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Managing Your Academic Career

Building and maintaining a productive lab takes hard work as well as a dose of fun

by Amanda Yarnell
February 5, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 6

Break time
Credit: Courtesy of the Carriera lab
A white-water rafting trip taught the Carreira lab to work as a team.
Credit: Courtesy of the Carriera lab
A white-water rafting trip taught the Carreira lab to work as a team.

AS A FACULTY MEMBER at a research university, your survival depends on your ability to assemble a productive team of students and postdocs who will help you carry out your big ideas and help devise new ones.

Sound daunting? It can be, particularly because most investigators don't ever get any formal training in the art of managing a lab. Instead, they tend to cobble together a plan for how to keep their lab running smoothly according to the habits and preferences of the graduate and postdoc mentors that they have had.

C&EN asked several faculty members at large research universities around the world to share what they do to keep their groups productive and running smoothly. The following are the top 10 tips offered by this group, in no particular order:

TIP 1: Hire with care. Assembling a well-functioning team is an art, notes chemistry professor Richard N. Zare of Stanford University. He advises that faculty members think carefully about how the personality and interests of each prospective student or postdoc will fit with those of the rest of the lab. Hiring a brilliant but difficult lab member, or one who isn't truly passionate about your lab's work, can cause big problems down the road.

Toasting Success
For Rosenzweig lab members, signed champagne bottles serve as a daily reminder of the protein crystal structures they've solved.
For Rosenzweig lab members, signed champagne bottles serve as a daily reminder of the protein crystal structures they've solved.

TIP 2: Foster passion. Instilling in students a sense of passion about the work that your lab does is crucial. "My hope is that my own passion is contagious," says organic chemistry professor Erick M. Carreira of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. Zare feels the same way. "I tell my students, 'Only do things you're in love with—find the stuff you are really excited about and go for it,'" he says. "That's where passion comes from."

TIP 3: Cultivate creativity. Students need not be born creative; in many cases, they can be made to be so. Amy Rosenzweig, a professor of chemistry and of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology at Northwestern University, sends her students to a narrowly focused scientific meeting early in their career. "They come back full of ideas and enthusiasm" that simply reading the literature does not accomplish, she says.

To foster creativity and independence from day one, Carreira never simply assigns his new lab members a project. "Instead, I say, 'If you want to work for me, talk to my students to find out what the group is excited about and then come tell me what you want to do.'" In group meetings, he's careful to make clear the value of outside-the-box thinking. "There's never one answer in synthetic chemistry," he notes. "I emphasize that exploring alternative solutions, even seemingly implausible ones, can lead to important insights."


TIP 4: Lend a hand. Although it can be time-consuming, training your lab members well can pay off handsomely later. "Working in the lab for a few years side-by-side with one's students helps bring the lab up to speed, does wonders for productivity in the early days, and is crucial for success," asserts K. C. Nicolaou, a chemistry professor at Scripps Research Institute. Later, the students and postdocs you trained will be able to share their knowledge and skills with new lab members.

TIP 5: Paint the big picture. Helping your lab members see how their individual projects fit into the lab's overall thrust can provide valuable motivation. To give his students and postdocs a better idea of how their work contributes to the goals of the whole lab, Amir H. Hoveyda of Boston College's chemistry department involves them in grant writing "from start to finish." Instead of asking his lab members to simply proofread the grants he's assembled, Hoveyda challenges them to help develop a well-argued justification for the significance of the problem the grant aims to tackle. Hoveyda says the process "helps to get them excited about what we do and helps give them a sense of ownership of the lab's work."

TIP 6: Keep the lines of communication open. "My door is always open-literally," Rosenzweig says. "My students and postdocs know that they are welcome to stop by whenever, for whatever." She is also quick to answer e-mails from her students, even when she's at home or traveling. When people know that you always have time for them, they're more likely to come to you when they have a problem, she says. Zare prefers to wander around the lab regularly to check in with students. But he is mindful that some people want their space while others don't. "I try to make myself available while remaining cognizant of different people's preferences," Zare says.

TIP 7: Promote strategic planning. It's important to help your lab members to set goals and to design a plan to carry them out. A good outline for a paper can serve as a plan for your research program, notes chemistry professor George M. Whitesides of Harvard University. To encourage strategic planning, he requires his lab members to constantly write and rewrite such outlines, which consist of a carefully organized and presented set of data, along with the relevant objectives, hypotheses, and conclusions. He and his lab members exchange these outlines early and often, so that together they can most efficiently guide the path of their research.

TIP 8: Take a break, already! A group trip can encourage your students and postdocs to think of themselves as a team. Carreira calls his lab's annual and much-anticipated outing "an invaluable team-building experience." He lets his students organize each year's trip but insists that the chosen activity encourage people to socialize and get to know one another. "A bicycling trip, for example, would not work. Instead, we've done things like hiking or caving." A particularly memorable trip took the group white-water rafting, Carreira says. Lab members had to break into small groups, each of which had to learn to work together to steer their rafts down the river while avoiding rocks and swirling rapids. Afterward, everyone got to sit down, have a meal, and relax. "It made them get to know each other better and feel like a team," Carreira says.

TIP 9: Celebrate success. When a lab member gets a fellowship or publishes a paper, publicly recognizing the accomplishment is a great morale booster. When a student or postdoc in Rosenzweig's group solves a new protein structure, they break open the champagne. After the bubbly is gone, the successful lab member scrawls the name of their protein conquest and the date, and the whole lab signs the empty bottle. The lab member then proudly displays the signed bottle above their desk. "There are plenty of days where things don't go well in lab," Rosenzweig notes. This memento, she says, "reminds them of a job well done."

TIP 10: Don't be afraid to ask for help. Your colleagues are a valuable resource for advice on how to best manage your lab and inspire your students to do their best work. But going further afield for advice can also pay off. Last year, inspired by a conversation with an operations management consultant, chemistry professor Andrei Tokmakoff of Massachusetts Institute of Technology invited a graduate student in operations management to review the way his lab works. She worked closely with Tokmakoff and his students and postdocs to better optimize their day-to-day operations. "The experience gave me, and my lab members, some valuable outside perspective," Tokmakoff says.

He already has implemented many of the graduate student's recommendations, including formalizing the paper-writing process, streamlining bookkeeping, and creating a set of metrics for current and prospective lab members to gauge the group's quality and productivity.


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