By David Fay
I’m a huge fan of transparency—at least when it comes to my personal suffering. If I’m under the gun and feeling stressed, then the whole lab’s going to know about it, dammit. In truth, I see only benefits when it comes to making the workings of the lab as clear as possible. We may all have somewhat different responsibilities, but there’s no reason why everyone can’t understand how this entity we call “The Lab” comes together as a whole, and that includes my role as a PI. For one thing, it puts everyone on the same page and removes any questions about what I do for a living. After all, some of them may wind up doing my job someday or may reasonably decide not to after watching me at it for a few years! Pulling back the curtain, opening the books, being transparent—whatever you want to call it—also demonstrates your respect for other lab members. It’s like you’re saying, “I trust you to understand the situation, what we’re up against, and what I’m trying to do. I hope that you’ll work with me on this.”
Not that most of us had any role models for this kind of thing. My generation of scientists was blissfully ignorant, or maybe just plain ignorant, when it came to understanding how the bigger world of science worked. That included the basics of lab management and survival. What my advisors did in their offices was largely shrouded in mystery, and I rarely thought to wonder about it. But at some point during my tenure as a professor, I decided to come clean. Some of this may have been desperation. I could see the waterfall up ahead and knew that we needed to paddle harder to avoid going over the edge. So, I started spelling things out in group meetings. Showing timelines for where we were in the funding cycle, what we had for published papers so far, and where the unpublished work stood. Also, expectations for when various manuscripts or experimental goals will hopefully be completed. I put names to these outputs so that everyone will understand that they have responsibilities and an important role to play. I go over what we’ve been spending and the basics of how grant finances work. And I explain the possible scenarios regarding grant submissions, and re-submissions, and the effects this could have on everyone. I tell them what I think we need to accomplish in order to keep the operation afloat.
It’s not a weekly event or even a monthly one. Maybe twice a year I’ll go over my thinking. Probably when I’m most worried. And I also use it as an opportunity to highlight the good work that people, past and present, have been doing. I try and make the point that the lab exists only because of the people who came before. That without their work, there wouldn’t be a lab or training environment for the current group. And that the only way to pay back is to pay forward. It doesn’t resonate with everyone, I know that. But it seems to resonate with most. I used to draw something in PowerPoint that looked like a crude version of an “Our Goal” thermometer for fundraising, with ascending publications in red. I stopped doing that. Possibly because it seemed uninspiring. Possibly because it was depressing me.
I’ve been told by several lab members that they really appreciate these presentations and that no one has ever done this for them before. I suppose that those who don’t enjoy my state of the lab addresses keep quiet about it, and that’s OK too. I’ve come to see myself as not so much the owner of the lab but as the lab’s only lifetime employee. It’s my job to try and keep the operation going for as long as it makes sense to do so, so that it can continue to serve young scientists in their development. In fact, the longer I’ve done this job, the more I view training as the lab’s chief output. Fortunately, that training often leads to scientific advances and publications that justify the effort. And I still absolutely love the science and the discovery aspects. But I can’t control the science in the same way that I can ensure that good training takes place. So, I focus on that and hope that the science follows. And part of that training is to show everyone how a lab operates and what it takes to keep it going.