We’ve established that the culture of the lab you work in is going to have a major impact on your life. Having taken the fantastic advice from our previous article, you went and picked a lab with the perfect culture for you and then lived happily ever after. The End, or is it?

Something’s changed

The direction of the work can change; either driven by new funding opportunities (or lack thereof), or new techniques – with this week’s cutting edge technique becoming next week’s kit. The people doing the work also change; this is accelerated by the current climate where high-throughput, short-term contracts are so common. Changes to a lab’s culture can be positive; a coming together of like-minded individuals, with a common purpose at a similar stage of life. But they can be negative; it only takes one poorly managed psychopath to tear apart the fragile ecosystem of a lab.

I’ve got the power

These fluxes mean that lab culture isn’t set in stone and the power for change is in your hands. But in order to change lab culture, you need to understand the different agents that shape it and the degree of leverage they have.

Institutional Change

The most remote agent influencing lab culture is the institute. Institutional influence is asserted through the principal investigators it hires and the expectations it has of them. The institute also influences broader interactions outside of your group through meetings, seminars, away days and social events. These extra-group interactions can be critical when you have hit a wall, both scientifically and socially. Whilst you can shape these wider interactions – departments often have unspent budgets for social events and are looking for an enthusiastic person to organise things – by and large there isn’t much you as an individual can do to shape the broader policy: unless of course, you are head of department!

Power to the people

The second driver is the group itself. People make the lab, they are the ones who go to lunch (and the pub) with you, spill stuff into your bench space, order replacement chemicals (before using the last aliquot), book key pieces of equipment for weeks on end or help you with that out of hours timepoint. Every member of the group can exert a positive or a negative effect on the culture. The degree of influence you have in the group will be a product of seniority, time served and personality type.

The simplest way to have a positive impact is to spend more time together: out of the context of work. This doesn’t have to mean going to the pub, simple social events – a cake rota or a bake-off – anything that gets everyone in one space and talking is beneficial. How you behave in the lab is also important; being a decent person is a good start. Contributing to communal tasks, for example tidying up, collecting parcels or reporting broken equipment, leads to a better lab culture. But think about how you let others know about your contribution. There is no point in being a silent martyr: you are only going to end up resentful. At the same time, don’t weaponise your contribution. Emptying bins then sending passive aggressive emails about full bins leads to a worse culture than not emptying bins in the first place.

Like a boss

The final (and main) driver of lab culture is the principal investigator (PI). Even seemingly unengaged PIs set the lab culture: through the staff members they choose, the bad behaviours they ignore, the field they work in and their approach to that field. Some of the things that can be done as a PI to build a good lab culture include:

  1. Attitude. Spend a small amount of time thinking about what type of lab you want to run. If you are going to run a results-driven sweatshop, at least let it be a conscious decision rather than a default position based on your own postdoc experience.
  2. Altitude. Running a lab is not dissimilar to being a parent. There’s a balance between being too close (helicopter) or too remote (satellite). Different people need different things at different times. Only by getting to know your group will you know the level at which they work.
  3. Break the bread. Take your group for a drink or an ice cream. Celebrate every win – papers, grants, vivas. When you have time, eat lunch with the group. Have an away day. Invite the group to your house. These small social interactions will help and energise you too. However, remember it helps to have some distance between you and your team: management’s not a popularity contest; you may have to make difficult decisions which can’t be done if you are always trying to be “besties with your crew”.
  4. Care. Take an interest in your team. Ask deeper questions about their lives outside the lab and actually listen to the answers. Remember what they said they were going to do at the weekend and then follow up on Monday. Even if you are not interested, fake it; 5 minutes of engagement can go a long way.
  5. Return to the lab. You may have got to the point where the majority of your effort is focussed on writing (papers or grants) and it is more efficient to get the people you employ to do the labwork, to do the labwork. However, not being in the lab, you will miss a substantial part of the group dynamic. Treat yourself to an experiment every now and then, you will get a much better sense of WHAT is and isn’t working and equally WHO is and isn’t working. As a side benefit, people tend to be much chattier when pipetting so you can catch up on the gossip.
  6. Be the best you. Behaviour in your lab reflects you. This is partly because you have recruited people just like yourself (which we all do) and partly because as the figurehead of the lab, you are the main role model. Bitching about colleagues to your group, however tempting, will lead to a culture of bitchiness. Not sweating the small stuff will lead to a more relaxed atmosphere, but it may mean things get overlooked. Losing your rag every time a mistake is made won’t stop mistakes, but will mean people hide mistakes from you.

Whatever your role, the way you act will influence the culture of the lab; and whilst getting the science done is the priority, doing it in a way which is collegiate, supportive and fun makes it less painful for all involved.

 

Dr Charlie Weller: Charlie joined Wellcome in 2014 and is currently Head of the vaccines priority platform after leading the funding response to the Ebola epidemic and overseeing the Immunology portfolio. Charlie has a PhD in Immunology and investigated mast cell function in respiratory disease and parasite infections as a postdoctoral fellow at Imperial College London. She then continued her interests in respiratory disease as a laboratory head at Novartis in target identification and validation on innate immune responses in respiratory exacerbations before joining Wellcome.

Dr John Tregoning: John is a senior lecturer at Imperial College London, investigating the immune response to respiratory infections. John has been a principal investigator since 2008. He did a Post-Doc at Imperial College working on RSV and a PhD on the development of a tetanus vaccine expressed in the chloroplasts of transgenic tobacco plants, also at Imperial College. John blogs at http://drtregoning.blogspot.co.uk.