Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The art of science supervision

Many of my current and former lab group members and other Carnegie folks, circa 2007


In science, often the first person you supervise is an undergraduate student who’s working on a summer project or wants a few research credits during the school year. Recently, my grad student Bobby Nakamoto was put “in charge” of an undergrad earning his degree in biochemistry. The student had worked for most of the academic year as a lab tech in our lab, mostly weighing samples and washing glassware. He seemed ready to do more.


We had a fairly simple study in mind—a collaborative project with scientists at Washington University in St. Louis. Bobby would train the undergrad on some fairly complex chemistry, instruct him on how to get the samples ready for analysis, then guide him to inspect and graph the data. The final step was for the student to write up his work as a short paper. As the quarter unfolded, we could see a couple of problems with this supervising approach. Bobby and the student did not always have schedules that allowed them to meet on a regular basis. They needed to communicate via text and email. The student often did not have enough time in the day to complete the chemical steps to process the sample, so it took forever for him to find the right amount of time. Then, as is typical, the student waited until the last minute to finish up and write the report. Unfortunately, the grade he earned wasn’t the best.


On the plus side, Bobby learned something about supervising people, an art that scientists aren’t trained in before they take over and build a lab group. I had no experience at all when I began my first permanent position in 1979. My first trainee was a high school student from the neighborhood. She was on task, smart, and paid attention. But I learned it wasn’t easy to teach students all the nuances in what research was really about. She co-authored my first paper in Science, but that was the last I heard from her. After that I started to ramp up my skills.


There are many books and seminars training people on how to supervise employees, but scientists and professors are often thrown into the role without any preparation. After 40 years, I have a few tips.


“Time and attendance” is one of the most basic concepts in supervision—and one of the most tedious. But it’s important because you want your lab team to be available during working hours, when needed for fieldwork, and when they can interact.  I’ve had a couple of night-owl students who wanted to start work after lunch then stay into the wee hours of the night. One blew up a vacuum line and injured him self. The other made numerous analytical errors that required me to check everything that had been done. I now ask that anyone working in my lab start her day between 8 am and 10 am then work through until 5 pm or thereabouts. Anyone doing chemistry steps that could be dangerous is required to work during the day, when others are around. If someone is sick, working on a project from home, or traveling, they need to let me know in advance of their absence.


Shuhei Ono, Albert Colman, and Simon Clarke--three great lab members, circa 2005

Some consider this bean counting—not necessary. And that might be true in general until you have someone you are supervising who takes advantage. Then, it’s best to have a rule and a policy.


Communication is the next thing to get right. In the Olden Days, we used telephones and wrote letters. By the early 1990s, email became a mode of communicating. Now it’s texts, Instagram, or internal messaging systems like Slack. Most important is face-to-face communication. Today, most scientists hold Lab Meetings, usually weekly or biweekly. The Lab Meeting, in my opinion, should be a positive, reinforcing time to bolster good faith, support, and new ideas. I prefer to avoid discussing problems that create a negative vibe—in particular anything personal, which I deal with on a one-to-one basis. Lab meetings can include snacks and beverages, conclude with lunch or a trip to the local pub, or just stand on their own. There should be an agenda and maybe a time limit. The Lab meeting serves to let everyone know at the same time what’s going on.


Supervision rarely takes place in group settings. Some folks schedule regular weekly 1-on-1 meetings, but they have a tendency to become routine. It is/was my policy to see people in person as soon as possible after they asked to see me. Sometimes, it takes some gumption to get up the nerve to see the Lab Chief, so when a member of the group asks for a visit, I say ‘yes’ immediately. Often, people are looking for direction and to know that what they’re doing is on the right track. I conduct open-ended meetings for things like this, not 30-minute time blocks that might not get to the heart of the matter effectively. This approach may sound too loose and frivolous of my time, but I’ve learned that it might save time in the long run to work out a problem then and there.


What I consider the biggest waste of time is back and forth emails to find a time to connect. Just do it. One of the biggest complaints I hear from students is that they can’t seem to ever get the full on attention of their supervisors.


Typically, you might have someone in the Lab group who never asks to see you and is avoiding you! The ball is then in your court to ask them to come in and don’t let the request go beyond a day or two. My major professor Chase van Baalen caught us in the hallway and figured out how we were doing. A stroll into the lab is often the best way to get that shy student/postdoc to open up. At UC Merced and Riverside, I tried to spend an afternoon just sitting in the lab, watching what was going on, which I considered time well spent.


