What do you wish you had known before you started your lab?
Managing the day-to-day details of an active lab takes a different skill set than experimental know-how. For many scientists, the first years of running their own labs bring a realization that science is about more than bench work. Here, a few describe what they’ve learned about keeping a lab going.
Edited by Sarah C.P. Williams
James E. Bear HHMI EARLY CAREER SCIENTIST University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I wish I had realized how many jobs I was actually applying for when I responded to the ad for assistant professor. Perhaps the ad should have read something like: Assistant professor sought to lead research team and do a bit of graduate teaching. Duties include, but are in no way limited to, clinical psychology (with a specialty in emotional crises of 20- and 30-year-olds), mopping skills (for late night lab emergencies involving plumbing), graphic arts (with a focus on designing graphs and charts), bureaucratic street fighting, computer hard-drive recovery, and microscope repair. I would still have applied.
Nothing. The process of discovery has made having my own lab so rewarding. I've discovered strengths I didn’t know I had as well as weaknesses that required hard work to improve. I discovered—much to my shock—that pink sheets aren’t pink, that the collective wisdom of a lab is often wiser than the opinions of a lone PI, and that managing a successful research team requires both teamwork and promoting individual talent. Had someone told me in advance the secrets to building and running a lab, I’d have struggled a bit less in the beginning. But I’d have also undervalued the pleasure of the struggle itself, and I would have missed out on so many wonderful surprises.
A colleague once remarked to me that it’s useful to determine the current rate-limiting factor in your research program. Is it space? People? Money? Creativity? Your time? A specific reagent? Once you have determined that, you can be more rational in setting your day-to-day priorities. In the end, we’re all driven by the same enduring motivations (e.g., curiosity), but day-to-day priorities may be very specific to each person and they may change over time. I found this to be good advice, and I wish I had known it from the start.
I wish I had known the importance of filing disclosures and patenting scientific findings. I do studies of value to treating human diseases, and part of my motivation is to make a difference—to provide the foundation for biotech companies to make therapeutics. However, for biotechs to be interested in pursuing therapeutics, the approach or assay typically needs to be patented—something I didn’t know when I started my lab. Now I know that it is critical to file disclosures—the most important part of a patent application— and to be at an institution with a strong technology transfer office to help do this in the most effective and efficient manner.