Their bland bureaucratic titles—research technician, resource manager—belie their vital contributions. These women and men are not wannabe principal investigators (PIs) or discouraged academics. Some have specialized expertise; others are jacks-of-all-trades. They are ambitious, not for fame, but for personal excellence and the chance to make a lasting contribution, however unheralded, to science.
“There are very few laboratories that do not have at least one technician who often plays the role of lab manager, making sure the trains run on time, the supplies are ordered, the equipment gets repaired. It would be very hard to run a lab without such a person,” says Shirley Tilghman, a molecular geneticist and president of Princeton University.
It’s a career option that needs serious consideration, according to Tilghman, who cochaired the National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. The group’s June report calls for professionalizing the crucial research-affiliated roles of lab specialists and paying them accordingly. “Make them a professional category that academic medical centers and research institutes and universities recognize as valuable—in fact, invaluable—parts of the biomedical workforce.”
A little recognition wouldn’t hurt, either. “As in most areas, credit flows up the hierarchy,” explains Gerry Rubin, director of HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, in Ashburn, Virginia. “The people at the top get way too much credit. And the technicians and managers don’t get enough. Academia very much rewards individual achievement—less so, team achievement.”
Adds Rubin, “Labs are full of students and postdocs who come and go every three to four years. It’s important to have somebody with a sense of continuity and context.”
Here are the stories of five indispensable lab team members, among many acknowledged by grateful HHMI investigators.
Illustration: Chris King