational Antibody Engineer

And boy, have we been using Slack! It’s become the primary way we share our thoughts and questions with coworkers, allowing us to “gain the wisdom of the crowd” as one of our engineers, Vince, puts it. “More coworkers will lend their input to questions posted on our public channels,” — which has been an overall improvement to transparency and problem solving around the company. If an idea is too complicated to fit in a message, “we simply hop on a video call to exchange thoughts more easily.” explains Eduardo, another one of our Scientific Software Engineers. Spontaneous discussions may be harder to come by, but this new way of communicating encourages active participation in small group meetings scheduled on short notice.

“It’s easier to get a group of people together for quick discussions, since everyone is always digitally available during working hours” — Jacob, Project Manager/Scientific Software Engineer

To combat the lack of in-person contact and spontaneous conversations, we also use Webex Meetings to set up regular conversations to happen during a typical work week. For some of us, the newfound silence outside of those work meetings is golden. “I really appreciate the silence of WFH. I’m usually so focused on my work now that I end up working more hours than before quarantine started.” says Sayuri, a Junior Scientific Software Engineer.

For others though, the background noise is an essential: “The biggest challenge is literally staying at home. I work better in a more active environment such as a cafe.” Jordan, one of our Machine Learning Experts, explains. Naren adds that “working in silence is already a challenge for me, and without small, work-related distractions to break up blocks of work, it has become easy to lose focus and get stuck on a problem for extended periods. Without others around to keep the wheel spinning, things can grind to a halt.”

My current WFH setup! (Alan, Junior Scientific Software Engineer)

The office equipment and computers we used at our desks were packed up and brought home for use during quarantine, but our company servers are still churning away at the main office — under regular maintenance and high security. Paul, another member on our team of engineers, is one of the few who regularly visits the office to check in on our servers. “We recently finished renovating our office space, including the installation of more security features in our office among other things, so I make sure to go and routinely check that all of the office facilities there still work properly.” He also frequently reminds us that by “facilities,” he really means the espresso machine! Despite the lack of coffee access for the rest of us, the convenient thing about software positions is how portable our jobs are, which allows us to continue working on our projects from home.

Overall, the software team largely agrees that it’s been a smooth transition to WFH, and a really informative experiment in communication and collaboration. Here are the numbers from our survey of our Scientific Software Engineers:

Our Lab Team

After antibodies are designed by our algorithms and reviewed by our experts, the designs are handed off to our lab for validation and characterization in biological systems. This involves a cloning protocol, purification, and running tests on samples to analyze the effectiveness of our predictions.

The collaborative cycle of antibody design at Macromoltek

The work our lab does isn’t very mobile. Tahir, one of our Laboratory Technicians, explains that “I still spend more than 90% of my time working in lab since that’s what my job necessitates, but there is greater flexibility since I can finish my analysis, reporting and planning duties from home while only going into lab to carry out experimental work.” Because the equipment we use cannot be easily transported from a lab facility, our lab technicians strategically schedule their shifts to keep interpersonal contact to a minimum. Luckily, in our laboratory setting, gloves and masks are easy to come by!

Shift change for Anthony and Tahir, Lab Technicians, performing their essential duties on-site

In order to minimize contacts, “the lab meetings, experimental planning, troubleshooting research, and data analysis are all done from home now while our essential workers make the best use of their allotted time at the lab performing experiments,” explains Brenda, our Senior Scientist. The majority of our lab meetings are virtual, with slower communication between lab managers and technicians often taking place over Slack, keeping in-person face-to-face interactions sparse. However, being distanced from the lab does make some things more difficult.

“I miss being in the lab to be able to physically inspect certain steps of experiments that might be pivotal to optimize or troubleshoot processes.” Brenda, Senior Scientist

There are key benefits to the new working arrangement though. “It’s taken a bit of time to adjust to interacting with my supervisor almost entirely through Slack, but it’s nice to be able to look back through our Slack conversation if I can’t remember something they said.” says Anthony, a Lab Technician on our team. Inside the lab, communication still carries on as usual. “Interacting with my fellow lab tech isn’t affected much, aside from our conversations being somewhat muffled by our masks.” Additionally, the flexibility that the WFH policy adds to scheduling has made a significant difference in the way things are run:

“Company meetings are now all online, which has allowed me greater flexibility in planning experiments since I do not necessarily have to plan around in person meetings at the office. This actually speeds up the timeline for us in getting results.” — Tahir, Laboratory Technician

Our lab team agrees that a lot of improvements have been made in the recent months to how experiments are run, despite the limits on face-to-face interactions. WFH has actually allowed other previously-planned innovations for lab operations to go into effect with greater ease. Here are the numbers from surveying our Lab Team:

Our Company Management Team

With all of the exciting projects and WFH changes underway simultaneously at Macromoltek this year, team and project management has become a big focus. Monica Berrondo, CEO of Macromoltek, brought up that “some interactions are easier, but have to be more deliberate.” Echoing what both our software and lab teams have said, “we have a lot more meetings now that could probably be cut down to help with productivity, but overall the newfound flexibility with our WFH strategy has been good.” Switching to WFH naturally came with a lot of communication changes.

“I miss the chance interactions that you don’t really get to have while working from home.” — Monica Berrondo, CEO

Susana Kaufmann, CTO of Macromoltek, agrees with some of the frustrations that come with WFH. She noticed that “sometimes it is harder to get a discussion going. Being far away makes people on average not as engaged during our meetings.” While Slack is a very useful tool, she recognizes that it’s harder to answer difficult questions and problems remotely. She is able to call upon her past experiences to help with WFH: “this is not the first time I have worked remotely for my job, so I already knew a lot of great tricks to be able to do it.” Overall though, the sudden shift to WFH feels different, and somewhat isolating.

