Do you have a lab philosophy?

Recently our lab group spent a bit of time deciding on exactly how we want to interact with one another. What is this  whole lab group business all about? What are the rules?

My father taught me about academia over thousands of dinner table conversations, including this one at his 90th birthday.

My father taught me about academia over thousands of dinner table conversations, including this one at his 90th birthday.

What are the guidelines? Do we have an overall philosophy? We want to figure out cool science and learn how to do that and to discover. We hope this document will make it easier for a new person to thrive in our group. I hope you have a similar document. I certainly looked at a number of these before presenting the group with an early draft of this one. Feel free to take what works for you.  I like having the three different sections and feel they do different things. We give everyone a copy and have them sign one, so they can’t say they didn’t see it. We reinforce certain things verbally (back up plans, for example).

Here it is:


Queller/Strassmann Group: Philosophy, Guidelines, and Rules

updated 11 July 2016 (Copyright CC 4.0 International, ), use, modify, with attribution and maintaining sharing.


Welcome! We are at Washington University in St. Louis. We study social evolution and mutualisms. We are interested in how natural selection acts on traits that influence interactions, which means we mostly use theory from kin selection and symbiosis. We focus on social amoebae, Dictyostelium, and their microbial affiliates. We use observation of natural clones, theoretical modeling, microscopy, fluorescence, experimental evolution, molecular evolution, knockout libraries, many cell biology techniques, microfluidics, genomics, next generation sequencing, and phylogenetics as tools and approaches.


Principal Investigators: David Queller,

Joan Strassmann,

Laboratory head: Debbie Brock,

Technician: Usman Bashir,

For others, see personnel sheet or web page,


We have a blog,


Structure of research and learning in the Queller/Strassmann group.

  1. Lab meeting is Wednesdays at 9:00 in McDonnell 412. We alternate between talks and discussing articles. Most current schedule is posted in break room and web page.
  2. Lunch in the break room is generally 12:00 to 1:00. All are welcome.
  3. Meet with Joan and Dave. We have an open door policy and are happy to talk any time. We will set up meetings periodically. We are usually at lunch and are happy to talk.
  4. Sign out on break room calendar if you are going to be out of the office one or more days. This is a permanent record of time out of the lab, which Joan keeps.
  5. Get shared information. This includes the Dicty manual, Excel sheets of clones, shared files.
  6. Undergraduate Research Perspectives Tuesdays at 5pm, academic year.
  7. Undergraduate Summer Meetings are undergrad only, run this summer by Junior Erica Ryu.
  8. Seminars are worth going to: Monday 16:00 departmental seminar, Thursday 16:00 Ecology and Evolution seminar, alternate Fridays 16:00 Bioforum, see all here: other seminars on med campus, DBBS, here: or Anthropology, or Psychology,



  1. Ask and answer big questions.
  2. Research and discovery are really fun.
  3. Do careful science, with controls, appropriate statistics, and alternative hypotheses.
  4. Finish your work through to publication in a timely but thorough manner.
  5. Learn the natural history of your organisms.
  6. Understand the history of your question.
  7. Read and re-read the literature. You will take away different things from additional readings.
  8. Learn new techniques, lab, field, genomics, cell biology, evolution, statistics, modeling.
  9. Writing is essential; is best learned by doing it frequently.
  10. Never lose anything because it was not backed up properly, daily in the cloud.
  11. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.
  12. People work best when they have a say in what they do.
  13. Collaboration is synergistic and leads to great science.
  14. Ask questions often; brainstorm with others on anything new.
  15. Your time in this group is one of discovery. Make the most of it!



