We are an international lab, with members from a wide range of cultures. While the similarities between cultures far outweigh the differences, on multiple occasions the small differences that do exist, have led to inefficiency, tensions within the team, and poor communication.
As such, in 2021 we took the decision that it would be useful to have a “summary” of the Lab Phylosophy: to help new students and staff understand how the lab (and lab head) operates, to explicitly manage expectations, and establish some guiding principles to maximise performance.
This is not a fixed document. The Lab culture evolves with the group, even if it will nonetheless be constrained (or selected) towards maximizing research efficiency.
General Lab Phylosophy
- It’s your project – Regardless of seniority, everyone is encouraged to take ownership of their project. This means that you are responsible for your project and for its progress. This encourages a higher level of engagement (beyond simply the immediate work) and personal pride of the project’s progress. A consequence of this philosophy is that you are expected to become the expert on your project. In fact, I expect members of the lab to eventually know more than me – PhDs after 2.5 years, post-docs after 1 year.
- It’s your project – This is such an important point that it needs to be said twice. You are expected to proactively look for solution for experimental problems, to proactively look for future applications. You will not be told what to do and you should not expect that. If you don’t know what to do, ask.
- Time is precious – You may think that there is enough time; there isn’t. For clarity: you don’t have enough time to read all the papers, you do not have enough time to do all the experiments. You will not be told how to organise your day or what to do step by step. Most group members have their own time management techniques and I can coach you on my own preferred ones. If you need help with this, ask. Also, don’t waste time.
- We are professional scientists – I don’t do this as a hobby and students that behaved as if research was a hobby, have not done well in the group. I am a professional scientist and I am training professional scientists. This is a professional environment. We may be easy going, we may appear relaxed at times, and you may even make real friends within the lab. Professional attitute and behaviour are still expected at all times.
- Don’t suffer in silence – This operates on both academic and personal levels. It’s not efficient to struggle alone with experimental failures. If an experiment fails twice (so that you rule out error), look for help from colleagues or from me. We are a multidisciplinary lab with a wide range of expertises: someone, somewhere, has had to fight the same problem at some point. Similarly, research is hard on the mental side as well: Reach out to me (or to colleagues) if you are struggling. Also, if there is noticeable tension between lab members, let me know – you’re not snitching on them, you are giving me the opportunity to plan interventions before crisis points that affect the morale of the whole group.
- Shit happens – Even when we are careful, even when we plan everything, sometimes things go wrong. It can be ordering a reagent without need, or dumping an expensive reagent down the sink, or even contaminating a common stock. We don’t seek to blame. We seek to identify and solve the problem. The goal has to be to get back to being productive (for all lab members affected). However, my policy is that the same shit shouldn’t happen twice.
- Respect your equipment – Well-maintained, calibrated equipment when used correctly maximises the quality and quantity of the data we can generate. That is essential for us to do good science. Equipment is expensive (and even more expensive to repair), takes long to acquire, and should last >10 years. Between equipment and personnel, equipment is a better investment. Therefore, learn how to use each and every equipment available before you use it. Ensure that the equipment is clean and ready for the next user. Report any user that is not being careful with the equipment.
- Understand your equipment – The data we generate are the most important aspect of generating good science. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand how the data are being generated and whether they are reliable, robust and well-documented. I expect everyone to understand how each of our equipment works (i.e. principles, data types, main components) and how far we can push it (i.e. detection limits, data analysis).
- We are a team – We cannot compete against the huge American groups with 50 people. We cannot compete against groups that have multi-million EUR research funding turnover. However, we can compete with them by working together. That is not always possible at the project level, but there are smaller areas where working together is almost as important. We are all responsible to keep the lab running, clean, well-organised and efficient. I expect everyone to contribute to this (including lab rotas).
- A good lab is clean – You are responsible to clean after yourself and ensure that any resource is ready for the next person to use. If you think we can improve on something, say it.
