What kind of lab? What kind of PI?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the ideal environment is for scienists to operate in. Obviously, it’s probably not one size fits all, but I think there are some general principles to operating that any scientist might appreciate, get behind.

@mwilsonsayres is starting her new lab at Arizona State soon and is recruiting postdocs (and Ph.D. students). She put out a tweet saying what kind of PI she is (going to be/is?) saying 1) Asking research questions we care about asking and 2) Making a safe place to say ‘I don’t know’.

That first one probably reads to most scientists as a no-brainer; of course we have to ask questions that matter to us and are curious about, otherwise we wouldn’t be very productive. Being passionate about seemingly trivial things is exactly how progress is made (sometimes it’s just picking on someone elses’ data and asking ‘really?’).  And of course developing and coming up with those questions is important, however that happens (these questions might occur to someone away from lab while in the shower or out hiking or doing something besides science; brains need rest from the lab, after all).

The second item in the list is also extremely important and possibly trumps the first one. That’s the impostor syndrome, dealing with uncertainty and being able to talk about it openly. It’s something that doesn’t exist in too many places in academia currently. It’s starting to get better, even Neil Tyson on Cosmos has emphasized the point saying that there’s no shame in not knowing something, it just means it’s there to be figured out.

Here’s what I’d add to the list– The kind of culture I’d want in a lab or to create in a lab if I ever get to that stage of having one of my own:

  1. The first rule of Street lab is Don’t talk about Street Lab! (Just kidding)
  2. Learn something new every day (at least part of a new technique, a new result, reading a new paper, a productivity tip, a new supply source, something!)
  3. Do something for someone else routinely (share what you learned, teach someone something new, send that draft of a manuscript to someone else so they can hone their editing/feedback skills, clean up a common space in the lab).
  4. Growth mindset!
  5. There will be a master list of supplies, reagents, primers, a style sheet, and a list of software tools used by everyone to keep track of things well. There will be a data/content management system.
  6. Schedule an appointment ahead of time with an open calendar with a note about the subject of the meeting noted so we can all prepare.
  7. Lab meetings will not just be research reports/updates. They’ll be learning opportunities too.
  8. Everyone has a plan we work out together and adjust over time (for research, career, etc. with so called SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). Some meetings will be regarding these goals.
  9. Everyone writes, edits and reviews. This may not be formal scientific manuscripts, but blog posts or other informal writing to help everyone build a writing habit. Of course lab notebooks are important too.
  10.  No interruptions when people are working/concentrating except in case of emergency. Everyone will have a sign they can put up at their desk/bench that says ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ (or everyone will have a public habit that signals ‘no interruptions; like headphones on or wearing a certain hat).
  11.  Experiment hard.
  12.  You will fail. And be uncertain. Learn to be comfortable with both, have a sense of humor about both and move beyond it. Learn & do better next time.
  13.  No one person is your sole mentor. If you need something from someone ask, discuss, etc. (Twitter, email, talking, text…however you do it, just do it, ask for specific things, not vague guidance!).

That’s a lot right there. This is just a draft list from the top of my head over a few days of thinking. Obviously it still needs some refining and isn’t the be all end all list; it’s not one size fits all. However, I do like the idea of having a lab guide to hand new people when they walk in the door to set the tone for what’s expected, what they might expect from colleagues and from you, the leader of the lab. Of course, it can’t be a book (or maybe it can? the first month of working in a lab may not be strictly benchwork; it takes time to get the lay of the land there).

Some questions to leave you with:

What would you add to the list? What would you take away? Does anyone write these now? Would anyone want to collaborate to write one of these with me?

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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