The benefits of continuing to work in the lab as a PI

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.

4inf 2uninf dissect df 1
Daphnia dentifera, some infected with the fungus Metschnikowia bicuspidata. Aren’t they pretty? (Photo credit: Meghan Duffy)

So, how about you? How much do you work in the lab? Is it the amount you want to? Has it changed over time?

11 thoughts on “The benefits of continuing to work in the lab as a PI

  1. I read this text mentally replacing “lab” with “field”, and I think it is completely true for fieldwork as well. Well, I’m just a PhD student, but I co-supervised a couple of undergrads, and I can say that going to the field with them allowed me to get a much better feeling of their work. Also, I feel that being in the field really helps you to have a deeper understanding of the system you’re working with; the more time in the field, the deeper the understanding, especially if combined with theoretical studies.

    • I agree! I go into the field much less than I go into the lab, but I’ve decided I need to do a bit more of it than I have been. It’s a bit embarrassing that I haven’t even been to most of our new fields sites here!

      • My first PhD student worked on alpine plants, a totally different system than mine. It was something like 2 or 3 years before I finally made it out to his field site. Basically, embarrassment at never having been there eventually got the better of me.

  2. Also a valid question for theoreticians, if you replace “lab” with “hacking code/cranking equations”. I still spend significant (too much?) time getting my hands dirty with Mathematica and Fortran, but when I asked one senior theoretician what software he uses to solve differential equations, he said “grad students and postdocs”!

  3. I feel like I’m not in the lab/field enough, though I have maximized this piece of the time budget pie as much as possible. It’s still a small wedge, given the grant/paper/analysis/teaching/admin/service pull. I mostly am in the lab to do things that require my expertise that would be more inefficient or ineffective to train a student to do.

    I think if I told the me of 10 years ago how much I delegate the labwork and fieldwork to students, the me-of-then would be surprised and disappointed at how little time the me-of-now spends collecting data and working side-by-side with students. But the me-of-now is okay with it, and I think working too much in the lab/field deprives my students of opportunities to develop their independence. It’s funny how priorities change in unanticipated ways.

  4. I’ve had to shift away from doing as much field work as I’d like as well – in my case it’s tough to be away from family for the long stretches necessary – but I try to always have one project that is ‘all mine’ (or mine with a collaborator) in which I/we do it all start to finish – design, all the field/library/lab work including sorting, drying, measuring, etc., analysis, and writing. For the last few years this has been mostly synthetic work using previously collected data, but I’m planning a new field project for next year.

    One of my profs in grad school once told us that he thought learning to play an instrument while also teaching us modeling made him a more empathetic teacher because it reminded him how frustrating it felt to be a novice who was working all the time to improve. Along those lines, I think that’s another advantage of maintaining a project that requires I do fieldwork – the fact that it rained nonstop for a week so I couldn’t do those last experiments or that a cow got past the fence and ate all my plants is a good reminder that my students won’t always accomplish in a field season what I/we expect them to. I’m guessing the same would apply to lab work.

  5. Another good reason to be in the lab — it boosts lab morale. When the PI is in the lab working alongside you, lab work seems more important.

    Actually, another topic that I am curious about is this. Do you take special steps to improve the atmosphere in the lab and stimulate intellectual exchange? E.g., lab parties, retreats, hikes, etc. And if so, how often? Does it work?

    • Yes, I agree that it boosts morale, and that’s an important benefit. And, yes, as indicated in the post Jeremy linked to, I do think it’s important to actively promote a good lab culture and intellectual exchange.

      We’ve been having about two weekend lab parties a year. They can be a little tricky for me to manage with young kids, but we recently did an afternoon party at a park and that worked really well. The lab I was a postdoc in (Tony Ives’s lab) did a winter ski trip and a summer canoe trip, which was great for lab morale. Some day, maybe I’ll be coordinated enough to organize that sort of thing.

      We are a big fan of baked goods in my lab (but really, who isn’t?) I brought in some cookies today, and we celebrate all lab birthdays with cake, cupcakes, or something along those lines. And I bought an espresso machine for my lab to use, which was also a big hit (not surprisingly).

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