A family portrait – oops, that’s the lab team, not a family

Last week we took the afternoon off to take a new lab photo. We wanted to have something that showed not just who we are but also where we are, so we positioned ourselves casually in front of the Sydney Opera House.

It was great getting the team together and heading out with a specific purpose – posing for more than enough photos and then having lunch together.

Producing a lab photo made me think about family portraits and the ways that labs and families are related but different.

I’m no expert in anthropology but I’d say humans are well adapted to learning within families. Labs are often about the same size as extended families, with elders and youngsters.

Additionally, the youngsters experience lab life during that very important period when they are flexing their wings and preparing to leave the nest of their own family. So, labs are a good half-way house for those embarking along the road to independence and maturity.

This is a great thing about labs and is one thing that makes doing a PhD better for some people than diving straight into the workplace.

Labs can be very supportive communities in which to learn.

The postdocs can be like wise aunts and uncles, senior PhD students can be like elder siblings, and new PhD students, rotation or honours students, are younger siblings. It’s normal to expect a bit of sibling rivalry but overall most people are very good to their peers and I’d say students learn as much from one another as they do from reading the literature or attending conferences or listening to me talking about the good old days.

Of course, labs are not really families. They are work places and each person has a very specific project or task to do. The projects are all carefully designed to be independent from one another but if any project works well then everyone in the lab benefits indirectly – as successful labs continue to attract resources and people from successful labs are often offered great opportunities when they ultimately decide to move on.

So there is a sort of teamwork aspect to labs that is related to their purpose which makes them different from families. But the teamwork is of a special kind. Labs are more like cricket teams than football teams.

Teamwork is sort of funny in cricket. Everyone plays a part and the whole team works together in fielding but each batter or bowler essentially does their own thing and it is very rare for people to actually work towards a common purpose as they would in a football team.

Another difference between labs and families is that lab heads really aren’t like parents. In some ways they are teachers, in other ways they are bosses. Perhaps they are like army captains in the field. They are responsible for navigating through dangerous territory in semi-darkness, using their experience to suggest the best paths, and ensuring that no one is left behind. They can’t carry packs for others but they can provide coaching and encouragement, and they can shield people a bit from the many disappointments and failures that occur in science, if only by explaining that failed Western blots are inevitable and nothing to worry about.

Lab heads are also responsible for putting food on the table – they are the bread winners. It is hard to communicate just how much lab heads, and of course all independent researchers think about bread winning. The research funding systems and fellowship processes are a constant pre-occupation. Providing stable resourcing is absolutely essential if one is to compete at the forefront of science. Lab heads care about their own success but they also develop a strong interest in the success of their charges so they want to secure resources to help their students succeed. Most of us spend too much time thinking and talking about funding and not enough time talking about the literature and future experiments.

In recent years science has become more competitive. It is not that there is less money but there are more and more people competing for roughly the same amount of money. This has triggered a rethink of how funds, fellowships, project, program and other grants are awarded, that has led to a period of heightened uncertainty.

I expect that there will be consequences for how science works. Some people will take shelter in larger groups, doing big science, and others will stay in smaller labs, but aim to do projects that are less reliant on constant high-level funding. There’ll probably be more in vitro or in silico work and less long term mouse work in the smaller labs.

There may also be some migrations. For centuries families have moved to follow work and opportunities and it is possible that labs will spring up more in some types of institutions (be that in universities, research institutes, government research agencies, hospitals etc) and more in some localities than others.

It is hard to predict the future. Despite the sense of doom that some people are drawn to, generally most individuals seem to muddle through irrespective of the global upheavals that unfold around them. As each scientific field matures there will be changes but I expect the age old system where elders pass on knowledge to the next generation in small teams is likely to continue and lab life will remain an important part of the modern world.




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