The Little Things

On the same day that I renewed the Pandora subscription I have for my lab, I read this blog post by Namnezia, where he argues that a lab espresso machine is one of the best investments a new PI can make in his/her lab. This got me wondering about the little things that I do to try to increase lab morale, and what I might want to add to the mix.

Some of the things I do:
1) Pay for a lab Pandora account: It’s not very expensive, and spending long hours in the lab pipetting Daphnia and washing glassware pretty much requires good music to keep from going insane. (Audiobooks work quite well, too – I listened to tons and tons of books while counting samples as a grad student – but they don’t work as well when there are multiple people listening.)

2) Celebrate lab birthdays: this is a tradition I’ve carried over from when I was an undergrad in Nelson Hairston, Jr’s lab at Cornell. When I first joined Nelson’s lab, one of the first questions I was asked was when my birthday was, since all lab birthdays were celebrated. That was a great way to signal that I was valued as a lab member, even as the new undergrad in the lab. I’ve carried on this tradition in my lab, and I think everyone enjoys it. I mean, who doesn’t like an excuse to eat cake?

3) Lab lunches: At Georgia Tech, we would have lab lunches every Friday. People could come or not as they wished – it was just an opportunity to get together and chat informally. I started this in part because of how much I loved the lunch room at the Kellogg Biological Station, where I was a grad student. Grad students, postdocs, and faculty would gather in one room to eat, and it was such a great way to interact with everyone. Here at Michigan, we haven’t started weekly lunches yet, in part because there is no good place to have them near my current lab space. But we’re moving to a new lab space soon, and that will have space for this sort of thing, so I’m hoping we’ll resurrect lab lunches this summer.

4) Lab outings/get togethers: This is something that I did much more of pre-kids. Sadly, my current lab members probably will read this and think – lab outings? Huh? But, pre-kids, we did things like go to Braves games (back when the lab was in Atlanta), I had people over to my house, etc. Now, I find it much harder to figure out how to make time for these things, but I probably should work on that more.

Those are the main things I can think of right now. It doesn’t seem like much, really, and I’d love to hear about other things that I could do to keep a happy lab. If you’re a PI, what do you do for your lab that you think works well? If you’re a student, postdoc, or tech: what would you appreciate your PI doing?

30 thoughts on “The Little Things

  1. Looks like you’re missing the key element here – espresso!
    I’m sort of a dud PI in that respect, we tried to celebrate birthdays but half the lab kept objecting to having cake brought in for them so that fizzled away. We occasionally had outings but with me having kids and half the lab having kids or commuting from far away these were always a pain to organize, and there never seems to be an agreement as to what music everyone likes, so the radio is usually off if the lab is full. So other than keeping them caffeinated and cookie-nated, and having them over to my house a couple of times a year, there’s not much lab social activities going on. This is unlike our neighboring lab which as one of my students put it, “you can’t just join that lab, it’s a lifestyle decision”.

    • I’m open to the espresso idea, but would need to figure out where to leave the machine. That is definitely NOT something to leave on the cart outside the lab (and, anyway, our little cart was stolen recently.)

  2. We celebrate lab birthdays (including summer undergrads if their birthdays are in the summer) by going out to lunch, a tradition I carried over from Peter Morin.

    I buy beer for weekly lab meetings.

    Before my son was born, I used to be pretty good about having the lab over to my house periodically for things like BBQs, and receptions for visiting speakers. This was another thing Peter Morin was great at. I miss that and need to figure a way to get back to it, even though our son is still just a toddler.

    Another tradition I took from Peter Morin: when a student defends, I provide two bottles of champagne for the post defense celebration. After the celebrants drink them, the student signs the bottles and lists his or her degree and defense date. I keep one bottle and the student keeps the other, as a memento. Peter has a whole row of champagne bottles in his office, from all his students over the years. I just have two so far, the one from my own defense and the one from my MSc student Colin who finished earlier this spring.

    If the lab attends a conference, I take them out for a lab dinner. Indeed, whenever any students (my own, or anyone else’s) happen to be out with me at a bar or restaurant, I pick up the tab for them. Again, Peter does the same thing. Yes, I have no ideas of my own.

