Thursday, May 3, 2018

One Year In

I wanted to start a blog to document starting a lab.  Then a year went by, and I wrote nothing (except grant applications and papers).  In the spirit of something is better than nothing, I am going to “try” a simple format. 

The premise:  10 things I like and don’t like.  Some about the job, some about other life stuff.  Hopefully it’ll balance and not just be whining.  Maybe it won’t. 

Here is the first iteration, a year to the day of my lab officially starting.

1.     Loneliness. Lots of hard things about starting a lab, but the one that gets me often is how lonely the job can be.  While there are lots of people around, everyone is busy.  The camaraderie of the lab is not gone, but different, cause you are the boss.  Obviously, that changes the dynamics of your interactions.  The folks you have the most in common with are super busy, making the casual lunch/coffees seem short, cause you both have to get back soon.  It is a lonelier job than I anticipated.
2.     Bargain Hunting. Buying stuff is fun and you can take real pride in the “good” stuff you get to buy. I currently love my Stirling -80 and look forward to having its oil changed. You also have an unreasonable level of satisfaction of stuff you were able to “rescue” from surplus or another lab.  It feels like you found a real gem when you grab and “fix” an old “shaking” incubator.  That feeling hasn’t worn off for me… yet.
3.     My own office with a door.  It is great to close the door and get some work done, or listen to Taylor Swift in peace. Nice to be out of the hovel.
4.     My own office with a door.  It facilitates that door being closed and having “SOMAAD” days (Sit on my a** all day).  Coupled with being the boss, it can/does exacerbate that loneliness.
5.     Being recognized as your own scientific being.  So often, I started emails in the context of the lab I was in (post-doc or grad student).  I learned to use the stature of my old bosses to get attention and respect.  The cloak of their competency if you will.  When you hang your own shingle, you still maintain this a bit (“former post-doc in the X lab”, junior PI from X lab).  Every once in awhile, someone will respond… “I know who you are.”  “Of course I know your work.”  I wish I could bottle that feeling of validation.
6.     Who’s lab are you in?  The parallel to the above is the need to know who you work/ed for.  This is mostly a conference thing and with the season upcoming, I’m bracing for the … “well, I have my own lab now, but I used to work for…”  answer.  I know I get this less than others because 1) I am male,  2) I am an amazing scientist (ha)   2) I am generally less approachable (my wife with her kind face is always approached to be asked for help or just to chat… me, not so much).
7.     The unicorn foundation grants.  Writing grants is the name of the game and I believe reps are really important.  However, not getting feedback on your grants ranks up there as things that are super annoying and something you don’t realize right away.  While the reviews I’ve gotten have been painful, they have been exceeding useful in pointing out flaws in either my approach or in how I failed to explain something well.  With that, the majority of foundations grants that I applied to offer no feedback.  In my case, just a “you didn’t get it” form email.  I knew this up front and tried to reuse as much of the text of the grants over and over again, knowing no feedback was forthcoming (Perhaps why I didn’t get them).  While everyone complains about reviewers, it is actually worse to not get any information.
8.      Work-Life Balance.  I refrained from weighing in on the twitter discussion about how much time to spend in the lab.  I am very much a do what I say, not what I do on this front.  I try to encourage my people and trainees I interact with to go home on weekends and at night; find a balance cause science is hard.  More time is not always better.  At the same time, more is often more, and that translate to more productivity for me.  I fortunately have a wife and (now) 3 small children that demand my life be balanced.   I still spend parts of my weekends working on stuff, but try my best to keep track and account properly for the time worked.  I am a believer that work must ebb and flow; the key is to take the time off when you can as there will always be times you need to crank it up.
9.    Graveyard Papers.   There was a twitter discussion about finishing old papers from previous labs.  I am fortunate to have gotten several papers out in the last year wrapping up work.  While I take great pride in that, it was not primarily to get the productivity.  My goal was to wrap up my projects such that no one ever contacted me a few years later to ask what I did.  Translating my lab notebook or other notes for them years after the fact was not ever going to be a good use of anyone’s time.  Now that I have small kids, I have replaced that knowledge with Daniel Tiger tunes.  With that in mind, the easiest way to document your work is to publish it.  That’s what I’ve tried to do.  I will say it is not impossible, but if you don’t make it a primary goal, it’ll never happen.
10. Building a network & resources.  I have been truly blessed to have great mentors and friends who have helped me in this job.  I have relied on people a few years ahead to give me advice, grant materials, and a sounding board for my idea.  There are too many to name, but I’d say building your network is more than just a catch phrase and most of my good friends in science came from interactions that had nothing to do directly with science (ax throwing, poutine,  stumbling up the hill at Cornel late at night).  I am also indebted to blogs and twitter that provide great insights. My favorites include: