Lab structure: who’s who and what do we do?! I had some cool experiments planned out for today, then looked at the weather forecast and saw it was supposed to snow. Not a lot of snow, but with unreliable weather forecasting you really never know… Anyways, I decided to push my experiments back a day and work from home today. I’ve been needing to do this anyway because I need to prepare for giving “group meeting” next week where I present to my lab mates (over Zoom these days). Group meetings are just one aspect of lab life that may be unfamiliar to some (I know it was news to me when I had my first experience doing research at a research institution!) So I thought it would be a good time to review some things about the basic layout and terminology of academic labs. 

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 (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s School of Biological Sciences) 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 “Principle 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) get 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 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. 

I’m a PhD candidate at CSHL on Long Island in New York. The “candidate” title indicates that I have passed my courses and my qualifying exam and am now working full-time on my thesis research, which will culminate in a dissertation (written-up epic saga of my PhD research) and an oral thesis defense. PhD programs typically take 4-7 years. I’m in my 5th year and hoping to graduate this year if my research will cooperate with that time frame!

Once I graduate, the next step for me will be a postdoctoral fellowship, more commonly referred to as a “postdoc.” “Postdoc” is also used as a noun to refer to the people who are doing a postdoc, 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 and graduate 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).

My background is protein biochemistry and structural biology (studying how molecules’ 3D shapes complement their functions), but I would really love to do a postdoc where I can get more chemical synthesis experience. Thus, I’m hoping to join a chemical biology lab. Chemical biology is a more chemistry-focused version of biochemistry (which focuses more on the proteins, etc. instead of the small molecules). I also would like to get more teaching training, so I’m looking into an NIH-funded program called IRACDA that pairs postdocs with teachers at minority-serving colleges for mentorship and experience. People have advised me that should start reaching out to prospective postdoc labs about a year before you’re planning to graduate, so I’m starting to do this. And it’s really scary! I struggle greatly with self-confidence so “cold-calling” (well, emailing CVs and cover letters) is super intimidating….

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).

Speaking of the market, you by no means “have” to do a postdoc, and many people don’t. It’s mainly done by people who want to go into academia. Many people go straight from PhDs into jobs in industry (pharma or biotech companies, etc.), consulting, science writing, science policy, etc. There are lots of jobs outside of academia! But my goal is to become a research professor at a small primarily-undergraduate institution (PUI), so a postdoc is the next step. 

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.) – these include “research investigators,” “staff scientists,” etc. (though not all started out in the lab as postdocs). One such “research investigator” who used to work in our lab, Elad, has been my main non-PI mentor throughout my PhD journey. 

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!

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”).

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 (concentrated versions of solutions that you can mix and match and dilute to make custom solutions), manage tissue culture (feeding cells in dishes and flasks), 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 AMAZING techs whom I’m so grateful for.

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).

Once a week*, we “all” (not the media maker and only sometimes the facilities managers) come together (over Zoom these days) for mandatory “group meeting.”

*there are lots of schedule changes due to meetings, etc.

The meetings start off with “lab biz” where anyone can bring up issues of concern (e.g. have other people been having problems with their sequencing data quality recently? has the gel stain finally come in? do the other-brand-of-tubes-that-we-had-to-order-due-to-backorders work?), requests (e.g. close out the browser windows on shared computers), heads-ups (e.g. new deli fridge is coming next week so we’ll need to temporarily move the stuff in the current one to the cold room)

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 “research” weeks, the presenter is tasked with filling the rest of the lab in on what they’ve been up to. 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!) 

note: 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. 

Next week I am up for “Journal Club,” which is a group meeting where 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. Today was really cool – I emailed the author a question and she answered right away and thought it was a good thought she hadn’t looked into – so little nerdy win :). 

For more biochemistry jargon de-jargonned, check out my blog’s glossary: 

Hope that helps you better follow-along! Because biochemistry belongs to all!

#365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉⠀

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