How much do you work in the lab? Is it the amount you want to? Has it changed over time?
For me, the answers are: Regularly during field season, rarely otherwise. I think so, but it’s hard to be sure. Most definitely.
To start with the change over time: when I started my first faculty position, I was in the lab most days. My general feeling was that I should be in the lab collecting data to ensure that we would have enough publications coming out of the lab to be competitive for funding and so that I would have a strong tenure case. So, for my first three years, I was doing a lot of the lab work for experiments, in addition to teaching, service, working on publications, etc. Almost all of this was done jointly with my technician, Jessie, who was a phenomenal tech. Together, we generated quite a bit of data, and I have really fond memories of working in the lab during that time.
But, over time, I have shifted away from working in the lab as much. This has mostly been a conscious decision, but also has happened by necessity as I’ve needed to spend more time on administrative tasks, editing manuscripts, and things along those lines. But I do wonder sometimes if I’ve shifted too much away from working in the lab.
To me, there are two key benefits of working in the lab. First, I find that I think about data and patterns differently when I am collecting the data. These days, almost all of the time I spend in the lab is at the microscope, counting plankton samples, determining what species we have and what parasites they are infected with. While I am at the scope, the data are slowly unfolding in front of me, and I think I notice things that don’t necessarily jump out at me when I look at the data in aggregate. In large part, I think the benefit arises from all the time I have to sit there and just think about the system and what I’m seeing and what might be going on. I am always struck by this when I work in the lab, though this comment from DrugMonkey indicates that some people find that lab work reduces thinking time. So, as with most things, there will be variation. Second, working in the lab allows me to get a feel for the current dynamic in the lab. Is there any tension? Does it seem like there is a culture of asking questions, of being really careful about how experiments are done and how data is being collected? Moreover, I think just being in the lab helping to collect data creates more of a feeling that we’re all in this together. There’s lots of chitchat that goes on over the course of a day in the lab, and that is great for lab bonding and informal mentoring.
So how much is the right amount to work in the lab? I don’t know. At this point, I mainly work in the lab when we need an extra set of hands (e.g., when my grad student did a huge experiment that needed a whole lot of Daphnia moved in a very short period of time) and, especially, when we need an extra person who can count plankton samples. This is the most highly skilled task we do in the lab. It requires being able to tell Daphnia (and Ceriodaphnia) species apart, which, on its own, requires training, in part because Daphnia are textbook examples of phenotypic plasticity. Then, on top of that, people who count the plankton samples also need to be able to tell all the parasites apart, and there are something like 8 that are relatively common, plus a bunch of others that are less common. There will only be three of us in the lab this fall who are trained to do this, which means I will need to be in the lab quite a bit during field season, counting samples. And I’m okay with that. I still think Daphnia are beautiful, and still get excited about finding infected animals in samples.
So, how about you? How much do you work in the lab? Is it the amount you want to? Has it changed over time?