Thursday, March 28, 2019

How do you create a lab culture (the social kind, not just cells)

When starting a new lab, from scratch, it is easy to begin to contemplate the question of what I might do differently as a PI. I'd run a lab for >13 years at UT Austin, and you get into a bit of a rut, where it is hard to change the culture, hard to introduce new habits. People have been in place long enough that creating a new style of lab meeting, or suddenly initiating a "put everything on GitHub" rule doesn't necessarily take root. But with a brand new lab, it's a clean slate, tabula rasa. But how to articulate all of the many things that make for an effective lab culture - welcoming, curious, ambitious, supportive, and efficient? I decided to try articulating my expectations in a document, a "Lab culture" file.
To begin, I did what comes naturally these days: I tweeted looking for advice / examples. And I got some great feedback. You can see the thread here, with replies from many disparate PIs with different styles of lab culture documents. Using these ideas, I built my own version, for my own style.  Its not a finished product. There are things I may decide don't belong, or things I need to add. Maybe entirely new categories not covered. But its a start. You can see the current version below. 
I hope that by sharing, I can (1) get feedback, (2) inspire others to do the same, (3) give you a template you might find useful yourself.

The short version:
# 1   Be kind & supportive.
# 2   Have fun doing science!
# 3   Be productive.

A Mentoring Plan is at the end of this document.


 Challenge yourself
  • Be self-motivated. You are here to advance your career, not mine.
  • Be ambitious. Identify your personal definition of success, and aspire to exceed that.Discuss your definition of success with your mentors and peers.
  • We are here to challenge ourselves to learn new ideas. Be curious.
  • If you don’t understand, ask questions, don’t just be silent!
  • Practice asking questions. Write down > 1 question per seminar talk you see
  • Take intellectual risks, but have a “plan B” that is safe. A really ground-breaking experiment might fail, so have another study you could do instead for a reliable publication.

  • We value a supportive work environment where everyone is treated with respect and dignity and is able to work towards their aspirations.
  • We value and support diversity in the workplace.
  • We do not tolerate bigotry, abuse, or harassment.
  • Seek out frank but constructive and kind criticism. Return the favor.
  • Communicate openly with your colleagues.
  • Leave the lab, food area, office, cleaner than you found it.
  • You are a member of a community; contribute to it, and draw upon it when needed.
  • Meet visitors. At conferences make a point of introducing yourself to strangers.

  • Honesty is essential for correct science
  • We prefer to avoid mistakes, but mistakes do happen. Take a deep breath, acknowledge them and fix it.
  • Conserve, reduce, reuse, recycle.

  • Be productive: set clear goals and meet them.
  • A core part of this job is to publish good science in a timely manner. If it’s not published, nobody will know it ever happened except us.

  • Outreach is a key part of our job. Find “your” outreach style and pursue it. Education, science communication, art… there are many strategies. Pick one and do it well.
  • Mentoringundergraduates or other kinds of trainees helps you, and helps them.

  • Health and personal challenges, including mental illness, are common hurdles people in academia face, as in any other walk of life. Engaging with the problem by discussing it with your peers and supervisors can go a long way towards getting help and accommodations. We can’t help if we don’t know.
  • Find a work-life balance that lets you do your job to the level you aspire to and lets you be happy
  • Be safe. In the lab, and in the field:
  • Seek the training you need to avoid, and respond to, emergencies, including First Aid.
  • Plan carefully to avoid emergencies.
  • Find your work schedule that works for you. I work long & late; that does not mean you are required to do so. Whatever your choices about work schedules, be aware of its costs and benefits.

  • Discuss authorship expectations before embarking on a project.
  • You earn first authorship if you do most of the data collection, analysis, and writing.
  • You earn co-first-authorship if you and someone else either did equal amounts of work or each contributed most of different stages (collection, analysis, writing)
  • You earn co-authorship if you contribute essential effort to getting a substantial fraction of the data or writing the paper. There should be some distinct result or intellectual idea that you were the primary source for.
  • You must have read, understood, and approved any paper you are co-author on and be able to defend it.

