Data Storage FAIL

Say it isn’t so. Say that isn’t data… crumpled up in that drawer….

I’m only going to say this once. DATA SHOULD BE IN A BOUND NOTEBOOK AT THE VERY LEAST, OR GEEZ, PUT IT IN THE BIOLOGIST’S FAVORITE COMPUTER PROGRAM…. EXCEL ….  Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER let me find it crumpled up in a random drawer again.

The Tricky Subject of Personal Hygiene

First a few rules for personal hygiene and working closely together:

1. Shower daily.

2. Wash clothes.

3. Deodorant, people!

This probably seems pretty obvious to you , but sometimes it is, well, NOT obvious to everyone. I’ve had a spate of discussions lately with colleagues, friends etc- about what to do about such issues as personal hygiene, the length of a trainees hair (is it a fire hazard, is it just unprofessional?), if anything. A colleague of mine tells endless stories about someone they once worked with in an open lab type situation that would pass gas loudly, just well- whenever.

Usually these discussions end with us giggling it up innocently (and somewhat uncomfortably) about what to DO about such situations that cross this tricky professional and interpersonal boundary.  How do you talk to a trainee that works for you about the fact that they are stinking it up for everyone else that works with them? When attire and personal appearance (long hair for example) are safety hazards- that makes it pretty straightforward to deal with. But how do you mention that professional dress and personal presentation ARE important when your students are TAs for undergrads?  Probably pretty simple if you are just mentioning that the teaching dress code is something other than jeans and a T-shirt- but do you ever cross the line into grooming habits?!  And what about gender- cause I imagine just for example- if you were a male PI you might have to tread lightly around some of these subjects with female trainees.

I know, it seems obvious, but it is just NOT.

Lab Meeting

There is little I love more than a lab meeting packed with data. Seriously. We had a great one today, so I’m all in the mood to write about lab meetings.

Back in the day…. when I was just a lowly grad student, lab meeting was an event. We had a one-person-presents format, and you brought ALL your data, the good, the bad and the ugly. There were no highly edited, slick Powerpoint presentations. There was just the good stuff, the data, the ugly blots, the gorgeous blots- all shown on an overhead projector. And there was a lot of it- because it was a fairly large lab and so the interval between any one individual’s turns was fairly long, and we worked hard. Back in the day.

I’ve been experimenting with lab meeting formats. First, I tried the everyone-presents format- where we sit around the conference table and everyone describes what they have been doing in the past week, what progress they have made.  What I liked about this was that people were more likely to show me their failures- which, I think, are important to look at if you want to make progress. However, on the flip side- people didn’t prepare really well in the sense that they thought about their data from week to week, and could show where they were going in an organized way.

Second, I tried the one-person-presents format, followed by the round table summary of what every one else was up to. I wanted my trainees to get some more formal presentation practice, both standing up in front of an audience and putting together a good presentation. These presentations serve a triple purpose as introducing new recruits to all the different projects we are doing, presentation practice,  most importantly data presentation and review.  I realized when I was doing this that I would probably get less of the bad and ugly data this way, and that seems to be what has happened. There is more slick Powerpointing than I would like. The round table worked well, but I thought it made lab meeting too long.

So then I thought- maybe I’m trying to cram too much into lab meeting- perhaps I should just focus on getting fewer things accomplished in this meeting, and break the other tasks out into other times. So now we are doing a one-person presents format which is preceded by a brief discussion (led by me) of how everyone is doing, what lab issues we have that need to be addressed (including equipment needs/broken equipment etc), and me soliciting a list of what I need to do for each of my trainees. Then we have a hearty discussion of one person’s data. As for those that are not presenting- I see them in the lab- but each one also has a meeting with me in my office once a week on an assigned day to go over what they have done in the last week and what they are planning for the next week. So far this is working pretty well, with the possible exception that this might be more efficient (and easier on my schedule) if we did these individual meetings every two weeks.

We’ll see how this goes for a while.  I’m not averse to changing the schedule if we must.

Research program first, teaching second?

Ok, well I’m back. Not that I was holidaying it up or anything. I feel like I’ve spent the whole of December lying on my back in bed. First that little GI thing I got from my daughter and then the nasty sinus head cold that I’ve had for the last 5 days. Imagine cooking Christmas dinner for a houseful of guests, and walking 3 households worth of dogs like that. I’m better today, thanks.

Now I’m starting to think about January and February, and all of the competing responsibilities I have for the next few months.  See, I think I’ve taken on a lot….rather, I KNOW I’ve taken on a lot. Writing and teaching are going to be especially heavy in the next couple of months, and I’m always asking myself how much I can logically take on in any given time period, and of those tasks- where my efforts need to be focused most and what can get less attention, at least in the short term. There is triage going on in my head, and the triage is based first on what needs to be done to get grants goals accomplished and get grants renewed, and second on everything else.

