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.

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.

Rachel I. Wilson

HHMI EARLY CAREER SCIENTIST
Harvard Medical School

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.

Phillip D. Zamore

HHMI INVESTIGATOR
University of Massachusetts Medical School

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.

Nancy M. Bonini

HHMI INVESTIGATOR
University of Pennsylvania

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.

Photos: Bear: Paul Fetters, Zamore: Robert E. Klein / AP, ©HHMI, Wilson: Graham Ramsey, Bonini: Paul Fetters

Scientist Profile

Early Career Scientist
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cancer Biology, Cell Biology
Investigator
Harvard Medical School
Neuroscience
Investigator
University of Massachusetts
Biochemistry, Molecular Biology
Investigator
University of Pennsylvania
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