How to Think About Supervising/Managing During a Crisis


Image of boat leading other boats in stormSupervising/mentoring during times of uncertainty and crisis, such as the current pandemic, might very well feel daunting.  At a time when you are likely struggling to figure out the best way to navigate your own situation, strategizing how to provide professional guidance to those you mentor/supervise might seem like an additional stretch.  

So we’re here with some recommendations to help you take care of yourself and your team (your intern).

As a mentor/supervisor commit yourself to four things:

1. Promise integrity, not a particular outcome:

Right now, you can’t promise to keep everyone or fulfill the original commitment of the position. There are too many unknown variables in the foreseeable future. But what you can do is promise to make decisions in line with your values.

For example, is ‘transparency’ your core value? You can talk with your intern and review how it’s going week by week, and/or promise that if you need to let them go, you will give them as much notice as possible. Or perhaps you resonate with the value of  ‘curiosity’ or ‘compassion’. Embodying those values could mean you focus your 1:1 time with your intern asking them what they are experiencing right now and/or what strategies have helped you personally cope.

Right now, you don’t need to solve their problems or have all the answers (you can reach out to us for help in addressing any issues). You just need to be present, assessing the productivity and morale of your person, and focus on helping them move forward, however slowly that may be.

Managing effectively during a crisis is one of the most important skills that a supervisor can learn. "Managing an employee who is going through a stressful period is 'one of the real challenges all bosses face,' says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and author of Being the Boss. Most of us try to keep work and home separate, but 'we all have situations in which our personal and professional lives collide,' and how you handle these situations with your employees is often a test of your leadership. You need to be empathetic and compassionate while also being professional and keeping your team productive." Remember that our office is here to help you navigate this situation skillfully!


2. Assess your 3 options:

There are three options that you are facing in regards to how you will work with your intern moving forward, and in all cases, you will need to reset expectations. Realize that this is a lot to figure out on your own - so give yourself a few days to consider your situation and your options and determine what option is best for you. It might also help for you to reach out to us, if you'd like a little more structure to think through the options.

A. We continue to work together

B. We need to take a pause

C. This ends today

Consider how much time you are still able to invest (weekly) with your intern.


Look over the expectations you had previously set for them (Mentor Expectations Spreadsheet) and determine which of the expectations could still be covered, especially for those interns that will need to work remotely.


Make sure to have a discussion about which expectations are (and are not) possible while remotely working together.


Consider how often you will be checking in with your intern. Regular actionable feedback during this time will be just as important as ever in helping them meet expectations. Consider how often you can meet/connect remotely (via Zoom, email or phone) and, if possible, set regular times to do so.

Look at: 10 potential activities for interns no longer able to work in the lab (see below)

If you need some time to work things out on your own first.


Consider how long you may need before you can provide time again to work with your intern remotely (a week or two, a month, maybe revisit/reassess the timeframe in 1-2wks, etc).


During this time your intern could possibly do some of the items under 10 potential activities for interns no longer able to work in the lab (see below), but without your feedback/input/assistance for a couple of weeks.



If you feel you really need to focus on other aspects of your life currently and can no longer take on the responsibilities of mentoring an intern this semester please make sure to set up at least a 30min conversation online with your intern to let them know.


Discuss with them why you need to end the internship. Let them know if they can use you as a positive reference in the future (if this is not the case, please let them know as well).


Make sure to communicate your decision with both Laurence Clement and Karen Leung.


If you are going to continue to work together:

Note From Dr. Karen Leung, CCSF

For the remainder of the semester (ending May 22nd) your intern will be continuing their Internship Support course (BTEC 14B) at CCSF remotely, mostly via Zoom.

The remaining assignments for the internship support course are a Concept Presentation (15-20 min PPT presentation) to the class, an internship poster on each intern’s internship project/work (no results are needed or expected), and updating their resume and preparing for interviews.

In the absence of other internship activities, interns are encouraged to work on these assignments independently, with periodic feedback from you (their mentor), your PI or potentially another member of the lab if needed.

The time the intern devotes to working on these assignments and discussing them with you (or other members of the lab) can be considered as hours towards their internship.