  1. Read the literature. You need to stay up to date with what is going on. Subscribe to tables of contents. Set up alerts on Google Scholar for topics that interest you, kin selection, endosymbiosis, Dictyostelium, Burkholderia, people’s names, or whatever you like. Read the abstracts as they come in and read a paper or more every day.
  2. Design careful experiments. Consider alternative hypotheses. Run power analyses on dummy datasets. Do all the right controls. “To call in the statistician after the experiment is done may be no more than asking him to perform a post-mortem examination: he may be able to say what the experiment died of.” Ronald Fisher.
  3. Visualize your hypotheses and your results effectively. Become a master of clear figures, appropriate to the data and show distributions.
  4. Write your papers as soon as possible. Getting your work done and out there is essential. The best plan is to write at least once a week, ideally every day. Write an introduction and methods before you begin and modify them as you go along.
  5. Write up methods and protocols as you do them and share. This is particularly important for undergrads and people new to the group, and will help with ultimate paper writing.
  6. Accept mentoring and be a mentor and teacher. We all have a lot to learn and can do this by helping others and learning ourselves. Mentoring a student is a responsibility. Keep careful track of your students and ask us for mentoring advice.
  7. Ask questions all the time! Remember the Star Trek quote: “I respect an officer who is prepared to admit ignorance and ask a question, rather than one who, out of pride, will blunder blindly forward” -Capt. Jean-Luc
  8. Be helpful. You might know something that could be helpful to someone else that you realize before they do. Take the initiative and talk to them. Science is not a zero-sum game. Careers might be zero-sum because there are only so many positions. But even that is not a competition against your labmates. It’s a competition against everyone and one of the best ways to compete is cooperative collaboration with your labmates.
  9. Learn new things. Take MOOCs, talk to other lab members and learn specific things all the time, whether they be techniques, approaches, or something else, planning active learning is always good. Take workshops regularly and sign up early:
  10. Address authorship issues early. Authorship in a collaborative lab group can be challenging. You should ideally be first author on work you lead and write. There can be ties and they should be discussed and resolved in ways fair to all. When in doubt, include someone as an author. Joan and Dave have final say on all authorship issues.
  11. Talk to people outside our research group. There are people outside our group who know things we do not know and they can help.
  12. Apply for funding. There are funding opportunities available for all levels of researchers from undergrad to postdoc. Apply for funding whenever possible. Be sure to workshop any proposals with the group and to give them to Joan and Dave with plenty of time for review. Grad students can apply for DDIG, NRSA, GRFP and others. Postdocs can apply for NRSA and sometimes for NSF or LSRF and others. There is also Sigma Xi, and others. Maybe someone can find a list!



  1. Be safe at all times. Stay up to date on safety training. Dress safely. Read equipment manuals and SDS No flame should be left on for a second without you being in front of it. Do not push Bunsen burners back under the lights. Do not eat or drink in the lab. Help others to stay safe by telling anyone immediately if they are doing something unsafe. Report any safety issue, large or small.
  2. Treat everyone with respect. A friendly laboratory atmosphere is essential for productive, fun research. There are no stupid questions and everyone is deserving of support and help.
  3. Benefit from the synergy of working when other people are in the group. We do not want to tell you exactly what your hours should be, but they should overlap with normal business hours daily because cooperation and collaboration are facilitated in this way. If there are problems we will give you more specific instructions.
  4. Clean up after yourself and leave all areas neat and clean. It is very important when working in shared areas that you do not leave a mess anywhere. Areas of particular concern are the balances, the gel rig areas and other common areas. Everything should be labeled with your name and date.
  5. Do not begin a project without a careful plan approved by the PIs. This plan should be written and discussed with Joan and Dave. The work should address an important scientific question, should show deep familiarity of the background literature, show through power analyses that the sample sizes will be appropriate, alternative hypotheses considered, and the methods are feasible. Play with the system to be sure you can do the things you want to do, but the project needs discussion and approval. This is crucial for avoiding problems in study design or inadvertent overlap among lab members. The design can take the form of part of the paper, intro and methods, for example, or a small grant proposal.
  6. Write everything in your laboratory notebook. Your laboratory notebook should be a complete reflection of what you do in the laboratory. It should contain what you do, why you did it, and what you thought about the results. If you choose to do this using your computer, you must print out your work and put it in a loose leaf or other lab notebook at least once a month. Every page should be dated in a way that makes month and day clear (e.g. 6/VI/16, with month roman, or spelled out 6 June 2016. Scientific notation is day month year.
  7. Protect the integrity of your physical samples. If you have collected wild clones, isolated DNA, made labeled transformants, or have any other physical sample, make sure you have a list that includes where the samples are. Ideally they will be in two different minus eighty freezers. Everything should be labeled carefully, with your name, date, and other information as specified for your material. All material remains in our lab, though you may take copies.
  8. All samples, transformants, and lab notebooks remain in our laboratory. Feel free to take a copy of samples, transformant clones, or your lab notebook, but originals remain with us. Lists of your material go to Joan and to the lab server.
  9. Enter clone information in the database and give us 3 vials of each. We are starting a database in which we will have all clones, transformants, bacteria and the like in the freezer in 2 places with everything catalogued. By the end of the summer or if you leave the group, we should have physical samples and entries in the master database.
  10. Protect your data and writing. You must have a clear, automatic back up system, at least daily, and off-site, including cloud back ups for data and Time Machine for computers, or equivalent.
  11. Pay attention to your email. There are many ways of communicating. Use them to your advantage, but you must be responsible for anything sent by email.
  12. Do the trimesterly reports. Three times a year, we ask for an updated CV, a reflection on what you have done in the last 4 months and what you plan to do in the next 4 months. At this time you should give us lists of materials stored and bring your lab notebook to the discussion.
  13. Sign out on the calendar. Let others know in advance if you are not in on any day. The group has worked well without a formal vacation policy, but this could change if there are problems.
  14. Make sure that anyone you are mentoring is practicing good science and following all the rules and guidelines.
  15. Name any file you send to Joan or Dave beginning with your last name.
  16. If there is a problem of any kind, or something you do not know or understand, let one of us know. We are committed to making our laboratory an excellent place for learning and discovery.

