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November 25, 2002
Volume 80, Number 47
CENEAR 80 47 pp. 64, 66
ISSN 0009-2347


CRASH COURSE IN LAB MANAGEMENT
Two foundations take the lead in teaching the skills that young faculty will need to succeed

AMANDA YARNELL, C&EN WASHINGTON

It's that time of year again: a new crop of seasoned postdocs is on the hunt for faculty jobs. But although these aspiring assistant professors have been highly trained to do research, they have had little or no formal training in managing a lab of their own. A course offered this past summer by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) aimed to fill this training gap.

"Faculty are hired largely on the basis of their own research accomplishments and their ability to articulate their ideas," explains biochemist Thomas R. Cech, president of HHMI. "But their ultimate success depends to a large extent on a very different set of skills: their ability to hire the right technicians, students, and postdocs and empower them to do their best work."

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ROLE MODEL HHMI President Cech discusses his experiences as a faculty member with postdocs and young faculty at lab management course in July.
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NETWORKING BWF's Ionescu-Pioggia discusses lab management with BWF fellow Katy Baty.
PHOTOS BY PAUL FETTERS
THAT'S A TALL, almost daunting, order for most young faculty. The more obvious skills that green assistant professors are expected to have mastered--almost entirely by osmosis--include hiring the right people (and firing them, if need be) and mentoring students effectively. But they're also expected to have absorbed a whole host of other skills, such as how to effectively manage their time, write grants and papers, and handle big budgets.

"The things I know about running a lab have come from watching others," admits Janice D. Pata, a former HHMI fellow and postdoc at Yale University who is looking for her first faculty position. T. Joseph Kappock, an ex-HHMI fellow starting his third year as an assistant professor of biochemistry at Washington University, St. Louis, agrees: "You learn by example and counterexample--there's a complete lack of formal management training in the sciences."

BWF and HHMI, both private philanthropic organizations that support research and education in biomedical science, partnered last summer to offer a three-day course in lab management to their current and past fellowship recipients.

The course was developed by BWF's Martin Ionescu-Pioggia and HHMI's Maryrose E. Franko, who manage the foundations' respective fellowship programs. Designed with input from an all-star group of professors running highly successful labs, the course was not meant to be a prescription, but rather to give young and future faculty a window on different professors' perspectives.

Topics included obtaining and negotiating a faculty position, project management, collaborations, getting funded, getting published, data management and maintaining laboratory notebooks, budgeting, and technology transfer. But some of the most well-received--and perhaps most acutely needed--sessions dealt with lab leadership and personnel issues, mentoring, and time management.

A key to running a successful lab, Ionescu-Pioggia says, is to first take time to figure out what kind of lab you'd like to have, in terms of its space, people, projects, and atmosphere. Then you can formulate a plan to develop it. 


"There's a complete lack of formal management training in the sciences."


BOOKS
Lab Resource For Young Faculty

For those who missed out on this past summer's Burroughs Wellcome Fund/Howard Hughes Medical Institute introduction to lab management course, many of the same crucial lessons are covered in Kathy Barker's new book, "At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator."

Intended to be a resource for newly appointed and aspiring faculty members, the book offers practical advice on time management, setting up lab computers, determining authorship, working with a secretary, finding a mentor, planning and conducting meetings, and balancing one's family and career lives. But it's the chapters on people management that makes this book a must-read.

Barker gives practical advice on how to interview and select technicians, postdocs, and students--in addition to training, motivating, and mentoring them. She discusses how to best match people and projects as well as how to build teamwork and establish a lab culture. But perhaps most important, she touches on how to deal with the toughest personnel issues: fixing communication problems, resolving conflicts, helping lab members deal with stress and depression, keeping up lab morale, and knowing when--and how--to fire someone who isn't working out.

Be warned, however: Barker doesn't offer a one-size-fits-all prescription for running a successful lab. The book relies heavily on unattributed quotes and real-life examples from successful faculty members--many of whom offer different, often conflicting advice. By acknowledging her sources' diverse mix of opinions, Barker encourages her readers to plot their own course.