Internship hours can be counted in relation to any internship related activities done outside of the lab, including those listed below, as you deem acceptable. This can include everything from reading or watching webinars on topics related to their internship or the lab’s research to analyzing data or working on their poster.

This semester’s Biosymposium will be held virtually, including the poster session. We are currently working on plans and technology for the event and will update everyone as soon as we have more details.

There is no one “right option” for working with your intern going forward, so we’ve laid out some potential options (but certainly not all of them). The best fit for you and your team (intern) will depend on the changing priorities and goals for both of you. 

In the case where you don't have time to create a new set of tasks and goals for your intern, you can always use the time together to work on their poster and application materials for a position (see the note from Karen, in the sidebar).

If you do have time to re-design your goals for the internship, our hope is to crowdsource ideas and options as we move through unprecedented change in all our lives. Consider the below options and which may fit expectations that have already been set and which may be used to create new expectations (if needed). We hope this document will help guide you in your decision making, but it is by no means exhaustive and if you have additional ideas, thoughts, comments, please share them.

10 Potential Activities for Interns No Longer Able to Work in the Lab:

  • Data analysis: interns could obtain results from their mentor (current or previously obtained) to analyze
    • Interns can create a short presentation or report, this could be compared with the mentor’s analysis via email or Zoom.
    • Examples: gel analysis, qPCR data, image analysis, FACS analysis, etc
  • Troubleshooting: intern is provided with conflicting, confusing or poor quality data and given time (and possibly some online resources) to identify issues
    • Interns can work on answering: Why is this not ideal data? What are the possible solutions? What are the next steps? Which experiments would you do next to learn why this data is not ideal and obtain better results?
    • This can then also lead into building experimental design skills
  • Updating and revising/rewriting of protocols
    • Interns can re-write, flow chart and/or diagram protocols they have shadowed or practiced with details that may not be in the original protocol
    • This may also be of benefit for the mentor who may be able to use these protocols to train others in the future on the same technique
  • Presentation and poster development
    • Interns can develop their concept presentations (being presented in BTEC 14B in April) and their internship poster
    • Ideally, these should be presented to the mentor and/or lab via Zoom to obtain feedback
  • Video shadowing
    • Watching experiments online either through online resources such as JOVE or Addgene, or possibly videos taken by mentors
  • Experimental planning and design: interns can work on plasmid design, primer design, calculations, or any type of bioinformatics analysis or search
    • This work could be new for both the mentor and intern, developing something that has not been done before, or it could be a repeat of work already done by the mentor to be compared with the mentor’s strategies and results
  • Time management: Interns could be given a series of experiments (or develop a series of experiments based on troubleshooting non-ideal data) and develop a schedule and timeframe for completing those experiments to be presented and discussed with their mentor
    • Amounts of reagents, types of equipment, timing for preparing related solutions or ordering new materials, etc. could be included as appropriate and discussed
  • Organization and/or documentation: interns can develop or add to online formats of documents, data or resources they’ve already learned about
    • Interns could build online formats to share these resources (Ex. Google drive folders with data, samples, results, etc)
  • Building conceptual knowledge:
    • Literature searches and reading which can then be discussed online with the mentor - either in a mini journal club format or covering/discussing specific topics
    • Interns could be provided with overarching concepts to explore on-line on their own, come back to the mentor with a list of resources briefly (just to check if they’re on the right track), utilize those resources to build their own knowledge/understanding and then ideally be diagrammed/presented/discussed with the mentor by a predetermined date
    • List of on-line resources for learning
    • Online Biology Courses: Examples iBiology or Khan Academy
    • Attend any remote lab meetings, seminars or journal clubs
  • Build bioinformatics skills/tools:
    • Interns can learn to use BLAST, analyze sequences, design primers, look for genomic features of genes/proteins related to their project/lab’s research, learn Python or R, etc
    • Best if these are skills the mentor is reasonably well versed in and can provide feedback on conceptual understanding and small projects
    • Interns can also learn to use a variety of databases to find information for their project or related research and can organize, database and/or present this information to their mentor
  • Learn to make figures/diagrams and/or present data in the proper format
    • This could be in conjunction with data analysis or for figures that they need for their BTEC 14B presentation or poster, or for a figure a mentor needs for an upcoming presentation or manuscript
  • Looking toward the future: Updating resume, informational interviews,  interviewing practice and future opportunities
    • We recommend that all interns spend some time updating their resume and discussing/reviewing it with their mentor to add new skills appropriately and get feedback
    • Interns can also spend time looking for future job/educational opportunities and making sure to have a discussion with their mentor about their future goals and what skills/abilities they may need to get to those goals (beyond the internship)
    • This may also lead to the mentor helping the intern connect with others from their network to do further career exploration (Ex. if an intern would like to work as a lab technician at UCSF in the future, the mentor could introduce them to lab techs from other UCSF labs with whom they could do virtual informational interviews)
    • This may also be a good time for the intern to set up short discussions with other members of the lab via Zoom, to get to know them or be a virtual audience for an upcoming presentation/lab meeting/seminar talk. It may be helpful for other lab members to obtain questions/feedback from someone not as fully entrenched in the lab’s science, especially for introductory materials.
    • Interns could practice interviewing with their mentor - perhaps just with questions that relate to their project and their time thus far in the internship to ensure the proper language and logic are being followed/understood

