Lab Evolution

Mar 15 2011 Published by under Careers

Labs are, and always have been, under selective pressure. They evolve.

Or go extinct.

In recent times we've seen an increase in this pressure. Fewer TT positions. Decreasing funding rates. Perhaps even a push to eliminate single R01 (or equivalent) labs. It would appear labs/PI's need to evolve more rapidly than in the recent past. What traits will be most beneficial in this rapidly changing landscape?

I would suggest two: efficiency and flexibility.

This is the ability to get top-notch work done in the most rapid, cost-effective, and yet thorough, manner. Note that I said "top-notch." One can certainly churn out the research rapidly if one is willing to be second-rate. But you don't want to be second-rate, do you? Do it right or bugger off.

How to be efficient? Think ahead. Focus. Plan out what you're doing and how carefully. Be organized.

Recognize that you'll need help. The days of single labs being able to do it all are long gone. Unless you're either a supermegalatron-sized lab or your research is irrelevant. Collaborations are where it's at. Build a network of friends, collaborators and even foes. Use them and let them use you. But not in a bad way. Be a great collaborator and you'll attract great collaborations. And keep an eye on things outside of your sub-sub-sub-field. You never know when you'll come across an awesome approach being applied in a different sub-field that can push forward your own.

Why cost-effective? Because that gives you...

The ability to change directions as necessary. Follow where the data is taking you. Start up the new projects (or new branches of existing projects) you're going to need for the 2-3 R01 (or equivalent) applications you're going to be submitting each year.*

I'm not advocating jumping on the latest "hot" science. I have a strong distaste for those that do that. I also dislike those who constantly change directions based on where the most funding is perceived to be (although to some extent this is something we all have to be cognizant of). But banging away at the same old, same old when the data is yelling "go that way bozo!" is just plain stoooooopid.

Learn new stuff. New techniques. You haven't picked up a new technique in the last year, either in-lab or via a collaboration? That's likely not good.

Darwin may not have been referring to research, but he was correct about evolving or disappearing.

* Assuming you already have funding. The number of submissions might need to be higher if you're not.

3 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    Great advice, Odyssey! I'm pretty much terrified now. Historically, my research is not what you'd call efficient--it's thorough, but the nature of what I do means that I can't, say, do an experiment in a week. When I start my lab this fall, I know that I've got to be able to get some data quickly so as to have preliminary results for grant apps, and it's been an interesting challenge coming up with ideas that are on a completely different scale than my usual way of thinking about things.

    • odyssey says:

      Dr. Becca:
      Don't confuse efficiency with speed. In my work there are few worthwhile experiments you can complete in a week. Efficiency is more about making sure you do the right experiments and that you do them right. If they take weeks or even months, all the more reason to make sure you do the right experiment the first time.

      And being a little terrified isn't a bad thing. 🙂 It can be a great motivator.

  • There has been a tendency to apply Darwin's theory of evolution to a wider range of phenomena including the survival of businesses in the competitive market place. In a sense, a research lab is indeed like a business. However, it should be appreciated that Darwin's theory applies to species and not really an individual within a species. All individuals ultimately die no matter how well fed, strong or big they may be.

    In my opinion, the main driving force in evolution is the development of intelligence systems, be they molecular, cellular or social. Improvement in one or more of these related capabilities provides for a species to survive and thrive. In this context, Odyssey is correct that key factors for the success of a research laboratory are a broad range of knowledge and capabilities, careful monitoring of the environment, and effective working relationships. In other words, be adaptable. Know and keep up with the scientific literature and not just in your chosen area. Adopt and use a variety of techniques. Do not compete, but rather collaborate whenever possible.

    Scientists seem to be forced to compete when it comes time to apply for grant funding or publish their results in the "best" journals. However, it is amazing what you can do without funding from traditional sources if you are innovative and determined. I have not had any academic grant funding for over 5 years, but I feel that my basic research program has never been more productive. The Internet has provided new opportunities to disseminate research discoveries and encourage scientific discussion that was not possible a generation ago.