The labs and offices in the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) at the University of Pennsylvania have state-of-the-science equipment that tends to get a lot of attention. After all, it’s ground zero for the immense progress in the study and manufacture of gene therapies that have the potential to cure some types of cancer. But when the faculty and staff in the ACC’s Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) need a break from solving the complicated puzzles of their science, they spend time on a collaboration that’s decidedly low-tech.
For the last two years, people working on different problems and in different labs have bonded over literally putting the puzzle pieces together.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of us like to solve problems, which is a great quality for anyone working in research and development,” said Jennifer Anderson, Quality Control Microbiology and Environmental Monitoring Team Lead in the CCI’s Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility (CVPF). “The things we work on have a lot in common with puzzles.”
The lab on the 9th floor of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine is focused on gene and cellular therapies. That includes research on CAR T-cell therapy, the first gene therapy for cancer ever approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the ongoing trial using CRISPR gene editing on immune cells to help them hunt and kill cancer. With so many complex questions of science to solve, the teams who work there are especially receptive to an activity that helps clear their heads.
By all accounts, this communal brain break started from small beginnings in July 2017 when Clare Taylor, MS, CVPF Training Program Lead, first brought a puzzle into the breakroom. Her husband had mentioned his office worked on them together, and coincidentally, she’d noticed there were a lot of yard sales in her neighborhood at the time where people were looking to get rid of old puzzles. She thought it was worth a try.
“We have a floor full of people who don’t normally interact with each other much, but who are working on similar projects,” Taylor said. “I was hoping this might bring different people together, which is part of the idea of having a communal, shared area in an office. You’re hoping people will meet while brewing a coffee, but this gives people a shared task.”
Taylor said she felt awkward as she put the first puzzle out, which involved taking a table to one side and designating it as the “puzzle table.” Anderson said in the beginning, there were only one or two people working on it every day. But, the idea quickly caught on, and as each puzzle was completed, someone else would bring in a new one.
“Now new people bring them in each time and I don’t even know who did it,” Taylor said.
The group helping to complete these puzzles now includes people from multiple labs from all over the floor, as well as people working in offices, management, and even some from other areas of the office who noticed the group work. But the puzzle phenomenon serves a purpose beyond team building. It’s also a chance to walk away from work for a minute and refresh the mind.
The “most hated puzzle of all time” — the “demonic” pretzel puzzle.
“Our work involves a lot of pressure and a lot of deadlines,” Anderson said. “We’re all working really hard and need to do our best every day. This is a stress reliever for us. You can do it during your break or during your lunch and not think about work.”
“If nothing else, you can feel like you’ve achieved something during the day if you put a few pieces in, even if the rest of your day is a struggle,” Taylor added. She also notes it’s rewarding to see the puzzle come together over time, as one group finishes lunch or a coffee break and makes way for the next, leading to piece after piece finding its place. “It’s a group effort, and it’s great to see when someone else has put in a couple of pieces that you weren’t able to find.”
Just as these puzzles are often easier to wrap the mind around than the scientific ones these researchers are tackling during the rest of their day, the satisfaction of seeing the full picture come together is easier to attain on the breakroom table than it is on the lab bench.
Of course, that sense of achievement only works if people are making progress, and that hasn’t always been the case. In one infamous example, Anderson brought in a 2,000-piece puzzle that was nothing but a picture of a bunch of pretzels. Anderson calls it the “most hated puzzle of all time” and says people complained about it for months.
Taylor summed it up simply: “It was a demon.”
Still, as anyone who has worked on a puzzle before knows, it ended up revealing a hidden level of determination. People stayed late after their shift was over to make progress on the puzzle. A member of the team was leaving her job, so everyone pulled together to get it done before that happened, making sure no one left with the pretzel puzzle unfinished.
Once completed, the puzzles usually stay on the table for a few days so everyone can enjoy the feeling of a completed task. Other puzzles the team has successfully tacked include a 3D build of Big Ben and a 3,000-piece German castle that took from July 2018 until January 2019 to finish. That one was such a labor of love that it has the team wondering if they should start framing the completed puzzled and hanging them somewhere, an idea that’s been tossed around but not put into practice just yet.
“There’s a really cool idea floating around to make puzzles of patient photos, put them together, seal them and hang them,” Anderson noted. Photos of patients who have received CAR T cell therapy already hang on the walls of the center, providing daily inspiration. The puzzles would be a further reminder of the real impact the research has on patients.
But whether it’s patient photos on the wall or pretzel puzzles on the table, the project ultimately serves as a reminder that everyone is working together.