Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's Resolutions: develop autonomy and promote innovation

While I like being in control as much as the next person, I tend to function well working with people who are self motivated and autonomous and I have little patience for people who are not. So in thinking about models for running the lab, I was immediately drawn to the concept of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). A ROWE is a company focused on results, not on workplace structure: you work when you want, you leave when you want, you organize your day as you want, all that matters is that you generate the results you need. The emphasis being on flexibility and results, with the idea of fostering "freedom and responsibility" (see this article about Netflix unlimited vacation policy). This is not that much of a stretch, since most labs are run this way anyways. I have always worked in a ROWE, it fits my personality and so far I found that I do like people to tell me when they're coming in or taking days off, but once they keep me in the loop, I'm fine with anything they want to do as long as they're productive.

Climbing on the Potomac
However, this does not work for everyone and I have seen several people flounder when given no structure. In addition as an academic I will have to learn how to motivate students and teach them how science can be rewarding even when it's hard. While taking this pictures, I remember thinking these people were crazy carrying their kayaks on their heads up the rocks to run the rapids again, but isn't this the perfect metaphor for science? Spending most of your time carrying a heavy load up a rock-wall to experience the short thrill of discovery. How do you teach people that the thrill is worth the wait? And how do you keep them focused when they are given freedom?

My New Year's resolutions for the lab are to develop autonomy and promote innovation, but this is no small feat. Postdocs may be more likely fully autonomous and motivated, but technicians and students which will abund in a small new lab will still be figuring themselves out. So here are some more specific resolutions:

1) for the ROWE to work, we'll need to have specific goals set for everyone with a precise timeline. I don't necessarily have to set the goals for them if they are self-directed, but I'm a good enforcer and scheduler, so I can help them keep track

2) I should help them develop their organizational skills, so that they can schedule their experiments efficiently and plan their days productively

3) I need to learn to give people freedom to think, sit back and set them back on track when needed. This may be the hardest because I tend to want to jump in and help/direct, but it would be a good learning experience to have them figure things out through trial and error and develop their own ideas.

4) I need to listen: listen to ideas, listen to feedback, listen to grievances.

I will follow up in the Captain's log about how it goes.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

myIDP: a SMART career development plan

Science Careers recently launched the myIDP website (here), which helps you define your Individual Development Plan, a blueprint for the next steps of your career in science. Though bare bones the site is brilliantly designed so that anyone can use it at any level of their scientific career from undergraduate to professor. The site starts with a questionnaire about yourself, your professional skills (communication, teamwork, level of focus, etc) and your values, and ranks different career options based on your answers. Interestingly I was almost evenly split between a academic staff scientist and a Principal Investigator, which is good because I am a staff scientist at the moment and I'll be a PI shortly...
If you are interested in exploring different careers you can go through the Career Exploration section or go directly to develop your Plan. You can set long term goal about career advancement or more specific goals about developing skills or finishing projects. The most important thing is that they have to be SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Actionable, Relevant, Time-bound. While "Get tenure" is certainly a career advancement goal and may be attainable, you need to break things down in little steps: "Apply for R01", "Teach X course to graduate students", "Publish paper #1", "Publish paper #2", and so on and so forth. Each of these larger goals can be broken into smaller goals with closer deadlines and with clear end-results. For each goal you have to define an accountability plan, which makes you really think about how to break things down. One of my goals has always been to "Read more papers" especially outside of my field, but sometimes there is just so much to do in the lab that skimming the weekly table of contents of major journals seems enough. So to make it doable I wrote "Read at least 4 new articles a week", which I know is not much, but some weeks feels like an achievement. I have a weekly reminder in my Asana schedule which needs to be checked off to make me accountable. And then there's finishing papers, lab renovations, grant deadlines and the likes which will come to you in a handy summary email every month.

