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Lab Culture

A productive research lab is a collaborative space, a community of colleagues who foster both teamwork and independence through communication and cooperation. The bench should not be a lonely place.

When a new PhD student comes to Dr. Carl White's door and says, "I tried that thing you told me to do and I can't get it to work," the assistant professor of physiology and biophysics offers a crucial piece of advice for science and life: "I tell them that's going to happen a lot, and I encourage them to go and find someone who can help them figure it out," said Dr. White, a primary investigator whose lab focuses on intracellular calcium signaling.

"Very often, the business of doing science comes with a great deal of frustration and hurdles to overcome," Dr. White explained. "You can get stuck often. The way to get unstuck is to reach out to other people for help to troubleshoot the barriers. It's absolutely essential that you create a culture of community and collaboration."

Success in academic research depends on teamwork, collaboration and openness. The most productive research labs function like small communities, whose members help and support one another.

We're all traveling down this road. That's why mentorship is so important. That's why you create an environment where people ideally work together. That's why you engender participation. We need everyone's input to come up with the best ideas." -JANICE URBAN, PhD

Janice Urban, PhD, chairman of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, said she started forming her philosophy about culture in the research lab as a graduate student at Loyola University.

"My advisor set the tone that the only difference between you and me is I got on the road to science a little earlier," Dr. Urban said. "We're all traveling down this road. That's why mentorship is so important. That's why you create an environment where people ideally work together. That's why you engender participation. We need everyone's input to come up with the best ideas."

"The department feeds off the chairperson, their attitude," said Gina DeJoseph, senior research associate and manager of the Urban Lab, who has worked in research labs for 28 years at RFU. "Dr. Urban is very warm and that affects how I interact with students and colleagues. Most scientists are generous about sharing their knowledge. It's a culture thing. Everyone knows it's in their best interest to help others out."

If someone needs help with the wet lab assay ELISA, they might visit PhD student Jennifer Chang in the Hastings Lab, in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy. Anthony Hinrich, research associate in the Hastings Lab, is the go-to for new users of a powerful confocal microscope. Mr. Hinrich, in turn, recently learned a new technique for sectioning brains from Robert Marr, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience, who has also shared techniques like the Morris water maze, which tests memory in mice, across departments.

Ms. DeJoseph has worked for three primary investigators at RFU.

"All have been very family-oriented," she said. "They all cared about the people in their labs. That makes a big difference. It makes you feel appreciated."

"People actually make the lab more enjoyable," said fifth-year PhD student Nicole Woitowich, who studies the regulation of mammalian reproduction by neuropeptide and neuropeptide processing enzymes. She has worked in two departments and now in Dr. Urban's lab, where birthdays and accomplishments are celebrated with cake and lunches.

"We all promote each other, support and encourage each other," she said. "The best lab environment has open communication and collegiality. I think being friends with your coworkers makes you so much more invested in what you do, what they do."

Dr. Urban tells graduate students that it's important to get along with the people in their lab. "People come in and they can see the scientific environment," she said. "There's this kind of fit, where you can tell if you're going to be collaborating with people, whether it looks like the environment will work for you."

Michelle Hastings, PhD, associate professor and primary investigator in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, said that when she arrived at RFU in 2007, she recognized the importance of establishing an environment in which people work together.

"There's a little bit of magic to it," she said. "It has to do with people who choose the lab. The culture leads to people fitting in, or maybe it's the other way around.

"I've been in a lab where there was a miserable work environment, where people viewed the success of others as detracting from their own success," Dr. Hastings said. "Then ugly things can happen — undermining, sabotage, paranoia.

"In our lab, we're very supportive of each other," she said. "There's a sense that people are coming in and putting in a full day's work, striving for success. We put a big value on people taking initiative, being self-driven and motivated and helping each other out in a pinch."

"We definitely think about how people fit in the lab," said Francine Jodelka, manager of the Hastings Lab since 2008. "We're very dependent on each other for help and communication. If someone's not communicating or has a bad attitude, it can bring everyone down and affect the research.

"One thing we stress is that no matter what your title, everyone is equal in the lab," she said. "We share chores. We expect everyone to chip in. Egos don't work here."

As the Hastings Lab has turned to investigating mouse models of Alzheimer's disease, Mr. Hinrich has learned and taught his colleagues new research techniques. He said a good lab is a mix of community and independence.

"If a colleague is having an issue, it's very possible someone among us has encountered the same problem," he said. "It's good to regroup and make suggestions about what worked for us and what didn't. Cohesiveness is definitely important. You don't want someone struggling with the same problem you already have struggled with. You want to know what people are working on and how you can help them. But it's also important for everyone to feel a sense of personal responsibility and the independence to work on your own and try something new."

Very often, the best ideas come when you're sitting having a conversation." -CARL WHITE, PhD

First-year PhD students like Jessica Centa rotate through several research labs before deciding which is the best fit for their graduate study. Jessica enjoyed working on Batten disease in collaboration with David Mueller, PhD, in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Hastings Lab, where she found camaraderie in the "choreboard" and the thoughtful way investigators make extra agarose gels, used to separate DNA and RNA fragments by size.

"If the lab is a nice community, it can make the research more efficient," said Jessica, who's now working in the Urban Lab. "It also makes for a very successful lab. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. If one person gets published, everyone's happy."

It takes a strong community to support scientists and develop future researchers who can generate ideas, share them and collaborate to see their ideas through.

"The trick is to avoid isolation as much as possible," Dr. White said. "Very often, the best ideas come when you're sitting having a conversation. You're talking about the science, talking about the problem. Suddenly, you get an idea that didn't occur to you before. It's easy to retreat into your lab. But I tell my students and postdocs to engage as much as possible. The most successful students are the ones who have the broadest networks."

This story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Helix.

Posted June 23, 2016
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