What did you do last year? What are you going to do this year? Where does your work fit in with the rest of the lab group? A great way to find out without missing anything is to give a state of the lab address. My colleague Liz Haswell shared her excellent address with me recently. I’ll go through it using the Frequently Asked Questions format.
What should I tell my group about the big picture? This is one of the most important things to share because it is not part of the daily routine of getting the experiments to work, ordering supplies, doing the statistical analyses, and all the tasks of actual data collection. It is crucial because only by keeping your thoughts on the big picture will you know what problems are cool features or when it is time to abandon something. Remind your team of what the big questions are. I like to think about what we’ll know in 5 years, maybe 10, if everything goes well. We submit to the daily drudgery because we are very curious about the ultimate meaning of what we discover.
Do I really want to tell everyone about the funding? I have had colleagues that treat funding like dirty underwear, something secret, partly shameful, by no means to be shared. I disagree. If we are to raise independent researchers, we need to share the information on funding, just as we should share how it is we manage to run a successful lab. Liz did this in a really excellent way, with a timeline showing the duration of current funding and when additional proposals will go in. If you see this graph, you won’t wonder what she is doing right before one of those deadlines. She also shared a detailed table on who was being paid from which grant. This takes the mystery out of this all-important side of research, the money that gets the big questions answered.
How much detail should I put on what exactly we are funded to do? Usually proposals have a handful of goals, or aims. List these and maybe some sub points, and discuss where the work stands on each of them. Liz had one slide for each funded proposal listing all the aims. For example, here is one of them: “Use the Arabidopsis mechanosensitive channel MSL10 as a model system for the study of ozone exposure on the function of membrane proteins.” I put a little more detail into each because I was covering less material. The point is, this is where you show the direction of the lab’s research. The material in your funded proposal has been vetted by a panel of experts. Make sure the team actually doing the work is on target.
How much should I tell about future directions not yet funded? Your lab group will want to hear about this too. In particular it will be exciting for them to hear about new collaborations you might be developing. You should be thinking several years out, past the current proposal, so let the group know about that side of things too.
What should I say about the match between proposed research and actual research? It is no secret that we do not necessarily complete everything in our grant proposals. I once heard that we have already done about a third of the work; we will do another third and will move in other directions before we complete the final third. After all, this is what research is like. What we do next is dependent on what we discover. Our proposals are our best guess as to what would be most exciting to do. They are not the final word. They can be changed. NSF is really encouraging about this. If you have funding from other agencies, particularly private ones, be sure to follow the guidelines.
Should people have side projects? Everyone loves a side project, particularly if it is collaborative. It is an escape from the main project, something special, perhaps more risky, perhaps more fun. Liz had a whole list of small projects she had going. This is like seed corn, where new ideas can bloom, where difficult projects become feasible. It is the other basket for your eggs, the back entrance to the burrow, the entertainment. Coddle and encourage size projects.
How about publishing? If you don’t publish the work you did, you might as well not have done it. I suppose that isn’t always true, because there can be a training angle, but it is generally true. Liz had an impressive list of publication goals for 2013 as her last slide. This is where you can encourage people to wrap things up. Every project can take a little more tweaking. Don’t be the person that cannot let go of things. Get the work out there when a chunk of it is done. If you have small misgivings about something, just be sure to be clear in the methods as to what exactly you did. Of course large misgivings would call for a delay in publication. Don’t forget that you and your group should be writing some reviews that teach others how to think about your field. Liz had a nice one on her list.
Is it all work and no play? The happy lab group has chances for bonding, for becoming friends outside of work. This can take the form of dinners, hikes, or other kinds of outings. You can also combine work and play with retreats and workshops with meals and talks. Make it clear to your lab group that you do not work night and day so you don’t scare them out of this wonderful career!