Running a Successful Lab

This week’s post is from a established and successful professor at an R1 institute. The author  prefers to remain anonymous, but is happy to pass on valuable information for starting a lab and becoming a successful academic. This post also represents the last post in the “When I Grow Up” series. However, if you are at a different stage in your career (how to run a field station, how to design a study abroad class, how to not burn-out, how to sabbatical, how to set up an NSF research station, etc.) and want to write a blog post about it, please contact me
You’ve landed a job at a research 1 university – congratulations! You’ve set up your lab, you’ve got tenure, you’re ready to go! Now… how do you do this long term?
One of the keys to success is how you set up your lab,  and this can vastly influence your chance of being successful down the road.
1) Have a specific research project that can carry you through the first few years. You’re going to be writing grants, recruiting graduate students, possibly teaching a new (to you) course, and getting things up and running. Yes, this is a busy time, but you are expected to be producing during this period. Make sure all your research isn’t focused on starting out brand new, and have something already simmering to carry you through those first tough years.
2) Make sure you have a deal with your chair for teaching assignments and committee assignments. Most places give you up to a year with no teaching sometime in the first years. Each new class taught will take about 8 hours of preparation for each hour of new lecture. I took my time off in my second year ( I showed up with funding), so got my lectures prepared in year one while purchasing stuff and getting the lab set up. I rocked and rolled the research in year 2 +, generating the papers that got me tenure a few years later.
2.1.) Women tend to accept more than their share of committee assignments, and sometimes teaching assignments. They should realize their dude colleagues will be ok with this, but it’s not ok. That’s why it is even more imperative that you have a deal with your chair capping your assignments. 
3) Use your start up funds to hire the best people you can. Getting crappy people working in your lab, as techs, students or post-docs, is like a ship taking a torpedo under the water line. You may not notice it at first, but the ship is listing if not going down. Spend money, immediately or soon after you start, on hiring good people. It’ll make the difference immediately and pay off down the road.
4) Get a good mentor, a more senior faculty member who has learned some of the time management issues, and is willing to provide advice on personnel management. Most places have some training sessions for newbies, so get some of that. Grad school and post-doc jobs largely do not train you on people management, and this part of your work can use up significant amounts of actual and emotional time. Learning how to set and enforce boundaries is a critical professional skill.  The administrative part of people management is not intuitive and there is rarely a complete, comprehensive reference/guidebook available to assist you through the labyrinth.  By being connected to someone in the department who has already gone through this, and is willing to be your Sherpa, you save yourself time and effort trying to reinvent the wheel. You are not the first person to do this, and asking for help/advice is not weakness. So find yourself a mentor.
5) Hard work is not enough. You have to work smart. Surveys show that assistant profs work  55 hours per week. MORE time is not necessarily good time. Use your time efficiently and make sure you do not burn out. Work-life balance is a whole other topic.  This goes back to whether you really WANT a research one job, and whether you have a partner (if you want one) who understands that that you’re gonna be busy and focused. But this is NOT the time to start a second career doing something else. Family issues definitely depend on a supportive all-in partner and understanding on your part.
6) Networking in your field is important (meetings, conferences, etc.), but doesn’t help if you’re not bringing your A-game. It’s great to have good friends, but in the end, being recognized in the meritocracy is more than bonhomie. Your real goal is becoming a good scientist. Just showing up at conferences without presenting ground breaking, or even just solid, research is a waste of time. Pedigree and who you know matters, but ultimately, not nearly as much as good research which has seen the light of day. Consider presentations as a way to showcase your awesome work, not as your ultimate priority.
7) Make sure you’re genuinely passionate about biology. It’s what gets you through the tougher parts in this most difficult of times. This is what I mean about being sure you WANT a research one or academic career (turns out small colleges, especially the really good ones, choose faculty on the same criteria as Research 1 institutions, believe it or not). It’s going to be really much harder if biology is not your top three distractions. In the end, it has to be fun (e.g. I still get an actual physiological buzz when a paper gets accepted for publication).
Don’t forget, this is the dream! Make time for fun things, including but not limited to, your work!

What’s better than Dinosaurs? Baby Dinosaurs

Paleontologists just discovered the mother lode of pterosaur eggs, and they are over the moon.

“Extraordinary.” “Stellar.” “Truly awesome.” “A world-class find.”

That’s how paleontologists are reacting to the discovery of several hundred ridiculously well-preserved pterosaur eggs in China, some of them still containing the remains of embryos.

Want to know more about baby dinosaurs? Read about it here!

Side note to avoid people telling me I’m wrong: The pterosaurs were an order of flying reptiles that went extinct some 66 million years ago. They were not actually dinosaurs, but they went extinct at the same time.


Dinosaur-era shark found swimming off the coast of Portugal

The frilled shark has been around awhile. Fossils date back at least 80 million years, largely unchanged. So imagine the surprise when said fossil was found swimming and thriving off the coast of Portugal.

This almost literal “living fossil” was discovered off the Algarve coast by researchers who were working on a European Union project in the area, the BBC reported. The aim of the project was to “minimize unwanted catches in commercial fishing,” the researchers told SIC Noticisas TV, as the BBC noted. but the team unknowingly unearthed one of the rarest and most ancient animals on the planet.

Read about it here!


Marine Biology Chess over Twitter

Twitter recently bumped all the users up to 280 characters, which just seems excessive.

Unless you invent a new and delightful way to play chess, and are a marine biology nerd.

