Building a Family in a New Lab

11 Jan

This is the first post in 2014. We took a little break over the Christmas and New Year. I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday break and is ready for the spring semester.

Motivation

While I haven’t posted as often as I should, I have been enjoying reading Matt’s and Travis’s blog posts. Last year, Travis posted how he manages his research group, which was very informative. I am hoping that in a few years my research program will bloom into something as productive as his. But it takes some time for a new assistant professor to get there. Also, things that work for someone may not work for others because we are different in abilities and personalities. So I thought I should share how I am staring my new lab. I hope this post would stimulate your thought on your lab management.

Background

Bucknell Biology is different from Allegheny College (Matt’s institute) and Millikin University (Travis’s institute) in that independent research is not required for students. This means that each faculty can decide a lab size appropriate for his/her research project. Or if you are busy or don’t have research projects, you don’t have to mentor any students (although untenured faculty members don’t want to do this for a good reason). We can also assign more than one student to a single project, which I often do. I like having a team on a single project because it often motivates students more, stimulates discussion among them, and makes students a little more confident about the project. It can also be used to transmit lab culture and research techniques between the cohorts. On the other hand, there are some negatives. Some biology majors may graduate without any research experiences. In my personal experience, undergraduate research was the best education I had during the four years of my undergrad. I can still explain what I did for my undergrad research but can’t tell you much about what I learned from any courses (this is a common problem of Japanese higher education). So those students who graduate without experiencing research may miss an invaluable piece of science education. Another potential problem is recruiting predominantly pre-med student body for ecological research, which can be challenging.

So far I’ve been fortunate with students without doing much recruitment. I will have 5 credited (all pre-med) and 4 auditing students in the spring. Yes, although research is not required, students get credits (but faculty members get no teaching credits!). I usually give students a credit-free semester trail. If they really like the research subjects and if I think students are good and fit well in our research group, I will take them as credited students in the following semester. Those students who contacted me for research opportunities so far got to know me and my research through either my courses (I was a VAP for two years) or my job talk that I gave during the interview. Our department also has a research symposium for undergrads who are interested in research. Our chair asks us if we need research students. If we do, the chair briefly introduces those lab and research focuses to the students.

Analyzing Myself as a PI

The beginning of the last semester when I started a new lab, I thought about what type of leader I want to (or I can) be, and how I should approach my research students. I am not a natural leader. Although I played that role a number of times (e.g., a captain of a basketball team, class leader etc.), I still don’t feel comfortable about being a leader in many settings. In addition, I speak, and will do so forever, English as a second language. This means that I have less control over how I present myself. I lack cultural basis for this country and don’t have a fine-tuned antenna about many things going around me (these are common issues among any foreigners and I accept them without being pessimistic).

On the other hand, I am pretty good at opening up myself and sharing my weakness with students, which I found makes our interactions smoother, more fun, and more respectful. I get excited about coming up with questions, which students told me different and stimulating. I am good at paying attention to quiet (or troubled) students and feel rewarded to work with them as long as they are sincere about learning and life. These analyses may sound useless to some but it was important for me because they allowed me to create an image of how I should run my lab. I am not suited for being a strong leader who can powerfully pull a group to a certain direction. But I may be able to create an active research group by bringing out intrinsic curiosity of students and establishing trust and bound among group members. One may adopt what works best for him/her naturally without thinking much. But if you have a clear goal, that helps.

Building a Family in a New Lab

With the goal in mind, the first important step to me was to foster sense of family among lab members. Creating enjoyable (research has to be fun) and comfortable environment provides fundamental basis for an active research program. If students do not feel excited about coming to a lab meeting, that is a problem. Because research is part of education at a liberal arts college, I decided to create a syllabus.

And I listed three goals as follows:

  1. To build an active research community in which everyone feels comfortable, supported, and intellectually simulative.
  2. To conduct publishable research as a lab
  3. To make our research visible to the others on and off campus through presentations, publications, and the lab website.

Because students get credit, I have to clarify my expectation. So here it is:

“A” will be given to those who are actively engaged and make progress in their projects, work on average 8 to 12 hours a week, and professionally communicate with me. Please do not worry about getting “good” experimental results. Failure is part of doing science and we learn a lot from mistakes!

I know some of the faculty members have more strict expectation. For example, Travis uses a research contact “that defines exactly what is expected of them for that semester”. I may adopt this idea in the future. But right now, I feel most comfortable and appropriate about my approach.

In addition to a weekly meeting, I see or communicate via email with each student every week. We also started a monthly lab basketball, which has been a lot of fun. I invited the research group for dinner at my place at the end of the semester (we had a great time). In sum, I feel students are responding positively. They seem to get along with one other well and talk to each other often. I am closer to my research students than to most of the students I had in class. I don’t know how this translates to research productivity yet. But with the trust and bound, I feel more comfortable about pushing and challenging students. Spring semester is critical for many ecologists. I am eager to see whether and how my research group flourishes.

-MT

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