Saturday, May 31, 2014

On mentoring: reflections on an empty nest

My first employee has left the lab. It was planned and expected. She pledged to work with me and
move from Boston to DC to help set up the lab. I pledged to do my best to get her into a wonderful graduate program, preferably in sunny California. We both held up our ends of the bargain.

She leaves for an exciting adventure and I stay to watch the lab change and move on. This is new for me. As a student and postdoc you see people leave and you imagine your own departure. As a professor you stay and worry a bit how the dynamics will change, especially if an important person in the culture you have created is gone. You worry about experiments getting done, about transitioning new people. At the same time you are happy and proud to send your mentee into the world.

I wonder whether this feeling is a fraction of what parents feel when their children leave. While I do not advocate treating lab people like your children and in fact tend to prefer formal and professional behavior instead of the TMI environment of millenials, having had multiple mentors throughout my career I realized something that they don't really tell you in grad school. A good mentor is forever! They will cheer you and support you, they will write letters for decades after you have left their labs, they will promote your work and they will be there to discuss your doubts. I always tell students you need at least one mentor like that in your life or you will have a much harder time.

So I have not lost my tech, since there will still be work to do until she has to find a postdoc or the next job. The reward of mentoring and I guess the reason why we wanted to be in academic science in the first place is to see these young people move on to bigger and better things. But still it may take a while to get used to this.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Freezers and fridges for your lab

The pricing of research items does not make sense to me. When I tried to buy a drafting stool for a high bench from for $110, I was told that insurance only covers chairs bought from VWR or Fisher and had to spend $244 for a VWR High Bench chair, luckily deeply discounted from a list price of $674.

Snowflakes at the electron microscope
As the lab is growing we started to fill the hand-me-down freezers and fridges I had collected from other investigators, and I had to figure out what to do. I wanted a nice and spacious 2 door deli case fridge. I didn't need a fancy chromatography fridge such as the one listed from VWR for $9,695.69 (Symphony Chromatography Refrigerators), but even the basic 49 cu. ft. 2-door fridge was not much cheaper at $6,899. With a good quote, I could have probably knocked 2-3K off the list price, but even if my institution has restrictions on chairs, it does not have restrictions on vendors for appliances. So after multiple searches on and KaTom Restaurant Supply, in comes a great 45 cu. ft. 2-door beverage merchandiser from True Refrigeration for around $2,300. I paid an extra $400 for white glove delivery so that it wouldn't get stuck in the loading dock and our fridge space is now tripled. A neighbor has had the same fridge happily for 10 years...and even if it breaks in 5 years, it's still 1/3 of the scientific distributor's price. This is $3-5,000 in your equipment budget that now you can use for something else.

Same goes for small undercounter freezers and fridges. In my old institution every bench came with one undercounter for free I believe, but here I just need a couple for specific applications that require separate freezer space. Again the VWR 5 cu. ft. general purpose freezer is listed at $1,639. From Best Buy you can get a 4.2 cu. ft. upright freezer for less than $300.

Hope this helps.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Setting up your lab website

Your website is your labs' ambassador to the outside world. Prospective students and job applicants will check it out before applying, so will collaborators or potential donors. I have been talking to a lot of other new PIs discussing website options and set up my site right when I opened the lab. In our hyper-connected world not having a website is almost like being invisible.

I made some choices, which may not necessarily be the best ones, but I thought I'd share the process.

Independent vs. institutional. In some cases this may not be a choice at all. Some school will be very protective of their brand and will not allow their logo to be used in your personal lab website. In this situation, they may offer to host your site, but you will have very limited personalization options and will end up with a site which will look like your institution's site. As scientists we tend to want to express our individuality and to attract the best applicants, we also want to project the lab personality on the site. Is your brand distinct from the one of your institution? How much are you willing to pay for your brand?

Homemade vs. pre-made vs. custom designed. The choice on the design of your independent site will come down to 1) how good you are with HTML and 2) how much you care or want to spend. If you or a student of yours are good a web design, you can make your site whatever you want, but have to take the time to generate the look. If you are willing to spend some money to use a hosting service with pre-designed templates, you can pick something you like and populate the template much faster. Then, there is always the option of having a professional get a personalized template ready for you to populate.

Fancy vs. simple. The choice of which design to use is not an easy one. In general my feeling is that lab websites have to be relatively simple without crazy graphics and busy columns, but a site with more bells and whistles may be more attractive to a younger audience. At the end your site must reflect the image of the lab.

A word about hosting. There are many different hosting options that could be available to you. If your university does not care about branding, they may be willing to host your personal lab site for you with your design. If you want to have an outside provider and what to have a pre-designed site there are multiple hosting sites ranging from $0.50 to $5 a month for basic service. It's not easy to determine which hosting service would work best and at the end it may just come down to cost, template availability and ease of update. Some comparisons can be found here and here. I am using iPage, which as far as I can tell has been very good, templates are good looking and customizable and updates are very easy. The structure of the pages could probably be more flexible, but it works well for a basic lab website.