Anyway, as far as getting grant goals going and grants renewed. I know that in order to get these things to happen I have to get the new people that I have hired up to speed and working, and I have to push out papers. I have 3 papers that I want to turn out relatively quickly, for one I have a nearly complete manuscript, for a second I have to motivate my postdoc to give me some text, and for the third I need to put my head together with my collaborators and we have to turn out a manuscript quickly or we are going to get scooped on the story. I’m DELIGHTED to have all this writing to do, writing about actual data, that is. It is this, and getting the lab moving now that I have filled up the group, that I really want to be doing. The fact that I want to be doing the writing makes it easy to have this as my top priority.

There are also lots of tasks that are less fun, or let’s say that I get less personal satisfaction from, that also need to be done.  I’m teaching here and there in various courses in the spring, and for two of these courses it will be the first time I am delivering the material. For one of the courses, taught out of my home department, I am taking over some established course material and I am charged with updating the content. I don’t find this fun (I’m not sure anyone does), but I know it needs to be done. For the second course there was a bit of a crisis and I decided to be a good citizen and help out. Now, I know what you are all saying… (you… VOLUNTEERED?…WTF)… but I think these things need to be done from time to time, and this teaching is in a department where I have a joint appointment- so it is a bit of calculated pay-it-forward.

This all seems pretty straightforward when you look at it from the research intensive faculty perspective. Individual research program first, teaching second. Right? But the problem with this is that this is not how the institution seems these responsibilities- or it is, at least, not how they talk about them. I hear about a bazillion hours of stuff in meetings on curricular redesign, how and where lecture hours are to be delivered, and the needs of the professional/undergraduate students, and absolutely zero on developing a strong research program and managing and running a productive group. I spend countless hours fighting for small amounts of resources, mainly facilities type resources, that are necessary for me to get research done- it just doesn’t seem to be a priority of the institution. Sometimes it feels like their triage is the exact opposite of my triage… theirs is teaching first research second… and mine is research first… teaching second.

Increasing the population size…

Last night when I was putting littleA to bed we had the following conversation:

LittleA: Mommy, all of my friends are big sisters.
Me: Oh?
LittleA: Could you have another baby so I could be a big sister?

Yikes. Hey I already said no to the puppy- I love you kid, but a baby sister is out of the question.

But that’s actually isn’t the population I was thinking about for this post. I was actually thinking about the population of my lab, and that population IS increasing. See, my challenge right now that I’m not hotly grant writing in every free moment is to shift gears a bit. The lab population increase comes with a whole new set of challenges that I’m managing.

First, I have had to quickly grow the population of the lab to do the projects we are funded for. Making this happen is a bit tricky because different types of personnel have different challenges for recruitment, and take different levels of training. I chose to recruit postdocs and experienced technicians first. These guys require little training (at least in theory), and can hit the ground running. Speed to data is key for me. Graduate students take longer to recruit and take A LOT more training, and so there is a longer time for them to ramp up to speed. I have several doctoral students in my group already, and both of them are sort of in the mid-stages of their schooling- so they are already up and running. More students may yet come, but just not as the first priority.

I’ve been working hard at this, and the population of the lab has just about doubled in the last two months. This brings some challenges. First, we have the challenge of fitting twice the people in the same amount of space. We will manage with this, but we have actually managed to commandeer a little bit of extra space temporarily- this helps A LOT. More lab space is being sought on our behalf, for which we are deeply grateful. Second, we have the challenge of having enough support staff- by this I mean the very important people that keep the lab running, aka student workers. This hasn’t been too difficult, but having continuity and getting them trained quickly to be totally RELIABLE isn’t as easy as you would think.

Third, we have the challenge of the changing personality of the group. Having a whole bunch of new people, and several established people- it is important to me to make sure I set a good tone for everyone to help/teach everyone else, and that I make expectation that we treat each other professionally and with courtesy very, very clear. So far so good one this one, we’ve had only one slight hiccup- but I think it is really too early to tell how the personalities will mesh with each other. I totally expect to manage this actively.

Fourth, I have the challenge of a hugely increased administrative/accounting/and just plain paperwork burden. This could seriously suck up all of my time if I let it. I have >3 AUPs, and just collecting signatures and keeping the personnel lists current on those things is a time sucking exercise. I’m not covering all of the biosafety and other training that I am responsible for…. For all the newbies. I am managing this by delegating some of these responsibilities to the very important technician who runs things. As time goes on and she becomes more and more familiar with things, she can take on some of the onerous paperwork that I get to do for every compliance issue under the sun. Halleluja.

Finally, and most importantly- managing all the projects we have going. Too early to tell whether I’m doing a good job at this. For now, I give lab meeting like everyone else- but for me this happens every couple of months. In these lab meetings I go up to the board and we list out all the projects we have going, what experiments (both specific and general directions) need to come next, and who is doing what. I think it is important that everyone has an idea what is coming down the pike and when, especially because we have to work together on some of our experiments that require lots of hands. Plus, we just need to keep ourselves on track individually AND as a group on everything going on in the lab. I expect that as time goes on, postdocs in charge of particular projects will start participating more and more in this particular little briefing. In addition to this I am in the lab every day of the week, and at least once per week I talk to everyone in depth about their progress for that particular week, and what they expect to have done the following week- with deadlines wherever possible. I think that sometimes for postdocs and students grant renewal time seems like it is somewhere off in the distant fog of the future. I want to swiftly dispel that impression- because grant renewal is always closer than we think it is, and we need to publish, publish and publish some more… if we expect the federal government to give us some more $$.