The PI’s obligations to everyone in the lab:
  • My job is to help you achieve yourcareer and life goals, to the best of my ability.
  • Rapid feedback on ideas, manuscripts, etc.
  • Financial support for salary and research and travel to the extent I am able
  • Regular meeting to discuss science, and careers.
  • I write your recommendation letters. You can take this for granted, but please give me enough advanced warning.
  • I help you network with other scientists
  • We should discuss your aspirations, and realistic ways of realizing your goals.
  • Frank and constructive feedback on your science and career advancement.
  • Conflict resolution is my job. If people aren’t getting along, or something is wrong, talk to me.
  • I never ask about personal problems, because I don’t want to intrude. But, if there are issues at home, or especially with health (mental or otherwise) that are affecting your work, you are always free to talk to me.

Your obligations to the PI:
 Tell me when there is a problem, in the lab, with your data, or with other people.
  • Be independent to the extent you can, teaching yourself skills, solving problems. But, don’t get stuck doing this: talk to me before you are in a rut. Find a happy balance between independence and the preceding point.
  • Be creative and productive. That involves working efficiently, rather than super-long hours.
Obligations to yourself:  self-education
  • Attend seminars to learn what others are doing
  • Read science papers or books (almost) every day. If you don’t want to read extensively and intensively, then examine whether you are doing the kind of science that really engages you.
  • Keep a lab notebook with ideas, observations, and data.
  • Go to a conference & practice public speaking
  • Read about scientific ethics, philosophy of science, and history of science.
  • Learn to keep a budget of research expenses
  • Take time to read about personnel management
  • Set up literature auto-alerts

Obligations to yourself:  Data habits & repeatable science
  • Back up your data!!!!!!!
  • Everyone generating/analyzing data and papers should have a GitHub account or equivalent to share data, code, and text.
  • Write up Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs) for any commonly-used method so people who follow after you can replicate your methods exactly.

Obligations to yourself:  Self-care
  • None of the above are any good if you are too stressed or unhappy or depressed to benefit from them. Take care of your physical and mental well-being. That includes sleep, exercise, and activities that make you content.
  • If you are having difficulty with health (mental or otherwise), seek help.
  • You can talk to me about problems you are having so we can seek solutions together.
  • I have experience and some limited training in counseling people at risk of suicide, suffering from depression, or having experienced sexual harassment, so please don’t think that you can’t talk to me.

  • We will start you with a basic task to evaluate your reliability and dedication, then as we get a feel for your skills and interests we will start to talk with you about independent project ideas.
  • You should aspire to get co-authorship or even first authorship from your time in the lab.
  • Be punctual and reliable
  • Attend lab meeting to learn the gory details
  • Do some independent reading on the topic you are studying
  • Ask questions
  • Ask more questions
  • Keep copious notes in meetings and in lab.
  • Start to learn statistics, computation, and to embrace applied math

 You are the lynchpin of the lab, making sure core functions keep running.
  • Keep a daily lab notebook of what you do
  • Communicate regularly with me about what you should be doing next.
  • If you have down-time and aren’t sure what to do, ask me.
  • Ask questions & more questions

Graduate students:
  • Your PhD and career goals are yours, not mine. That means you should be self-motivated, and are responsible for your own research ideas.
  • Always ask yourself, “why is this interesting and important?” Be prepared to answer that.
  • Read more than you think you can. Your success is proportional to your mastery of the literature. You are a scholar training to be a world expert on a specific topic.
  • Know the history of the ideas you are studying. This includes reading the old classic papers, and reading theory. Become comfortable with the math in theory papers.
  • Study the natural history of some habitat or group of organisms.
  • Read some history & philosophy of science
  • Develop a thick skin. Your papers and grants will be rejected, and it will not always be kindly phrased. It happens to everyone, its not personal. The sooner you learn coping strategies, the happier you will be.
  • Just because someone says it won’t work doesn’t make them right.
  • Write regularly
  • Learn to code, and learn principles of reproducible code and data including database management and metadata.
  • Make a website
  • Meet with visiting speakers
  • Publish early and often, don’t wait till the end of your PhD
  • Master statistics
  • I encourage external collaboration. Talk to me about it first, though.

  • You are in the final stages of training to be a professor. What do you need to do/learn to succeed?
  • Have a website
  • Write a mock job application, and go over it with other people to both improve the text and identify weaknesses you need to fill before you go on the market.
  • Teach something
  • Get a grant
  • Learn about personnel management and budgeting.
  • I’m not so concerned about WHEN you work, as I am with output.
  • Go to conferences & network more than you feel comfortable doing.
  • I encourage external collaboration. Talk to me about it first, though.
  • Papers!!!!

Training resources for specific topics include:


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