AT THE HELM: A LABORATORY NAVIGATOR, by Kathy Barker, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2002, 352 pages, $45 (ISBN 0-87969-583-8)

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MANY YOUNG FACULTY make the mistake of hiring as soon as possible, without a clear vision of what kind of people will best fit into their particular lab. Course instructors encouraged participants to think about that issue, and offered practical advice about interviewing and hiring job candidates.

"During your training, no one ever teaches you how to manage people," says Jennifer Hovis, a brand-new faculty member in the chemistry department at Purdue University and a BWF fellow. Consequently, she found the sessions covering strategies and approaches for motivating, communicating, and guiding lab members invaluable.

?Given the broad range of students' personalities, the most effective lab leaders tailor their interactions with each of their students. For instance, while some lab members prefer one-on-one meetings, others might be more comfortable with written communication.

Before she attended the course, Carrie Haskell-Luevano, a BWF awardee and assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida, says she hadn't thought much about how differences in her students' personalities might affect her interactions with them. But now, she actively tries to draw the introverts in her lab out of their shells and make sure her more extroverted students don't dominate lab meetings.

Most think of mentoring skills in terms of reaching out and nurturing, but, as the instructors pointed out, they can also involve turning someone away. It's important to know when to make the transition from being supportive to being tough--and to recognize when firing a lab member is necessary. In addition, good conflict resolution skills can help professors anticipate problems before they happen, as well as mediate and resolve disagreements quickly.

Time management presents another challenge for new professors. Faculty must juggle teaching, mentoring, administrative duties, and research with family life. "I have tremendous demands on my time," says Deborah Zamble, a former HHMI fellow who just completed her first year as an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto. "It's tough to figure out which things I should do on any given day."

Adds Hovis, "It's particularly difficult for me to carve out time to do research." Her advice? Keep at least one day a week free of meetings, seminars, and appointments. In addition to hoarding blocks of time for crucial tasks, instructors advised attendees to think ahead and focus on priorities--even if it means turning on the answering machine and turning off the e-mail alert on the computer.

Response to the course was overwhelmingly positive, HHMI's Franko says. So that young and future faculty who did not have the chance to attend the course can reap some of the benefit, HHMI and BWF plan to make much of the information presented in the course widely available in print or on the Web by next spring. And a new book unconnected with the course by biologist Kathy Barker, "At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator," covers many of the same topics.

But there's nothing quite like sitting down to discuss the joys and pains of running a laboratory with 100 or so people in the same situation, Florida's Haskell-Luevano points out. Recognizing the value of the interactive experience, both Haskell-Luevano and Toronto's Zamble have urged their departments to offer similar courses to their students and postdocs.

BWF President Enriqueta C. Bond hopes that other professional organizations and institutions will also see teaching lab management as an investment. "The broad scientific enterprise would benefit from incorporating these skills into the routine training of young or future faculty," she says.

Haskell-Luevano, whose five-year career at Florida makes her almost a veteran, says the course was "career-altering. If I had implemented half the things I learned here when I first started my job, my lab would be in a much better place." 


SPECIAL REPORT

INTRODUCTION - GRADUATE EDUCATION AND BEYOND

GRADUATE SCHOOL
Tips on choosing the right place for future study.

MENTORING
One professional association for minorities shares its approach.

TENURE TRACK
Writing a successful application requires attention to detail.

RUNNING A LAB
Two foundations help young faculty gain necessary skills.



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Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society



 
Special Report

GRADUATE SCHOOL
Tips on choosing the right place for future study.

MENTORING
One professional association for minorities shares its approach.

TENURE TRACK
Writing a successful application requires attention to detail.

RUNNING A LAB
Two foundations help young faculty gain necessary skills.

Related Stories
Employment Outlook 2003
[C&EN, Nov. 25, 2002]

Salary Survey
[C&EN, August 5, 2002]

2001 Starting Salary Survey
[C&EN, Mar. 18, 2002]

C&EN Education Archive

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