COVID-19: Our lab is under lockdown – what is the EucXylo team up to?

Like many other institutions across the world, Stellenbosch University has ‘shut its doors’ so to speak. Although we continue working from home and have contingency plans in place for continuing teaching, a lot of academics have been grappling with remaining active in their research fields. Without the ability for postgrads and postdocs to conduct experiments it is impossible to generate new data. We here at EucXylo were acutely aware of the effect that a national lockdown would have on our research, seeing that the majority of our postgraduate students are in their first year of study – a time that is characterized by pilot studies for optimizing methodology. Naturally, even before President Ramaphosa announced the lockdown, the question arose as to what could be done to ensure that we do move forward during this trying time.

Part of our answer to this question came in the form of Microsoft Teams. We’ve been using this platform sporadically since the beginning of the year to share papers and information, but since the start of the lockdown on 27 March, we’ve depended on Teams for communication, both on a professional and personal level. After nearly a month of being in lockdown we can honestly say that without a platform such as Teams we wouldn’t have been able to move forward. Although we are confined to our own homes, we are still able to have our weekly lab meetings, topic discussions and journal clubs, and we’ve found that our ability to share ideas and to interact hasn’t changed much.

Home office setup
An elegant home-office setup (a source of envy, to those of us with rabbits…)

We’ve created a Teams Channel solely focusing on building a library, thereby allowing everyone to stay up to date with important papers. In this channel we are now encouraging discussions in comment sections to further each other’s understanding of papers. In addition, one of our team members is looking into other technologies to improve our over-all productivity and collaboration: one of their recent ‘discoveries’ is a fantastic free service for collaborative annotation of pdfs and webpages (‘’, which is available at and allows for private discussion groups). We’ve also embraced the use of Word Online to collaborate on written pieces (for instance, this blog was produced collaboratively in Word Online). There have also been talks of creating our own Wiki as a collaboratively edited resource covering literature and more, which could be an invaluable tool for EucXylo in the future.

While we are starting to feel the pressure of not being able to generate any data, we’ve found this time useful not only for writing up proposals and literature reviews, but also to test out some new technologies. For instance, before the lockdown we’d been experimenting with building our own dendrometers and had some questions regarding which material would be the best for the mounts. Unfortunately, lockdown was sprung upon us before we could start testing our own dendrometers, but one of our members decided to take the setup home to continue testing from there. Other members of the group are using this time to learn new skills by taking online courses, notably data science courses, to improve their data analysis skills.

A dendrometer connected to a computer
Work goes on – a dendrometer set-up which is now at a team-member’s ‘home workshop’

Besides essentially limiting us to reading and writing-up, lockdown has also brought other challenges for the group. One of these is the constant worry over losing our valuable Eucalyptus clones in the nursery, perhaps as a result of a sprinkler system failure or disease breakout. We luckily had enough time before the lockdown to transport a few ‘backup’ copies of each of the clones to some of our team members’ homes (where they are now busy nurturing the mini-forests), but it would still be a terrible loss if the clones in the nursery were to die.

A miniature forest in a small garden
A selection of Eucalyptus clones in one team-member’s garden

Another problem that’s been highlighted in our discussions is one that many academics can probably relate to at the moment, namely it is hard to be productive at home when you’re a parent or sharing a working space with someone (even if it is just sharing it with a surprisingly-disruptive pet rabbit). Despite these obstacles we’ve managed to keep going, which can largely be attributed to our team members, who are not only dedicated to their science, but who are also caring and supportive.

Rabbit on a desk
The realities of working from home… when sharing a workspace with a rambunctious rabbit…

Although the future regarding COVID-19 and the national lockdown is uncertain, we here at EucXylo are thankful that we are still able to contribute to science and that we can communicate with each other, even if it is by having regular virtual coffee sessions!

Some of the EucXylo Team enjoying a 'virtual coffee session' together
Together, while apart

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