Lab culture

How we do science

For me running a successful lab means not only meeting scientific benchmarks — getting tough experiments to work, effectively communicating our results at meetings and in papers, getting grants and securing my students and postdocs their next positions — but also doing science in a way that is consistent with my values and what I enjoy. This makes the process of doing science a joy so my satisfaction isn’t only dependent on getting good results. I’ve found this to be especially important because science is conducted in a highly critical culture where the delays between successes can be long and hard-won. Here are a few things that I value very highly: a lack of hierarchy, intellectual rigor, balance between work and other aspects of life, clear communication, teaching, mentoring, and a good sense of humor. I was incredibly lucky to have people join our group who believe similarly, and we’ve developed a lab culture that reflects those values, among others. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my career so far to have the students in my lab nominate me for a mentoring award, so we must be doing something right.

Giving feedback

Our profession requires us to evaluate one another’s work rigorously, and in a wide variety of circumstances such as papers, grants and presentations. Devoting time and attention to give feedback is generous, but giving and receiving feedback can be emotionally difficult if it’s perceived as aggressive or dismissive. We strive to give specific, productive feedback to each other and our colleagues — the type of feedback that you would most like to receive yourself. These guidelines are sometimes helpful: 1) describe something the author/presenter should keep; 2) describe something the author/presenter should throw away; 3) describe something the author/presenter should improve. It’s also useful to think about separating your comments about the content of the work (the ideas and data), from the presentation of the work (how they were communicated, verbally or graphically).  We summarize our guidelines for giving feedback in Figure 1 of our article on Yearly Planning Meetings.

Annual planning meetings

At the beginning of every calendar year, we have one-on-one planning meetings. The goal for these meetings is to review goals from the previous year, celebrate what was accomplished, figure out how to accomplish what was left undone, and to set new goals for the upcoming year. Making goals concrete, writing them down, and reviewing them gives everyone a chance to see how far they’ve come, and also to remind ourselves of things that may have slipped by the wayside. Informal follow-up meetings throughout the year help to prioritize time and solve pressing technical or conceptual issues.  We describe our process and why we think it’s valuable in this article – Yearly Planning Meetings: Individualized Development Plans Aren’t Just More Paperwork.

Lab retreat and portraits

At the end of the year, right before the winter holidays, we have a lab retreat.  We spend two days together, talking about the big picture issues in our field and celebrating the year with dinner, a goofy lab portrait and a yankee swap gift exchange.  It’s a time for us to zoom out and think about how we might incorporate new concepts, questions and techniques into our work.  It’s also a time to just enjoy each other’s company and wind down before the new year.  The annual lab portrait has become an integral part of the retreat.  When we come up with ideas, we don’t shoot anything down. I learned this way of brainstorming while doing improv comedy at Yale — sometimes it’s called the “Yes, and” rule, to contrast it with a negative response such as “No, but.” You can see the results of never saying no in the unicorn t-shirt photo, which started out being just about bad shirts, but then also ended up being about high-school stereotypes, and Sherlock Holmes.

Journal club format

We have journal club every week, over tea and snacks. Our goal is to survey the literature relevant to our work. We start the discussion by going around the table — each person says in a few sentences what they liked and didn’t like about the paper, and one point for discussion, which is written on the board. After we get all the way through the group, we look over the topics to prioritize them. This format has a few advantages. First, it requires everyone to participate, both by reading the paper and offering up an opinion and a discussion topic. Second, it keeps our discussion focused on only the most relevant parts of the paper, so we save time. Third, the list on the board allows the moderator to manage the discussion easily by making sure that we cover all topics.

Group meeting format

The goal of our group meeting is for the presenter to get useful ideas from the group, not to summarize progress. Everyone starts their group meeting by stating what their goal for the meeting is, and which aspects they would like for people to focus on. Lab members can present the current state of their project, a paper that’s relevant for their work, an upcoming talk, or brainstorm about the structure of their upcoming paper or grant. It’s informal — sometimes people use slides, sometimes they just use the whiteboard.

Communal space

Our space was remodeled to my specifications in 2008 and was actually the first LEED certified lab at Harvard. Our lab includes wet lab benches and desks, a light and airy computational room, and a break room as an integral part of the lab. The fact that there are big windows from the computational space to the wet lab makes those two spaces feel connected, rather than isolated from one another. The break room is surrounded by whiteboards, has space for making tea, and a table where we hold journal club, do crosswords and celebrate birthdays. Because it’s on the corner with windows looking into the hallway, people from other labs can also see when we’re in there and stop by for a visit.