Saturday, June 6, 2020

"Goldilocks" Lab group size


Final Stage: Administrators, Donors, and Colleagues listen to son Evan Swarth at Endowed Chair Ceremony, 2017
Kathryn Uhrich, Dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at UC Riverside, likes to talk about teaching and research training in terms of “buckets”. Her mantra is “fill up all of the buckets, maybe not every year, but over your review period.” For teaching, there are the classroom (now online) “buckets”: lower division classes, upper division, graduate, and general education (GE) courses—four different buckets. At UC Merced, I didn’t teach any lower division classes, but had 6 upper division classes, 3 graduate ones, and 1 GE class. At UC Riverside, I’ve taught 6 lower division classes, no upper ones, 3 grad classes, and 3 GE courses. Together my teaching “buckets” for my time at UC in 7.5 years includes 6 lower division classes, 6 upper division classes, 6 graduate classes, and 4 GE classes—a fairly even distribution of traditional teaching efforts for a university professor.

Teaching also includes graduate, postdoctoral, and undergrad training and research guidance. When a professor or senior scientist accepts a person into her laboratory, that person becomes a Member of her lab Group, a position of pride for the professor and student. As a professional scientist, I’ve encountered just about every type of research study, had my work funded by an array of agencies, and have published my work widely. I’ve set up a stable isotope laboratory 6 times during my career. I can “do” research and train folks to get started in this endeavor. In the 40+ years post-PhD, I have mentored and trained osver 30 grad students, 30 postdocs, and a bunch of undergrads and high school students.
Lab Group, Geophysical Lab, 2011
Last week, I discussed how big of a lab is too big. This week, I’m focusing on what is Just Right for someone building a new group or the more advanced scientist, wondering how to maximize mid-career work. One instructive way to consider this is the “Bucket” approach—fill the buckets with thought and strategically.

At a University, there is a decided emphasis on graduate student training. That makes simple sense, after all the mission of the University of California, for example, is teaching and research. Grad students fulfill that mission. Where do grad students come from and how do they join a lab group? When you are starting out, you are not well known (usually). Students like to go to labs with more famous professors. At Carnegie, when I was starting my lab, students were attracted to Tom Hoering, my more experienced colleague. When they arrived, I often worked with them, building my skills in research mentorship. These are skills that aren’t necessarily taught in grad school.

Research mentorship requires patience, attention to details, and learning to carry your self with some authority. There needs to be a degree of separation from your mentees. How much or how little is something I have seen folks struggle with. It takes time to figure this out, meanwhile, a starting researcher needs to accept one or two promising grad students into her lab fairly soon. Within a couple of years, that number should go up slightly to 3 or 4 grad students keeping a balance between those just starting and those already advanced. The goal from this early, pre-tenure period is to mentor and graduate one or two real “winners”—students who have great projects, are helpful in the lab, create a good atmosphere, publish a few papers, and go on to a good postdoc or job.

Why that number? One student isn’t enough for forming a lab Group. Two students are at the low end, and might work for someone with more complex startup issues. Adding the additional couple brings the risk, and it’s real, of choosing students who might not be up to your personal “snuff”. At UC Merced, a new university with a quiet reputation 7 years ago, it wasn’t easy to bring in excellent students. Those with offers from one of the more established UC campuses, often accepted those other offers. I found my four UC Merced grad students by different ways. Two came from relationships I had with them as undergrads, one was referred by a colleague, and a fourth, from a random application.

These four students all came with different strengths and needs. One was a very good student, knew how to read and write with skill and competency, but needed guidance on confidence and intellectual depth. Another mastered skills easily and understood complex issues but required help with effective writing and focusing on research goals. The third is an outstanding field scientist, but required help with understanding the Big Picture, reading, and writing. The fourth student was a complete surprise and mastered research, reading and writing, mostly needing mentorship on data details and interpretation. Taken together, these four students were all good lab members and promoted a positive environment. It was an ideal situation.
Grad student Joy McDermott Stewart and undergrad, UCM 2015

Undergraduate research “buckets” are easier to fill. At Carnegie, we had a summer intern program. On campuses, there are many undergrads who are anxious to get some practical experience. At the Carnegie, I choose the best and brightest. At UC, my tactic changed. I looked for students who needed the experience most—first generation, students of color, or students with a “C” average who needed a boost. The bucket was filled with two or three at a time, who took on glassware washing, weighing, and sample preparation work usually without pay. Experience has shown that having an undergrad in a lab setting is a powerful propellant to get her to increase grades and interest in science. If a student asked for research credit, we went to the next step. If she asked for a paying assistantship, I arranged it.

Most professors starting out can only afford a single postdoc. Choosing one who has independent thoughts and can bring expertise you need into your group is a good way of thinking about who to recruit.

Minimal lab size based on this would be four (2 grads; 2 undergrads). The maximum size would be eight (4 grads, 3 undergrads, 1 postdoc)—that’s getting on the large size. At that point, you’d need to consider hiring technical support. Having a good person to order, organize, and analyze in your lab is important, possibly even essential. For a complex laboratory like a stable isotope mass spectrometer lab, technical help can make or break an early career. Swapping out a technician for one of the grad students keeps the size stable.

Swinging into mid-career, post-tenure life, your lab management and people mentorship styles will be established. Sometimes there is a “sigh of relief” in getting to this career place, and it makes sense if things worked before, don’t make big changes.
Marilyn, Doug Rumble, Penny Morrill, Shuhei Ono, Jen Eigenbrode (postdocs) after lab tie-dying party, 2005

When you start to plan where you’d like to be at 50 or 55 or 60, it’s time to strategize. I didn’t do this effectively at Carnegie. I expanded my research program during my mid-career, traveled all over the world, raised a family, but put off thinking about more ambitious plans. When the Directorship of the Geophysical Laboratory came up in 2009, I had only taken steps in the preceding 2 years or so to prepare for the leadership position. After being bypassed for that position, I took a job at the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a Program Director in Geobiology and Low Temperature Geochemistry. Working at NSF put me on the national stage and gave me a chance to show I could lead a field, be a director, and command some international recognition beyond my research portfolio.
Tie-dying party with intern and postdoc Shuhei Ono

When I returned to the Geophysical Lab in 2011, I started looking in earnest for positions with leadership potential. My kids were in college, and my husband was restless to get back to California. I worked my tail off then, eventually landing at the University of California Merced becoming department chair and building core competency at this new school. My world has expanded in ways that I did not imagine. On a daily basis, I’ve worked not only with my lab group, but my whole department’s faculty, many other grad students, hundreds of undergrads, staff, and administrators up to and including the Chancellor. At UC Riverside, my lab group is now part of an Institute, and I have worked to broaden my influence to other faculty and students throughout campus. I wanted and sought after a larger role—an expanded, different type of “group”.

Whether you develop a lab group with a strong presence or with a more hands-off approach, you’ll be responsible for the group’s financial wellbeing. The trade off is that a larger group gives you more accomplishments, and hopefully more funding. This gets right back to thinking about how big (of a lab group) is too big? Thinking about where you’d like to be in 5, 10 or 20 years and figuring out how your lab’s size and structure might help you get there, is the right approach when you start to fill those “buckets” with people.

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