Saturday, January 19, 2013

Establishing lab culture in a new lab

Every time a common supply is finished and not reordered, or a common piece of equipment is broken, a little voice goes off in my head "When I have my own lab, this will not happen!". But, will it? And if it does, what do I do about it?

It comes down more generally to the lab culture, that set of rules which will reflect how you like to do science, how the lab will be run, how the lab members will interact with each other and conduct their experiments. A survey published a few months ago in the Harvard Business Review (here) showed how employees would follow a particular culture or strategy only when it originated directly from top management and how middle managers were often powerless to implement change by themselves. I have seen similar situations in multiple occasions, where things will run amok unless the Principal Investigator provides a set of credible boundaries. Lab culture is very important and as a new PI you get to establish and refine your own. It seems that in general lab culture reflects how the PI likes to work whether it's a conscious or unconscious effort, but recognizing the way you like things to be done, making an effort to establish positive culture and/or just to hiring people who will fit nicely in the existing culture can make all the difference.

A good culture promotes cohesiveness and assures you that experiments are done the way you want and with appropriate controls. So, I started thinking about what I would want for my own lab:

COMMON PROTOCOLS AND REAGENTS: I have worked in labs where you could not deviate from protocols currently used and labs where everyone had their own protocols, reagents, sometimes equipment and you could even choose whether you'd prefer to run your DNA gels with TBE or TAE. As a small lab having common reagents is a must and I believe maintaining common stocks promotes responsibility towards your fellow lab members. I also think there should be a reference folder with common protocols, which everyone can access. At the same time, protocols are often in flux as improvements and new reagents are used, so innovation must be taken into account and people have to be free to change and provide updated versions of common protocols. The risk of an extremely individualized environment is the complete loss of knowledge (and custom reagents) once an lab member leaves.

Image appropriately taken from a BLOTTR article on copyright
SHARING DATA AND IDEAS: There are lines of research where you can be 2 years ahead of everyone else and others where you could have toiled for 5 years to get to a major finding that someone else can reproduce in 2 weeks, so when and what to share is sometimes a tough decision. Personally I prefer being in an environment open to sharing information, because I believe results will come faster if you can work with others, discuss ideas and involve collaborators. I have been in situations where I had to think long and hard before sharing a piece of data and where multiple emails of mutual assurances of honesty had to cross before data was shared with me. I look at it like running a small business: if you work retail, you factor a percentage of your profits lost to theft, and if you provide a service, there will be cases where you won't get paid and you won't be able to recover the loss. It is fundamentally the same in science: some people will steal your ideas and run with them, it's a fact. I just do not believe that this should stop you from sharing, since talking about your work, being part of a community, collaborating and discussing your results are some of the best parts of being a scientists, at least for me. For this reason I will be completely open to sharing and will push my people to do the same within the lab and outside.

WORKING TOGETHER: I am very gregarious, yet in the lab I am a loner. I have always worked alone on my own ideas, which sometimes made much slower and less productive than I would have wanted because there was simply too much work to do for a single person. Now that I have people working for me, everything goes so much faster and constant interactions allow us to keep asking the right questions instead of just plodding along. On the other hand, working in teams in the lab can lead to a lot of conflict if the team structure is not correct: two lead postdocs on the same project can be a recipe for disaster because of authorship attribution. So I am going to promote a combination of independence and teamwork. It will be good for lab members to help each other and be in each other's papers, but each student and postdoc should have a primary project which is only theirs in addition to a secondary project which is shared.

Now, I just need to figure out how to inventory and share all my protocols and reagents, and how to hire the right people....I see more posts in the future.

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