This week’s “research” group meeting, the bumbling biochemist was leading! (though not in the cape…). But who was I talking to? Who makes up a lab? And what’s this “group meeting” thing?“
And then, after this pre-show is the headline event – which can either be a “Research” talk or a “Journal” talk – we have a rotating schedule of who’s turn it is to lead group meeting and it switches off between someone giving a research talk one week and someone else giving a journal club talk the next.
On journal club weeks the person who’s “on” chooses a journal article they found interesting and/or relevant to their work and presents it to the rest of the lab for discussion. We’ll talk more about these later – but this week I was up for “Research” – this meant I was tasked with filling the rest of the lab in on what I’ve been up to – which has been A LOT.
Despite my sometimes-silly goofy geeky get-up I’m actually a serious scientist who works REALLY HARD in the lab and I’ve made a ton of progress since my last meeting so I had to cram a lot into this one (sorry for running late mates!) But I think it went pretty well. My audience seemed engaged, asked questions, etc. and I even got a literal “2 thumbs up” from my boss, head of the lab Leemor Joshua-Tor, afterwards.
These lab meetings can be nerve-wracking, but they’re also super helpful because colleagues often have great suggestions and insight – and it helps you to practice talking about your project to people not quite as familiar with it (when you work on it every day you can get so engrossed in it that it’s easy to dive into discussing results and forget that other people don’t know how you’ve set up the experiment and stuff – also, I make a lot of mutant proteins to test, and I give them “construct numbers” like 16488 – the shorthand helps me greatly but sometimes I’ll start referring to proteins by numbers that only make sense to me – so I have to make sure I go through and “decode” all this numbering in the slides I show!)
In addition to group meetings, which is just for our lab, we have “In-House” meetings where several labs come together and people from different labs talk. I have to give such an “in-house” next month… And then we have “labwide” seminars where people from different labs give talks in a bigger venue to people from all over campus.
But what do I mean by “my lab?” Who are the people that are in a lab? How’s it set up? It’s important to start with the caveat that eery lab is set up differently and has different “vibes” and dynamics so it’s REALLY important that you can “try out” a lab or at least talk to members before you join. One of the great things about biomedical science programs is that they typically let (require) you do several (usually 3) “rotations” before you choose a lab to do your thesis work in.
In traditional programs, you do these rotations while taking classes (you split time between them for a few months) but in the program I’m in (WSBS at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) we had all the courses condensed into an intensive first few months and then did several shorter (6 week) rotations where you focus full-time on research. I really liked this because it gave you a really great sense of what your life would be like in each of those labs.
The head of the lab is the PI. Depending on where you look, PI can stand for “Principal Investigator” or “Primary Investigator” (or isoelectric point, but that’s a whole different story…). They fund the lab (through grants) and have the final say over what experiments get done, what equipment and reagents (chemicals used for experiments) gets ordered, what papers get submitted, etc. The actual ordering is done by our lab manager and scheduling and grant-submitting by our scientific administrator (she also does scheduling and other administrator-y stuff for several other labs in the building).
When it comes to day-to-day experimental goings-on, some PIs are really “hands-on” while others are very “hands-off” – and great ones like mine will really cater their styles to best help their trainees (e.g. meet more often with those who want it and less often with those who find formal meetings stress-provoking, preferring instead to have more casual chats). Some PIs (especially those with relatively newly started-up labs with few members) still do “bench work” but a lot of the time they don’t have time because they have a TON of responsibilities – like writing grants and papers, going to meetings, giving talks around the world, etc.
CSHL is a research institution, not a university (we just have the small graduate school – and graduate students studying at the nearby StonyBrook can do research here too) so we don’t have undergraduate students. But during the summer sometimes we get “URPS” – undergrads working in our lab through Undergraduate Research Programs.
At universities, undergrads can be vital “year-round” members. In fact, when I was an undergrad I was at a school (St. Mary’s College of California) where we had the opposite grad/undergrad situation – we ONLY had undergrads – the school’s a small (but awesome) liberal arts school that doesn’t have graduate science programs. The first couple of years I did research, the lab I was in was literally just me and my professor, biochem prof Dr. Jeff Sigman. Towards the end we got a couple new students I got to help train – one, Mikayla, is now in an o-chem PhD program at UCLA and recently got her 1st paper published – so excited for her!
Coming from that tiny lab environment, it took me a while to get used to the terminology, hierarchy, etc. of “academia” (it helped a lot that I did a summer of research at UCSF after my junior year, which introduced me to people like “postdocs” and “research technicians”).
“Postdoc” is short for “postdoctoral fellow” or “postdoctoral researcher” and as the name implies, they’ve already earned their PhD (usually in a different lab) so they have more autonomy but also more is expected from them. Often this “more” includes mentoring undergraduate students.
People often take postdoc positions in labs that are related to what they’ve been doing, but not “too related” – instead they want to join a lab where they have something to bring (e.g. maybe they can help teach people how to purify proteins) and the lab has something to offer (e.g. maybe they can teach them how to synthesize pharmaceutical compounds to test against them). (Note: those are both super broad “skills” and usually it’s more specific :P).
Postdocs can last a couple years to even 10 years or so, and sometimes people take multiple postdoc positions (1 after another) often while trying to find a PI position for themselves (it’s a really tough market)
There are different names for scientists who (often having started as postdocs) really prove themselves in a lab, take on a ton of responsibilities, often have multiple projects going, etc.) We have 2 such “research investigators” in our lab – Elad & Jon and Elad has been my main mentor throughout my PhD journey.
Research technicians are the unsung heroes of the lab – these workers usually have at least bachelor’s degrees in science. Some are doing it to gain more research experience before applying to grad school or to kinda “try it out” before deciding if grad school is for them, whereas others do it more as an “end goal job” – there’s hierarchy even within technicianship, so techs can work their way up to getting more responsibility (and making more $).
Depending on the lab and the amount of experience the tech has, they might mostly do things like make stock solutions, manage tissue culture, etc. or they might be given whole projects to work on (in which case they’re sometimes called “research assistants”)
When I joined the lab we had 1 tech, then we got a second which didn’t work out well, then we got a really awesome second (John) and things went really smooth until the first left and poor John was left doing a TON of work while we tried to find new techs and get their visa statuses settled. But now we have 2 techs and a research assistant so things are looking up!
In undergrad I had to do everything myself including making media (liquid bacteria food), autoclaving things, (sticking things in a really hot high pressure oven to sterilize them), etc. But here we have a media maker, Adriana, who does that all – it’s SO AWESOME! But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of work to do – it just means I have more time to do other work and can focus on carrying out experiments.
A couple other types of folks you might find in a lab are “facilities managers” that often work for multiple labs (e.g. we have someone who runs our cryo-EM and another person in charge of our “home source” x-ray beamline & computational stuff.
This post is part of my weekly “broadcasts from the bench” for The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Be sure to follow the IUBMB if you’re interested in biochemistry! They’re a really great international organization for biochemistry.