Additional rules for undergrads.

  1. Hours counted as paid must be on research. You may not do homework, read material unrelated to the lab, eat lunch, or any such things while being paid by us. You can only work 37.5 hours per week for pay in the summer.. Since we want our lab to be a warm community for you, you may do outside work like homework in the break room but not during lunch hours, 12:00 to 1:30. We love for you to eat lunch with us.
  2. Always be really sure you understand your project. Research is most fun if you understand it, what the big question is, the specific question, and how the actual research will address it. Keep learning and research gets more and more fun.
  3. Take the undergrad courses, Undergraduate Research Perspectives, Bio 4935, and the summer writing and meeting. These courses are required if you are doing research in our group. Weekly writing of 300 words on something scientific, ideally something on your project are due to Joan Wednesdays at midnight.
  4. Participate in the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring, and give an 8 minute talk on your research at the end of the summer in our group.
  5. Be on time. If you have an emergency, let your mentor know as soon as possible, certainly before you are late.
  6. Tell us if you break or contaminate something. It is a normal part of learning to break things and inadvertently contaminate resources. Try not to, but if you do, tell us immediately.


Additional rules for grad students and postdocs.

  1. It is your responsibility to keep abreast of the requirements of your program or visa. This includes teaching, required courses, timely committee meetings, attending seminars and generally being a good grad student citizen. As part of our continuing mentoring of you, we expect you to choose to TA for Joan or Dave for your first required TA assignment. You can choose to do your second TA for Joan or Dave or someone else consistent with your career goals.
  2. Learn how to mentor undergrads well. They should have a big question, should learn a set of techniques and then be given increasing levels of autonomy. They should not watch you do stuff except for first time learning. Get advice from more senior people in the group. A second or third year undergrad should be working on a project they can do largely on their own. Do not take on a new summer undergrad if you are going to be gone too much.
  3. Figure out how to publish two papers a year, at least after the first 3 years of graduate school. This is going to be challenging, but one can be something you take the lead on and the other can be something you help with. This is to your benefit. Always be alert to new discoveries or ideas that can lead to a paper. The more you write, read, and run statistics, the more quickly your research results can be transformed into a compelling publication.



I have read this document and will ask questions if there are things I do not understand. I am up to date on all safety issues. I will treat everyone with respect.

Printed Name: _________________________________ Date:______________________________

Signature: ________________________________________________________


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Group leadership, Life in the DNA lab, Mentoring, Undergraduates, Your lab group and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Do you have a lab philosophy?

  1. Alex Wilson says:

    Joan, Do you know of labs that have “vacation policies”? What do “vacation policies” look like?

    • Our vacation policy is that you must put it on the calendar. I can’t second guess people from so many countries. You can take a week or 6 weeks. It does not end up impacting your publication rate much. This is for grad students and postdocs. Technicians who clock hours and potentially get overtime simply follow the university rules.

  2. Pingback: Friday links: Choose Your Own…study organism, lab philosophies, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Thank you, Joan. As relatively new faculty I have been spending a lot of time on not only physically organizing my lab, but also organizing my philosophies on data curation/management, lab and field practices, interactions, meetings, and lab pets (so far two fiddler crabs). Both are a slow evolution with many decisions (Do rubber bands and razor blades and dry-erase markers go in the same drawer? What should a lab meeting look like?), but your blog is a tremendously helpful and this post is particularly timely. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Friday links: ESA award winners, lab philosophies, teaching stats visually, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Pingback: You want to do research but how do you begin? | Sociobiology

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