Anyway, I’m sure that there are a whole lot more challenges that we will deal with as they come along- and I invite any and all of you that have grown your labs and had to manage this transition to enlighten me on what worked for you, what didn’t work for you….….

Growing Pains

I’ve been very lucky to have a wonderful mix of people in the lab. They work well together and are a real team. When one member of the group has been stressed or over the top about something, everyone else has pitched in to lighten that person’s load. I don’t know if I have set this up consciously, or if it was just lucky random chance that things worked out this way. I do know that I laid out the expectation for each hire that we were going to work together as a team (yes, that is the royal ‘we’), and that we should all be considerate and respectful toward each other. Perhaps one factor that has contributed to this supportive and cooperative atmosphere was the relative absence of dominating personalities thus far. Then again, maybe not.

I realize now that with growth of my group, that the personality and cooperativity of the group may change. I admire assertiveness, but I realize that having very assertive individuals as employees may be a double edged sword. On the one side, if you want a science career, especially if you are a girl, and you aren’t assertive- your career path is going to be that much more difficult. A little assertiveness goes a long way.

But excessive assertiveness can also create problems when you expect individuals to function as a team. Excessive assertiveness or aggressiveness can make some members of the team feel continuously disrespected, and undermine morale. An uncomfortable atmosphere in the lab can make people not want to be there- they start thinking more about intra-lab politics, and less about the next experiment and how to push projects forward. Conflict follows. I’m sure almost everyone who has run a lab (or a team of any kind) has had to deal with one person who seems to poison the whole atompshere of the group, perhaps because of their aggressive nature.

So today I ask: How do you foster individual assertiveness, while maintaining the productive functioning of your research ‘team’?  Does this have to be actively taught and managed? When do you step into festering conflicts between lab members and promote fairness in the group?   I do not know of many colleagues that actively manage these aspects of their lab groups (nor have I had many conversations with other PIs about this), and I’ve seen conflict be extremely damaging to morale and productivity. I am erring more toward taking an active role to manage these situations myself. And golly- I’m practically a professional at conflict management at home (I mean,  I have two girls ..11 and 7)… but I hardly think I can put my trainees in time out when they are fightin’ and bickerin’. Or maybe I should…

What a difference a year makes.

I’m dead tired after traveling for more than 15 hours- and I dragged a bunch of work with me thinking … well, not sure what I was thinking. Anyway, I’ll blog instead. This post may ramble and be a little disconnected- hopefully you will indulge me.

Remember my posts this time last year? Maybe it didn’t come out so much on the blog at the time, but I was very down- holding on by my fingernails, contemplating shutting down my lab for lack of $$. Two great science friends dragged me to a meeting (*rightly*, and thanks guys) to keep me out there in the network and raise my spirits. I remember distinctly at that meeting- a friend of mine who was just beginning his/her faculty position coming up to talk with me, just sort of glowing with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement for the new faculty job.  I tried to be enthusiastic along with my friend- but I just didn’t really have it in me- having reached the critical third year of my appointment with no funded grants, fatigued from what seemed at the time a lot of pointless hard work.

Sometime during this last year, we had a speaker at one of the faculty group lunches that I attend. She talked at length about her career- describing her early days as TT faculty. She told a story that echoed mine- terrific enthusiasm for her position, lots of hard work and grants submitted, supportive senior faculty colleagues rooting for her, encouraging her to always have something (a grant or a paper) in the hopper… but reaching the TT faculty career point of no return with no grants in hand. She had to lay off people, she worried that she wasn’t going to make it.  Then,  she found out in a very short interval that she would have multiple grants funded- her career turned around,  she ran with it, and she remains today successful TT faculty. Believe it or not- I went back to my office after that, even in my state of extreme science fatigue, with the energy to submit whatever was next on my list. Her story has been in my head ever since.

Anyway, what a difference a year has made for me, things have completely turned around. The lab went from rags to riches (it is all relative)- in a way and to a magnitude that I never could have imagined. We are out of the woods, at least for the moment- and now we have the opportunity to do the projects that I have been dreaming, writing and theorizing over for the last three years. I’m about to send my first doctoral student out into the world fully Ph.D.ed, and she is a mother of 2.

This last week was a big one. I turned in my tenure package a year early, and a grant I wasn’t expecting anything from turned out to be the top grant in the review section. I served my first days as an editor at a great journal in my field- a position to which I was invited, partly because what I write in this blog was noticed by the Editor in Chief. This position is a huge honor, and not to be dramatic- but seeing my name on the masthead made me want to thank my mom, my dad and the members of the academy. I know that in the next year there will be some adjustments and many challenges, but I’m delighted and excited to enter the next stage of my career.

Why am I telling you all of this? Not because I think I’ve done anything extraordinary, or that I’m anything special. I’m not. But I want to illustrate that you can be at the bottom of the bottom of your morale, and with a little luck, good timing, hard work and persistence (put those in any order you prefer)- things can turn around on a dime. You are just never going to know how or when.