After the planning, there is the implementing and for the Implement Plan you have to define your mentoring team. You not only define who your mentors are, but also what specific mentors are for: there may be people you talk to for job search advice, people you need to write letters for you, people who must teach you techniques. It is surprising how many mentors you can find and this exercise helps you identify areas where you may not have a specific mentor and where you may want to find one.

I like checking things off lists and when you ask yourself where you want to be in 5-10 years it's nice to be able to plan it out on paper. Early in my postdoc, I went to a grant writing seminar and they told us how you have to plan out your fellowship from the first year: early fellowship grants in year 1-2, career development awards in year 3-5, papers, job search. It stuck with me and I found it very useful advice, as sometimes I have seen colleagues miss opportunities because they did not think about the deadlines or time-limits involved.

In closing, thumbs up for myIDP. I'll do my best to have my techs, students and postdocs use it.

Remember to go to the Management page for more Career Development tips.
Photo credit: Sten Pose, Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why we love Life Technologies Bolt gels

Lately we've been running A LOT of Western blots and our trusted Life Techologies rep, who always suggests new things to try, has been pushing the new Bolt Mini Gel Tank and the Bolt gels, so we bought one of the welcome packs (gel tank, 10 gels, running buffer, sample buffer, reducing agent and standards for $390). And a week later my tech begged for another one!

I only use Life Technologies Novex gels because despite the expense of the proprietary running buffer, they are better than the Bio-Rad ones and they were the only ones which worked well for mass spec band purification. The Novex NuPAGE gels cost the same as the Bio-Rad ones, but last longer and run very straight and crisp bands.

The Bolt tank and gels are completely redesigned. It's a double-length and narrow tank where gels are run side by side, which was strange at first, but this way you can only run a gel at a time with half the buffer. The tank also has a white background behind the gel to help you better see the loading. The Bolt gels have wells cut as wedges to make loading easier and to hold more sample than the Novex gels, AND Life Technologies lowered the price from $13 to $10 for Bolt. They run way faster, so that you can be done with a 4-12% gradient run in less than an hour. And last but not least, the bands are incredibly crisp (see the pictures comparing our samples run on the Novex vs Bolt). It kind of looks like a Christmas tree...

Note on 2/6/2013: After 3 months we found only one glitch. Running the gels at 160V as recommended makes the buffer too hot and causes some random gels to start melting deforming the front. We are lowering back to 120V as for the Novex.

Remember to look at the Lab things we like page for other reviews and cool products

Saturday, December 8, 2012

End-of-year meetings?

Umberto Boccioni - Visioni Simultanee
(Simultaneous Points-of-view)
As we get closer to the end of the year, I have been thinking about having end-of-year individual meetings to discuss performance, expectations and general issues. During the first few years of my post-doc, my boss conducted yearly meetings to formally discuss the issues that you often do not discuss in science: Are you happy with the lab and with where you are in your career? What are your overall plans for your project and your career development? Do you need a raise? Which conferences do you want to attend?

It was a venue to air professional issues which only come up in passing, and it also forced you to make a summary of the past year and communicate your needs. It made it clear that it was okay to talk about what you want creating an open communication environment. I really liked it, because like a lot of people, I tend to be afraid of asking for things (help, money, advice, etc) and having a forum where I was expected and encouraged to identify what I needed was very empowering.

In addition, being always pressed for time, I realize I now tend to assign tasks without discussing their larger purpose within the project, so I have been trying to communicate more frequently on how everyone's work fits into the global scheme and I have seen how it immediately makes people more interested and engaged. I think it could be a good idea to establish biyearly meetings for my lab members: one comprehensive end-of-year and a 6-month review just to keep things going. It can be an occasion to discuss my vision for the lab so that everyone is aware of where we are going long-term, to address concerns people may have, to get to know their plans for the future, and to give feedback on behaviors needing improvement (giving feedback tips can be found here and here). To avoid giving a daunting corporate feel to the meeting I am holding the meetings over lunch and told them to pick whatever type of restaurant they like.

