photograph by James Kegley

Stabilizing Forces

Walk into any high-level research lab today and you will find a few special individuals who are critical to that lab’s success. Chances are they’ve been a fixture in the lab for a while. Some of the very best research associates, research specialists, and lab managers are in permanent jobs. When you land a really good one—we refer to them as “the indispensables” in this issue of the Bulletin—you feel very lucky because they are hard to find. And they are often the glue that holds the lab together.

In research labs, graduate students and postdocs are transient. It’s the nature of the system. They float in and out at a pretty rapid clip, moving on after about four to six years. On one hand, having that ebb and flow of trainees is good—essential even—as it’s a driving force for innovation and creativity. But at the same time, you need a core group to serve as the institutional memory of the lab, people who understand how we got where we are and why we are doing things a certain way—the progression, if you will.

If a postdoc who develops a new methodology leaves, the lab head can feel like he or she has to start over again. That information can get lost if there is a gap between postdocs. With a few key long-term people in place, however, the postdoc can transfer that knowledge and expertise to them. And these staff scientists are very high level, many with a master’s, a Ph.D., and often even postdoctoral experience themselves. So they are extremely important for the continuity of the lab.

In my own lab at the University of California, Berkeley, there are a handful of people without whom the lab would not function. One is my lab manager, Mallory Haggart. Mallory has kept the lab running for over 12 years. She coordinates all lab activities and takes care of all the supplies, equipment, and chemicals, as well as repairs. A little older than the students and postdocs, she’s the “mother hen” of the lab who helps establish the lab’s culture and atmosphere.

Then there are our experts in specific technical areas. Carla Inouye, a biochemist, practices what is becoming a dying art: when a postdoc or student comes in and has to purify a protein, she’s the one who shows them how to do it. She’s been with me since 1998 and is fantastically valuable as the lab’s memory. Same for Shuang Zheng, who is in charge of cell culture—everyone in the lab relies on his skills in that arena. And Gina Dailey is our expert in the complicated molecular genetics, all the cloning and sequencing.

Recognizing the role of research professionals in today’s laboratory organizations is important not only to the individuals who contribute their services but also to the research enterprise as a whole.

Robert Tjian

These extremely skilled specialists are the stabilizing forces of the lab. Because graduate students and postdocs are trying to climb the academic ladder, they can be competitive, with sometimes-sharp elbows. You really need a small group of stalwarts to manage the whole thing.

Relative to 25 or 30 years ago, the composition of a high-performing research lab has shifted. There are more of these backbone employees on staff these days. At HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, the ratio of permanent staff is somewhat higher than in most organizations. Janelia has certain project teams where a scientist is not, classically speaking, a principal investigator. Instead, that person is there to provide very high-level service, such as creating transgenic animal models or performing cryo-electron microscopy. It’s a different model. And those scientists don’t feel at all that they are not appreciated. They know the work they are doing is highly regarded and valued.

Recognizing the role of research professionals in today’s laboratory organizations is important not only to the individuals who contribute their services but also to the research enterprise as a whole. To that end, it is notable that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has just released its “Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Draft Report,” which makes recommendations for actions that NIH should take to support a future sustainable biomedical research infrastructure. The report draws attention to the increasingly important and beneficial effect that staff scientists have on the system as a whole.

The message is clear: these professional scientists are remarkably valuable to the progress of research. They are not looking for a fancy title or a bookshelf of awards—that’s not their motivation. They are no less effective as scientists; they’re just a different kind of scientist. They have our support, and they have our respect and appreciation.