3. Reset your metric of success

During any crisis, your tasks/projects, expectations and metrics of success all need to change from your original larger goals (e.g. you will complete analyzing X data by April 1) towards favoring progress on smaller goals (Let's agree that you will work on analyzing X data, and we will meet to discuss your progress next Friday). Planning extensively will not benefit you here.  That's because uncertainty,  the dynamic landscape, and the ramp-up period of developing a new plan, is going to render your productivity goals as ambitious guesses at best.

Focus on regular check-ins as the primary goal, and be a lot more flexible about what your outcomes are going to be. The goal of your intern was to learn, so check in with them weekly, assess (and highlight to them) what they have learned and why it is valuable in light of their goals.

4. Take care of yourself first, and be gentle with yourself

You cannot care for others, if you don’t care - (and model caring!) - for yourself first. You don’t have to pretend to be ok, or to have all the answers, or to know what the correct next step is. Let your people see how you are wrestling with issues, that it's normal, and demonstrate how they can wrestle with integrity as well, from figuring out time management at home, to concerns for the health of family and friends.

Be more gentle, and more forgiving with yourself than you probably have been in the past, if you miss the meeting, can't focus, don't get as much done as you think you 'should', or even if you can't continue your person's internship - remember - be gentle with yourself and your expectations. We are all in unknown territory!

Taking on that additional stress and 'pretending to know it all' because you're in charge will just wear you out faster. This means showing fallibility and vulnerability as a leader. There are several studies that show that being vulnerable - but not oversharing - increases trust and strengthens professional relationships. Furthermore, you should know that “vulnerability here does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing 'professional distance and cool' with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

Signal and model self-care (food, sleep, exercise, community, joy) with transparency. For example, you can say, "I'm pushing our meeting back 15 minutes because I need to grab something to eat." Or you can explain that you are grappling with this new normal in waves, but you are glad to see them. Know that one of the things that will help your people get through this situation is your willingness to demonstrate that taking care of yourself is a priority for you.

Supervising others during uncertainty isn't about having it all together - it's about centering yourself in your values and goals, as you make each decision, communicate, handle the unexpected and face an unknown and dynamic landscape. It's about riding each wave of challenges -  which could be new barriers or old anxieties -  and responding as close as you can to your definition of integrity. Every challenge ends, eventually, so look to the future, but focus most of your energy on taking care of the next step: the next conversation, the next decision, the next task.

Resting each thought and action on your definition of integrity will help you look back on this time with confidence that you played your position: as a supervisor/mentor, you took care of yourself and your people.

-Written by Naledi Saul,  Karen Leung, James Lewis and Laurence Clement (UCSF OCPD and CCSF Biotechnology Program), supported by an NSF ATE grant.

Upcoming Events


Entry Points to Careers in Science Communication

Date: April 3, 2020
Time: 12 p.m. - 2 p.m.

Skill-building: Medical Writing Job Simulation

Date: April 10, 2020
Time: 12 p.m. - 2 p.m.

Passing the Scalpel Dissection Event (Parnassus)

Date: April 13, 2020
Time: 5:30pm-7pm

STEP-UP Introduction to Pedagogy Course

Date: May 12, 2020
Time: 10 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.