“I miss the camaraderie and being able to interact with people” — Susana Kaufmann, CTO

Lisa, our former Chief of Staff, shares the same sentiment. “it’s been more difficult to have day to day observational learning because we’re not all together.” Managing how we have productive meetings and fine-tuning who attends which meetings has been one of her major focuses these past few months, and that work is more important now than it has ever been.

“Work from home is missing some key components of collaboration that can only be experienced sitting with a coworker or group of coworkers.” — Vince, Scientific Software Engineer

Even our hiring process has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Omar, our Office Manager, takes care of the majority of onboarding and offboarding at Macromoltek. “I’ve had to come up with new ways to do that effectively. But it has also highlighted areas that needed improvement for in-person and WFH processes.” For him, despite the difficulties, it has been useful to see where things can be improved.

We’ve been able to make great use of digital communication platforms and project management tools over the past few months, with our projects tracked on Trello, Dropbox, Google Drive, and our own internal website. Jacob, our Project Manager, brings up that one of the biggest pros of WFH is that “everyone is much more engaged with digital collaboration tools than they were before.”

Here are the results gathered from surveying our management team:

Our Summer Interns

This year, prior to COVID-19, Macromoltek partnered with the Institute for Interdisciplinary Science (i4) at St. Edward’s University to offer internships to aspiring scientists and developers to work on infrastructural projects within the company. We were fortunate to recruit Maria De Leon Castro and Jorge Barrueta, who study Biology and Computer Science respectively, to take on the challenge.

With non-essential work being restricted to remote activities, the scope of the internships quickly shifted. “Initially, I expected a lot more hands-on experiences at the lab. Unfortunately this was not possible as it had to be quickly transformed into a remote internship.” says Maria, who performs the bulk of her work at home. She mentions that “I haven’t been able to interact with some team members as much as I’d like to,” largely due to the restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Regardless, she still finds ways to keep in constant communication with her fellow intern Jorge and her supervisor, Paul. And perhaps most importantly, the goal for interdisciplinary learning as set forth by i4 is still being achieved:

“This experience has, however, given me the opportunity to experience the interdisciplinary aspect of Macromoltek to a far greater degree than I would have otherwise. As a Biology major, I’ve been learning a lot from the software engineers I’ve been working with.” — Maria, Summer Intern

With all of the sudden changes, Jorge is thankful that “everything still feels very well coordinated, and communication between the staff is very well organized.” He is able to perform his internship duties remotely from a different timezone than most of us, a unique phenomenon made possible giving the circumstances compared to our traditional internship approach.

“The fact that I am working from El Paso occasionally caused confusion about meeting times due to the time difference, but I have adjusted to it.” — Jorge, Summer Intern

He mentions a challenge many of us working from home face: “having 4 people in the house back home can occasionally cause noise during meetings, but we have coordinated to prevent it from happening.” Despite the lack of in-person exposure to other members of the company, he appreciates that “WFH prevents the spread of COVID amongst the staff, but also allows people to concentrate more by being in their own space.”

Final Thoughts

“Working From Home” comes with both pros and cons, but at Macromoltek we’re doing everything we can to keep projects moving and keep everyone safe.

I really appreciate the company’s interest in keeping the employees as safe as possible. I think Macromoltek has been very responsible in its response to the pandemic. — Brenda, Senior Scientist

Our engineering team was able to engage in WFH with minimal disruptions, with an increase in impromptu meetings and a decrease in spontaneous conversations. Our lab team, unable to perform its experiments outside of the lab, has still strategically limited face-to-face interactions, takes shifts going into the lab, and handles all planning and meetings remotely. Project and team management has become extremely important, as we focus on optimizing team meetings and utilizing all of the digital tools available to us to try new things and stay on track.

Socially, WFH has its own challenges. Susana, Sayuri, and Brenda all separately raised the point that it is difficult, at times, to separate work and life, with work hours often spilling over into personal time. Conversely, some people have experienced that eliminating their commute has added more personal time to their days. Many of us here at Macromoltek are fans of the relaxation that WFH allows for. Eduardo, for instance, likes that being at home lets him be productive work-wise and chores-wise at the same time, and notes that his breaks feel more refreshing when taken at home. Vince likes that he can work on his own schedule, even if that sometimes means working late, taking a break for dinner, and coming back to his work later on.

“My stress levels have decreased massively — I don’t find myself rushing through my work to go home or wanting to cut things short.” — Vince, Scientific Software Engineer

To help with the social isolation that comes with quarantine, we do what we can to practice “distant socializing,” a term coined by Stanford Psychologist Jamil Zaki. Keeping conversations moving is a great way to both stay productive, and have casual chats for the sake of socializing. “We have come up with really good digital workarounds” for keeping each other company, as Jacob puts it. Hosting virtual happy hours on fridays is one of many ways we keep in touch outside of work!

A Mustachioed Virtual Happy Hour at Macromoltek!

The extent to which WFH has taken place around the world has created an unprecedented social experiment, and Macromoltek is fortunate to have been able to experience this change first hand. We consider ourselves lucky and grateful that so many of us are allowed to continue doing our jobs from home and keep the antibody design process moving. As the situation improves over time, we are confident that we will continue adapting to the changes around us, and designing new drugs and therapies with excellence!

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Welcome to the Macromoltek blog! We're an Austin-based biotech firm focused on using computers to further the discovery and design of antibodies.