In preparation of the first of these meetings, I have been asking friends in business on how they like their performance to be assessed and discussed, and one friend raised the issue of "performance standard criteria". Companies have specific criteria for a specific job which must be met and the employee functions according to a framework where behavior and performance goals are set from the manager. This whole concept makes me break out into hives, because as a scientist I don't necessarily have a rigid structure to control my work and do not want one. However, I understand how it can be very reassuring to have performance standards and to know that you are doing a good job. We constantly function from deadline to deadline and have a self-imposed set of short and long-term goals which must be met. How do I develop that? And most importantly how do I teach others to streamline their work and set their own goals? What are appropriate performance standard criteria for scientists?....more posts will follow.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aztec Calendar Conundrum: organization and project management

As time becomes more and more limited and things to do multiply, I am looking for good ways to organize my days and projects and keep everything straight. I am starting to understand why PI's tend to ask the dreaded question "What am I looking at?". The student thinks their project is all important, but the PI has too much on her/his minds to remember exactly which experiment you are doing and want help on.

What to do when your calendar looks more like an Aztec one?
During the past year, I have tested a few different time and project management sites and here is what I found. This is in no way a comprehensive analysis, but just the results of hours of googling and trying.

I used HiTask for 6 months and liked it a lot. It's a calendar, task manager and project manager all in one. You have a calendar where you can schedule events (talks, meetings, etc) and plan experiments. You have task manager where you can list everything you need to do and assign specific tasks to projects. And finally you have a project manager where you can invite your lab members and assign tasks to them directly. The calendar is nice and handy and the task manager is very straightforward (though not very organized once tasks are completed). You can assign priority levels, star specific tasks and keep track of a lot of different things.

Example from the HiTask website
Unfortunately, HiTask forbids me to use the site now because I have reached the maximum number of free tasks. There was no prior information on whether there was a limit to the free account and even if I went back and cancelled my tasks from 6-months before, it still didn't allow me to use it. This really annoyed me! To keep using the site I have to pay $8/month. If it was just me, I would have considered it because it's a very well designed site, but I think it's not worth it for the whole lab: $8/month for 5-10 people would be $480-960 a year and you'd have to remember to cancel whenever someone leaves or for temporary students. However, I would definitely recommend it for personal organization.


After HiTask, I went back online and I found Asana. After co-founder Dustin Moskowitz left Facebook, he created Asana, a project management platform to provide "a single version of the truth about what everyone is doing" (see more on Bloomberg BusinessWeek here).  Like the yoga pose it is named after, Asana may not be straightforward right away: it needs concentration and thinking on how and why you want to use needs practice. But man, it is powerful and beautiful and completely customizable, and you can plan your entire life on it! And everyone else's life for that matter. And it is free for groups with less than 30 members.

The intro videos are very useful and in fact necessary, because you'd have no idea what to do without them. The help team is also very responsive. There are many ways to run Asana and organize your workspace: public and private. I split my workspace in Lab space and a personal space which is not accessible to others. In the Lab space I have pages for individual projects where each project is mapped out: I set headings for different parts of the project (Intracellular signaling, Learning and memory) and then use each task for a question that requires one large experiment each, e.g. Does my protein of interest regulate AKT signaling? Within each task you can set subtasks with specific due dates (Transfect cells, Drug treatment, Run Western) and keep adding them as many times as you need to repeat the experiment until the question is answered. You can then assign whole tasks or just subtasks to specific people, and lab members can plan their own work or expand on the assignment as they wish or assign tasks to you.
In addition of the individual project pages where you can generate an overview of what needs to be done, you then have your own task page where every task can be listed day by day independently of project so that you actually know how much you have to do. The organization of this page still needs some work, I think, since the sorting can be awkward and there is no calendar view to remind you of scheduled meetings and seminars. However, sorting my tasks for the day on Asana has become a routine by now. The only drawback is that it is not super user friendly and you would actually have to take the time to train people to use it.