    I really wish I could take the lab to baseball games, as I’m a big baseball fan. But Calgary’s independent league team went under last year.

    We don’t have a lab expresso machine, mostly because I don’t drink coffee. But I could perhaps be talked into it if the students really wanted one.

    EDIT: Pandora unfortunately is a strictly US thing as far as I know. I leave it to my students to fend for themselves on the music/podcast/audiobook front. Which they seem to do quite happily; they listen to all sorts of stuff.

    p.s. speaking of going out to baseball games, do you know if the Twins in town during the ESA Meg? I’d be up for going to a Twins game one night during the meeting. I could even see maybe opening it up to the blog readers…

  3. My Ph.D. advisor used to have wonderful “bad movie nights”. We would come over around 8, (after his kids were asleep) and he would cook us amazing food and we would watch horrible science fiction movies. While my current apartment is kind of cramped, I’m hoping to carry on this tradition because it was such a great way to have fun with my lab mates, and a good opportunity to know our advisor as a person, not as El Jeffe.

    Now that I’m in NYC we have a shared lab space down at the American Museum of Natural History, so our dynamics are going to be slightly different. However I want to keep having lab meetings with pizza, and take opportunities to get out. I’m thinking of having a lab day at the Yankees, a trip to the botanical gardens and hosting a lab writing workshop around finals time at a field station about 30 mi north of NYC. I think the latter will be really good as it will give my students a good opportunity to have access to me as they work on term papers and MS revisions, but by doing it outside of the typical lab environment we can eschew normal distractions.

    One last thing about kids. My advisor’s kids were always around (including in the field, one is actually listed in my lab mates acknowledgements because the kid collected so many of the snails that my buddy worked on). I think this is really important and something I also want to emulate. I do not want the people in my lab to think that they have to choose between having kids and being successful. While it is certainly more difficult to do science/run a lab/leave the house in under 15 minutes with kids, it is not impossible and I think that if we show we can do good work with kids we can hopefully patch a leak in the pipeline.

    • Yeah, it seems like I should be able to manage a simple backyard barbecue even with kids, and it would send a good message. Maybe I’ll make that a goal for the summer.

      I love your other ideas!

  4. Lab coffee machines are a thing of beauty. Our Starbucks “barista” kept me happy on many a long lab day. As did books on cd, as you said. However, I seemed to have a curse against me such that any book I was listening to, no matter how “normal” or even “intellectual” it was, would turn into soft core porn the second another person walked into the lab. After this happened five or so times, I switched to podcasts and music.

    • “However, I seemed to have a curse against me such that any book I was listening to, no matter how “normal” or even “intellectual” it was, would turn into soft core porn the second another person walked into the lab.”

      The post has only been up for two hours, and already the thread has been won! 🙂

    • Ha! I listened to the audiobooks on headphones (and, yes, I realize most labs aren’t okay with people wearing headphones). I listened to a series of books that had originally been written in Spanish, where they hadn’t translated the (numerous) curses in the book into English.The technician in the lab spoke Spanish, and so I’d shout “What does [insert rather colorful Spanish phrase here] mean” across the lab to her. 🙂

      • Most labs aren’t okay w/ people wearing headphones? Maybe field differences? In every biomedical sciences (and basic biology) lab that I have ever walked by or been a party to I’ve seen (or worn) headphones on people. Of course, during certain activities it is difficult or a bad choice to do so.

      • Huh, I thought the “no headphones” rule was more of a biomed thing. Maybe it’s more of a biochem/chem thing? Or maybe I’m just wrong? The explanation I’ve been told is that it is in part so that you can hear if a labmate needs help. The reason I’ve seen in my own lab that led me to ask students to stop wearing headphones was that wearing them seemed to make people end up somewhat oblivious to their surroundings — e.g., not aware that someone was walking behind them carrying a tote full of beakers.

      • That all makes sense. I’ve heard of/seen such problems (obliviousness, response to labmates) helped by using primarily earbud style headphones and keeping the volume down.

  5. Let’s see: I have typically tried to have a lab dinner party at my house (or at a colleague’s house, since we share many of our students) at least once per semester. Once so far, I had several students at a conference and organized a lab dinner at a fancy restaurant (and paid for it). Unfortunately, other conferences have been too busy, but I’ve tried to pick up at least a meal or two with each attending student. Generally, I’d buy coffee or meal if I was out with a student, since I earn considerably more than them, and that’s the kindness my advisor showed to me.

