Saturday, May 30, 2020

How big (a lab group) is too big?

Lab Group at GL: Quinn Roberts, Maia Schweitzer, Denise Akob, Casey Gustawarow, Marilyn, Albert Colman (top row); Mat Wooller and Steelie (bottom row); Swimming after a day of fish seining, Atlantic Ocean 2003,
Lab sizes vary. If you’re in chemistry or medicine, and you’re a big shot, you need to have a big lab with at least 10-20 people working away, every day, to keep you in the limelight. In ecological and earth sciences, a lab this size is unusual. Money is tighter for funding a group of this size. While productivity might be high, you lose a few things along the way. During the majority of my career, my lab group consisted of 2-3 postdocs, 1 or 2 grad students, a couple undergraduate summer interns, a precocious high school student, and perhaps a lab technician—about 6-8 people at any one time. In addition, I usually had three or four colleagues of more senior status visit throughout the year, usually to analyze samples or work on collaborative projects together. They are all important but each group has a different role and demanded a different amount of time and energy from me.
100 year Geophysical Lab party: Many former lab group members, 2010
With the exception of colleagues, postdocs are typically the most advanced in what they can do, what they understand, and how they work. They need less handholding, but need more detailed, in depth interaction, as they perfect their skills as scientists. Grad students start off slow with courses, orientation, but after a few months need regular meetings and supervision. Around their second or third year, they take off and if they’re good students, they’re working at the pace of postdocs. Interns are short-lived, fill in for random research ideas, but need lots of attention when they start working in the lab. They need safety and basic lab skills training. In a smaller lab setting, usually I would start out training the interns, but rapidly shifted them to grad student or postdoc supervision. If I was lucky to have lab technical support, I was in close contact with this person many times in a week.
Denise Akob (now a scientist at USGS) and Maia Schweitzer (now CEO of an Australian energy company), interns, circa 2002
My style as a lab chief was, and still is, informal. For years, I held no group meetings, chatted with folks without appointments, and touched base randomly as I felt the need. With a smaller group, that was easy. My office door was always open and anyone could wander in who needed to talk. When I moved to the University of California, things changed. People required appointments. Very few people “wandered in” unannounced. My time was more structured having to hold faculty meetings and teach classes. I watched how my younger, less experienced colleagues carried out lab “management” in very structured ways. It wasn’t for me at this advanced stage of my career. It took time, but eventually people learned that if my office door was open, it meant come on in.
UC Merced lab group: Jon Nye, Liz Wlliams (now at USGS), Dan Toews, Christina Bradley (now at Salisbury U.), Joy Stewart, David Araiza (now an M.D.), Bobby Nakamoto, Marilyn, 2015
If this happened and a live person was sitting in my office, I tried as best as I could to not look at email, glance at the clock, or otherwise become distracted. Conversations could last an hour or several hours depending on the depth of things happening that needed to be discussed. A “wombat meeting” was one in which there were tears, resulting in passing the stuffed wombat and a box of tissues across to calm things down. A seasoned therapist keeps track of the time, glancing at the clock at 10 minutes before the hour, wrapping things up 5 minutes later. I waited until tears had stopped and there were smiles. We often parted with “Have any fun plans for this weekend?” 

Of course, with a lab group of >10 people, there is no time for these types of meetings. You lose several opportunities with a large group, and become, without question, a lab manager or PI but there is a decided divide between you and the folks working in your lab group. Spontaneity is often another casualty of a larger lab group. For example, my favorite times of the week were when I rolled (or walked) into the lab and just sat for hours watching the mass specs hum, the students weighing, and people working on data. Fixing the instruments and troubleshooting holds a particular fondness for me. I love the challenge, figuring out the problem, then fixing it. PIs of large groups often don’t have time for this.
Dave Baker and Seth Newsome, former postdocs, 2019

Other practical losses come from less time to work with undergrads or high school interns. These folks are passed on to grad students or postdocs. I worked with spectacular undergrads in my career and glad I did. Sue Ziegler was a summer intern, then after attending University of Texas with my friend Ron Benner, she returned to work with me as a postdoc. We remain life-long friends. She’s made the long voyage from Newfoundland, Canada, to California three times since my ALS diagnosis. Ben Van Mooy, an undergrad at Northwestern Univ., spent a summer doing dissolved inorganic carbon measurements in my lab. He was incredibly bright, and is now a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. At UC Merced, I found undergrad Bobby Nakamoto, who I’ve written about. He’s about to take his PhD candidacy exam next week (he’ll do fine). I’d have a considerably less colorful career without folks like these.

When I was able, I enjoyed washing the lab glassware, wiping down the benches, organizing the drawers, weighing a sample or two, and mopping the lab floors. The neatness of my lab is a source of pride. These were peaceful times for me. I felt as though I’d actually “done something” concrete. I don’t know of any other faculty who have the time for these chores.

A larger lab group requires more grant-writing time, and once grants are awarded, more reports, budget management, travel, and often dedicated hiring. If these are duties you love, then a big lab makes sense. If not, then keeping them to a manageable level is probably a better way for your personal harmony. I enjoy(ed) the competitiveness of grant writing and found that it promoted a greater sense of focus than what normally drove my scientific agenda. But with grant funding came more structured time—time I realize in retrospect is my most valuable commodity.

There is a balance between research and “service” that is required for academic advancement. Before tenure, research is King or Queen—no papers, no tenure.  However, during the mid-career years anyone who wants to seriously advance needs to take on a good dollop of service to the community or the university. At Carnegie, we poo-pooed service to the Lab, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. We often gave away our rights and privileges to the Lab’s Director so we wouldn’t be bothered. The negative result of this was hiring or policies that were implemented without our input. At Univ. of California, without serious service to the University, you’ll never reach Full Professor status unless you are National Academy calibur. Having a large lab too soon can hamper your ability to participate outside of your individual research effort.
Ron Benner and Sue Ziegler, Sea Ranch, 2017

Finally, having a large group brings a greater probability of having a problem person in the mix. Problem folks can be under performers, difficult personalities, or unable to handle personal problems (e.g., alcohol or drugs). Even one person like this can cause major disruptions and it is incumbent that the lab’s PI has to deal with this person. Even if a person isn’t necessarily a problem, two people can develop animosities with each other causing disruption. Under performing people had closed door conversations with me. I asked, “Is this really for you?” Folks who failed to show up for work were asked, “If you worked at McDonald’s, what do think would happen?” Those who showed up for work under the influence were sent home immediately. Before they could return to work, there was a serious conversation that this was not only unacceptable, but also grounds for being fired. Difficult personalities take the most time and demand patience and consistent management, but usually I’ve been able to work through these problems.
Matt McCarthy (once a visiting student) and UCR folks, 2020

How big is too big? The answer to me comes around to what an individual thinks is most important in her life. Wrapped up in that is what her interpersonal skills might be versus her ambitions. I had a healthy dose of both flavoring my career. Ambition is good—it keeps things moving forward. Finding that personal balance in a scientist mid-career is key. Accepting what makes you happy, rewarded, and feel good is as important as any h-Index or grant portfolio.

People, though, will, on my looking back, bring the greatest rewards.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Just photos of isotope friends

Herve Bocherns (top)

This week's blog isn't very bloggy--it's a photo collection of memories twenty or so years ago.
Luis Cifuentes, Marilyn, David Hollander, 1995
Barbara Smallwood, Myrna Jacobson; Carmen Aguilar and Marilyn; Walter Michaelis (l) and John Ferry (r)
Jake Waldbauer

Tim Filley (left); Paul Koch, Page Chamberlain, Kevin Mandernack, David Bell, 1995

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...