An epic match between Dr. Andrew Thaler, and Dr. David Shiffman had simple rules. Using marine biology emojis, the chess game had only two additional rules: 1) every move had to be accompanied by a fact about the animal 2) all captures had to be accompanied with detailed description of how the kill went down. Read more about it here!


The sippy cup is half full – a story of having kids in Academia


Both parents in our household are academics (The Two Body Problem Awesomeness). We knew we wanted a family and I knew I didn’t want to put it off forever. We picked a biological time instead of a career time to try – and we were lucky to have no fertility issues. We had both just secured postdocs at the same institution when we discovered I was pregnant. I defended my dissertation in the first trimester, my husband defended his in the second, and then we moved across the country to start postdocs on the cusp of the third. We had a second child less than two years after our first (while still postdocs). I applied for, interviewed (while pregnant with #2) and secured a tenure track position during my first application cycle, and we negotiated a soft money position for my husband. We were able to defer for one year so I could take maternity leave and we could (try) to wrap up our postdoctoral work.

Planning and some luck are responsible for the fact that we are both still academics. My post doc advisor was so, so, so, so supportive of me. He put no pressure or guilt on me from day one, and his entire lab is family friendly. Having a kid is hard enough, I can’t imagine adding boss guilt to the list. I will always be grateful for this fact and hope to emulate it in my own lab. I also applied for and received a fellowship that allowed me to work at my own pace and on my own project for the last two years of my postdoc. This was huge for my career. My husband’s advisor was similarly supportive. Without the understanding and flexibility of our mentors, I’m not sure we could have made it this far.

Personally, I say I “crash landed” into parenthood. It wasn’t pretty. I had never been around kids. We had a serious health scare. I had the Baby Blues and a short period of post-partum depression. Breastfeeding—not easy under the best circumstances—was much, much harder than I thought it would be (physically and mentally). Pumping at work is the second worst part of parenthood (in my opinion). The first worst part is sleep deprivation. That shit is real. It’s a torture mechanism for a reason. At the start, some babies need to be fed every hour. Go ahead and set your alarm for every hour of the night, stay up for half an hour then repeat. Your next day is not going to be great. Then repeat that for a couple of months and the fact is, your work productivity is going to take a hit. It just is. Plan for it as best you can, don’t beat yourself up for the biological realities, sleep if you need to and rest assured, it will pass.

It took a long time for my fully functional science brain to return to my head. I doubt I worked “full time” for many months after having kids – having children alters every aspect of your life and it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll take a little while, or maybe a long while, to adjust.

All that said – kids are amazing! Now that they are 2 and 4, I am more efficient, happier and (at this point) more productive as a scientist than I was before. Kids give my work brain a break (and work gives my kid brain a break!). I love playing with them. I love reading to them. I love weekends and I love having a very full life. I just traveled to NYC to give a talk and I loved being able to take a short awesome trip and I loved buying two dinosaur toys to spoil them when I got home. I love my life and although I wouldn’t choose to go back to the hardest parts of the last four years, I would never ever change that decision.

I don’t really know what useful advice I have for the young-uns out there. We’ve been lucky and privileged in a lot of ways and it’s not exactly helpful to say “Just be lucky!” We wanted children so we had children. And it’s worked out pretty ok (so far, knock on wood). I guess knowing my priorities helped me a lot. I’m very lucky. I’m very happy. I work my butt off at work and at home and go to bed exhausted every day – and I love it. Good luck to all (and please feel free to post questions here or on twitter @sarahmhird and @NM_Reid)

Noah’s notes on…

  • …mentor support: Both of our postdoctoral mentors were incredibly supportive. That said, the system is unfair to everyone in this circumstance. On average, people starting families are going to experience a productivity hit, particularly women. And PIs on the grants supporting them are likely to feel that. If we want science to be more diverse, PhD students and postdocs can’t just rely on the magnanimity of tenured professors to start their families, we need a system that renders that magnanimity unnecessary.
  • …institutional support: The University of California postdoc union has negotiated decent healthcare and benefits. The first two trimesters of the first pregnancy at our PhD institution cost us dramatically more money than the third trimester, birth and the whole second pregnancy combined at UC Davis. However, technically mothers only get 6-8 weeks “paid” maternity leave (paid by disability insurance! pregnancy as disability, how wonderful!). That is absurdly short. There is amazing variance in needs of infants, and each of our kids completely destroyed our ability sleep out to at least six months before gradually getting better.
  • …the nature of the postdoc: We both did work that allowed flexible hours and did not require extended time at distant field sites or 12 hour stints in the lab. I walked into a postdoc where the initial stages of the project were already underway. I had clear goals for skills I wanted to develop and the project had low technical risk. When your life is about to be upended by children, managing uncertainty is key.

The Crabbiest of Crabs

There’s a theory that giant crabs overwhelmed Amelia Earhart, dismembered her and carried her bones underground.

Speculative, at best. Sounds crazy, we know.

But so has almost every other horrifying rumor about the so-called coconut crabs — until science inevitably proves them true.

They grow to the size of dogs. They climb trees, and tear through solid matter with claws nearly as strong as a lion’s jaws.

And now we know what they eat (spoiler alert: basically anything they want).

Here. And watch the video…


Save us from the microbes: Superantibiotics

Warnings about an impending post-antibiotic apocalypse have, over the last five years, grown increasingly stark, with estimates placing the annual number of mortalities from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections at 700,000 worldwide, a number that could rise to 10m in the next three decades.

Many scientists are pinning their hopes on “superantibiotics”, essentially re-engineering existing drugs to overcome microbial resistance and make them thousands of times more potent.

But this also has it’s pitfalls and problems. Want to know more? Find out about it here.