    I don’t drink coffee, so no espresso machine. But I do have an electric kettle, small fridge, and microwave I’ve added to the conference space outside my office and to which I’ve invited students to use. What I’d like to do next year is institute a coffee/tea hour at least 1x per week, for people to just bring a hot beverage, be social, and chat, whether the topic is science or not. I meant to do it this year, but with no students in my group here yet, it just never got off the ground.

    I like the idea of lab outings…maybe for us it would be lab hiking or river trips. Family-friendly, of course.

    • I’ve never organized dinner out at a conference, but, yes, if I go out for coffee or a meal with a lab member, I definitely buy. I have an electric kettle in my office, but, without shared (non-lab) space, it’s harder to share it with lab members. But a regular coffee/tea hour is a great idea — that’s sort of what we were aiming for with the lab lunches.

      The lab I was a postdoc in (Tony Ives’s lab at Wisconsin) did a canoe trip every summer and a ski trip in the winters. That definitely requires more planning, though.

  6. while less sociable then espresso machines (great) and birthday parties (even better) I think one important thing PIs can do to boost morale especially of PhD students and early postdocs is to include their lab in any grant development and paper writing that is going on. I don’t mean officially as collaborators or authors but more informally by regularly sharing and discussing with everyone new research ideas, grant drafts, paper revisions, reviewer comments etc. This way students get a much better feeling of how these things work, maybe build up a higher frustration tolerance, but most importantly everyone feels included in any activity and see how their research project is fitting into a larger scientific programme. It can be pretty lonely sometimes slaving away in the lab or field and feeling being informed and a part of something can give you that extra bit of motivation and keeps the enthusiasm fresh.

    • Building up frustration tolerance would certainly be valuable! Our lab meetings tend to involve reading a paper from the literature or people practicing talks for a meeting. I’ve been thinking it might be nice to add in more of the “here’s what we’re currently working on” sorts of meetings.

      • yes, any good lab has regular meetings and frequent mutual (!) updates. I myself have been fortunate enough to have profited from this, but from what I hear and see it is not as common as it should be.

  7. In the last lab I was in, we had champagne to celebrate any success of lab members. Last celebratee got the bottle for the next time. It kept things festive. On the Espresso front, I had a long talk with Holly Bik about this, and she suggested this model. Although that was some time ago. I was impressed both in Switzerland and at UBC to see big automated high quality espresso machines everywhere. They know how to fuel their labs!

    • Ooh, yes. This relates to Jeremy’s comment above, too. My undergrad advisor had the corks from the celebratory champagne of all his grad students from when they defended. That was definitely a nice tradition.

      I think one of my colleagues here does something similar in her lab. Someone who has a big breakthrough (e.g., collects really great data, paper accepted) buys doughnuts for the lab to celebrate. It helps make lab successes feel more like a success for the whole lab, rather than just the person who was working on that project. I like that approach, too. (Can you tell I like all the things that involve desserts?)

      Oh, but the link to the espresso machine didn’t work. 😦

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  11. This is a really great thread. I am in my first year of running a purely undergraduate lab and these are really great suggestions.

    1. My institution is really crazy about the no food / drinks in labs and so I think I might be fighting a losing battle with trying to keep a coffee pot in the lab.

    2. The outings are such fabulous ideas, and I hope to do more of them when my little ones get just a bit bigger.

    3. I do have weekly meetings that are very informal, and the students appreciate that.

    4. I also try to have a bit of within-lab and among-lab competition. There is a wall-of-science where we hang up images of gels with no bands and other such things, and a wall-of-data where everyone posts their awesome data or gels, or whatever other successes they have. Students like to compete about how many things get hung on each wall. Also we like to have small rivalries with other labs where small pranks are the norm (post-it noting the other PI’s car and other such things). That keeps the students excited.

    • I like the within-lab and among-lab competition ideas! Those seem like fun. We kept a gold star chart outside my office at Georgia Tech for a while, which was fun and in a similar spirit.

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