- Last 10% – In line with the other phylosophies above, do not allow reagents to end without replacement. You may have enough for your experiment but it may lead to long delays for the next person. Therefore, if you are using any lab resource towards its last 10%, order (or ask someone to order) a replacement. We barely have enough time to do all the research we want, therefore any further delays hurt everyone.
Additional advice given by current group members:
- Set goals – It is useful to plan experimental goals and to plan goals for different timescales. Plan for the short-term AND plan for the long-term. If all goals are immediate, we may not be doing the best science. If all goals are months away, nothing gets done.
- Not every paper needs to be a Nature/Science paper – Not every finding is going to revolutionise the world, but that doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of publication. Get things done, get a story together (see MPU below).
- Improve your English – We speak English in the group and good communication is essential for integration. In addition, academic English is considerably more complex than the day-to-day English used in the lab. KUL, through the ILT, offers a range of language courses. Take them, get better.
My own phylosophy:
- One-on-one meetings – As a matter of principle, I would like to have at least a brief meeting with each person in the group (regardless of seniority) every week. I am interested in your well-being. I am interested in making your science as efficient as possible. The one-on-one meetings are also a managerial tool. They are not long enough to cover everything and they are not long enough to solve every problem, therefore, contribute to the meetings by being prepared. Collate your results that you want to show and discuss, make a list of topics we should be covering in the meeting. While I have my own lists of topics to cover, do not rely on my remembering relevant discussion points (e.g. doctoral portfolios, deadlines, grant applications, future career decision points).
- Results over presenteeism – I champion efficiency. If efficiency is best achieved by not being in the lab, do it. If you are a morning person and most efficient in the morning, start early. I have no requirement for people to be in the lab at a certain time or to stay in the lab a certain number of hours. The counterpoint to this philosophy is that I want to see progress (not necessarily results): better ideas, better experiments, better problems. Better results are obviously also welcomed.
- Minimal hierarchy – We are a multidisciplinary lab, therefore titles do not mean we have the right skill to solve a given problem. As such, I try to minimise hierarchy within the group, relying on individual expertise rather than on how many letters people drag after their name. A consequence is that I expect things to be done because they are right, good, or useful. Not because of someone’s rank. In saying that, this is not a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship and at times, I may choose to enforce a certain direction or structure, which I expect lab members to get behind.
- MPU (Minimal Publication Unit) – I look at every project (from as early as possible) trying to identify what is the minimal publishable unit. It helps focus on the objective (publication) and to create priorities in project management. We all need publications to stay doing research because publications make it easier to raise money and the more money we have, the more risk we can take on research. I find high-risk high-return ideas exciting and developing them almost the sole reason to stay in this profession.
- Managerial style – My most comfortable style is to be a macromanager. I trust all lab members to be able to organise themselves and to want to do their project. I can operate with different managerial styles for limited amounts of time but I’d rather replace the underperforming team member.
- In loco parentis – Life is tough. Research is tough. For some of you, this may well be the first time you have been away from home for an extended period of time. Many of you may have come to Belgium and therefore lack even an extended support network (i.e. friends). Where possible I will support you when things get rough – even if I have to feed you. I am happy to give advice on topics that go beyond science: I may recommend professional help; I may also pull your ear.
- Silo mode – At times, I will be working against a deadline or trying to finish a complex piece of work. I describe those times as being in “silo mode”: needing to work alone and uninterrupted for substantial periods of time. Push back if it is something urgent, but don’t expect smiles.
- 5 pm – I have multiple roles, two of them being a parent and a husband. Consequently, I try to keep predictable working hours: often arriving around 9 am and leaving around 6 pm. As such, I would rather avoid long meetings starting after 5 pm. There is a further reason for this: I am a morning person and my mind is at its most efficient in the morning. If you want to discuss a problem after 5 pm, I would encourage sending it to me via Slack or email. I work at home and I can start looking at the problem when the brain is at its freshest.