Labs juggle community, distance during COVID-19

It all started with a chat message on Slack. Jaime Fraser, PhD, had been bragging to the members of his lab, which focuses on “discovering the macromolecular structure and dynamics of proteins,” that he could juggle anything.

Galen Correy, PhD, a post-doc in the lab, couldn’t let the statement slide.

“Yesterday, Jaime told me that he could juggle anything. To test this, I’d like to propose a new activity called ‘Jaime Juggles,’” Correy wrote. The idea was that each Friday a lab member would pick three items for Fraser to juggle.

“Jaime Juggles” would only succeed, though, if Fraser could hold up his end of the deal and keep the objects in the air, starting with three eggs.

Communities at UC San Francisco, and around the world, have struggled to recreate workplace camaraderie as people avoid offices and adhere to social distancing. Fraser, a faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences (BTS), a joint department of the UCSF Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine, tried virtual activities like Zoom happy hours to make up for the loneliness of remote and distanced work during the pandemic. But the juggling caught on in a way those didn’t.

“We all have Zoom fatigue,” Fraser said. “This is a communal activity, that doesn’t require everyone to be doing something at the same time.”

The project picked up a collaborator when Fraser started tagging a colleague and expert juggler in his Tweets: Nadav Ahituv, PhD, also a faculty member in BTS. Ahituv is nearly a professional—he may be the only current faculty member in the School to have attended clown school.

“It was after my undergraduate. I knew I was going to go for my PhD and I wanted to do something crazy,” Ahituv said. He applied to Circomedia, the oldest circus school in the United Kingdom, located in Bristol.

For six months, Ahituv spent two hours on juggling, two on clowning, two on trapeze, and two on acrobatics every day. However his love of science beckoned, and he eventually left circus life to focus on understanding the role of regulatory gene sequences in human biology and disease, his lab’s current area of study.

Not surprisingly, Ahituv has matched Fraser, juggle for juggle.

Over the weeks, the objects requested have become increasingly exotic. The team has thrown weight and size mismatches at Fraser and Ahituv in hopes of knocking them off their game, but so far, they’ve failed.

A recent challenge of “a piece of paper, a box, and a beer,” ended not only with a successful juggle, but with the speedy consumption of the aforementioned beverage.

As normalcy has slowly returned to UCSF, some of the juggles have taken on an in-person element as well. Fraser has recently met his labmates for masked and distant socializing at the food trucks near UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.

While some labs have returned to 50 percent capacity, most students, faculty, and staff are still working remotely. The juggling has been a small substitute for office banter.

“It’s been a nice COVID distraction,” says Ahituv, who can juggle five balls, if anyone asks.



School of Pharmacy, Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.