New people to a Lab Group will need training. Deciding who will do the training is your responsibility. Safety training is something you need to be mindful of, since you as Lab Chief, are held accountable to what happens in your lab space. At the Geophysical Lab I was the Safety Officer for the building, a thankless job with some headaches. I learned when there was a safety breach that not everyone takes that job seriously. You should.


Fairly quickly, I can assess whether someone “get’s it” or needs more training. For example, some people are more skilled at hands on things, while others like data crunching. I’ve trained dozens of people to do complex chemistry and work with sophisticated instruments. Only rarely, have I had to limit someone’s access because of carelessness. If you train people yourself, you’ll sense what they know and what they don’t know. If you rely on more senior members of your group to train new recruits, you’ll need in person time with your surrogate to make sure things are working out. When I haven’t bothered to do this, problems have resulted.


It’s great to have a big lab group, but as a supervisor you need to be responsible for your team financially. People need to know the terms of their positions—the length of time, the salary, and the expectations and benefits. The 2nd biggest complaint I hear from members of a lab group is that they don’t know when and how much they’ll get paid. Will they be employed in the summer? When does their postdoc end? Is their employment linked to winning a grant award? Learning your financial and accounting systems is key. To go with this, having a friend in the business office is critical for letting you know when someone is about to end their position.


Nothing will serve you better than cultivating a good listening ear. Turn off the phone, computer, and pay attention to the person in front of you. Practice listening every day and strive to be better at it. Knowing what a person is thinking will help when conflicts arise.


I worked with all of these folks as young interns--an experience we cherish

One summer I had three undergrad interns working in my lab at Carnegie. One afternoon, all hell broke loose when Intern 1 knocked Intern 2’s precious 65-million year old samples onto the floor. We looked at the samples that had been carefully weighed out—bits of fossilized fish, insects and plants from a location in Germany. There was a thought of picking them up off the lab floor, but it was dirty, not amenable to analyzing isotope signals to figure out fossil food webs. Intern 1 was careless with respect to how she viewed the lab. Intern 2 was careless in leaving her samples on the bench without securing them. They both were in tears. Intern 3 just cried in solidarity with the situation.


I went home and had a stiff drink. The next day Intern 1 apologized to Intern 2. Both admitted their errors to me and each other. Intern 2 flew to Germany for more samples. They are both successful in their fields today.


A story I like to tell is about a situation that developed in a Geophysical Lab postdoc office. Then postdoc Seth Newsome shared this office with three others in 2006. An athletic fellow, Seth suited up for volleyball at lunchtime, leaving his lab clothes draped on his desk. Apparently, this was offensive to those who had to stare at his shirt and trousers during lunchtime. After listening to a complaint from his office mates, I had to “call him in” to discuss the matter. He was angry at first, then we had to laugh. When another, more private office opened up, I had him move in. In the meantime, he stashed his clothes in his desk drawer. Crisis averted.


Ultimately, you might need to fire someone. I’ve only had to do this a handful of times. It required documentation, writing letters, and trying to get the troublesome employee to figure out how to be a productive employee. Ultimately all attempts at turning someone around failed.  I often sensed relief with the person who had been let go. It’s not a pleasant feeling to not fit the job you’ve been hired for.


 In the case of two lab assistants who failed to show up for work repeatedly, I gave them the “McDonalds” talk.


            Me: I missed seeing you yesterday and last week. Anything going on?

            Them: I didn’t come in.

            Me: Hmmm. If you worked at McDonalds, what do you think would happen?

            Them: I’d get fired.

            Me: Exactly. It’s your choice—you could resign or I could fire you.

            Them: I’ll resign.


But it’s best—and at the end of my career I can say this—to work with someone and figure out how they can best do their job. Being particular about who you hire is key. If you have a question about someone, don’t bring them into your group. Wait for the right person.


Even with the best and the brightest, you’ll need to motivate. I call some of these conversations—“Are you sure this is right for you?” or “You need to turn up the dial!” Other times, people need to be uplifted. For instance, Bobby Nakamoto’s mood is written clearly on his face. I can tell quickly if he’s in need of a pep talk or reassurance he’s doing the right thing. We often begin with one easy topic, switch to the thorny things bothering him, then end up with all the cool stuff he will do in his future. Motivating your lab group keeps things positive and moving forward.


When all else fails to calm a troubled person, have these at your finger tips: A box of tissues (people will cry), maybe some chocolate, and a soft stuffed animals (I used a  small cute wombat). And then listen, remember when you were just starting out and try to be as helpful as possible.


Getting the “people thing” right with your lab group can result in some of your bigger intellectual breakthroughs where people of all sorts feel safe thinking big and doing their best.


Tissues and wombats help those who need your help


Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

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