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Be The Golden Child In Your Lab

Posted in: Dealing with Fellow Scientists
Be The Golden Child In Your Lab

In a previous article, I listed some ways that people annoy their co-workers and many of you added some of your own pet peeves.

Now I would like to discuss some ways to be the lab favorite, also known as the “golden child”. Does your lab have a “golden child”? Someone who is always perfect, the favorite of the PI, the go-to person for everything by everyone? Do you wonder how they got that way?

Well, actually, I can’t tell you because I wasn’t the golden child of my lab.  But I’ve known a few and I run a lab myself. So instead, I am going to tell you what qualities or behaviors a person has to show to be my golden child. That’s right. Here is a list of 5 ways to be my #1 scientist. You’ll be on my “awesome” list instead of the s-list if you do the following:

1. Look things up yourself. Don’t go to your PI or to the post-docs with questions that are easily researchable yourself.  If your question is “should I do it this way or that way?” you should already have an answer as to what you think you should do. Your PI wants to see that you are learning how to design experiments and direct a project on your own.

2. Take initiative. If you have an idea or a theory, go for it! Try it without asking. Please do not ask me before doing every experiment. Just do it (within reason- if it requires a trip to Mexico to collect rare mud samples from ancient Aztec burial grounds, then of course, discuss that first) . I expect my scientists to think on their own and have ideas and it is ok to try them out first and see if they have value.

3. Show leadership. You are the project manager for your research. Getting your project done may mean collaborations with others both inside and outside your institution. This is a repeat of points 4 and 5 of the article “Pointers for new graduate students“.  In an industrial lab,  I like to see my scientists communicating with researchers working in areas of common interest and taking the lead in working together to generate data for posters or for future products. In academics, you’ll want to discuss with your PI first what labs you want to collaborate with, to protect the confidentiality of your work.  Once you both agree it is a good idea, take the lead in this area.

Showing leadership can also be willingness and ability to manage another person, such as an undergraduate or a rotation student, and doing a good job at it. Showing the ability to lead another person’s work, oversee someone else’s progress, and take responsibility for their results shows excellent leadership.

4. Be the expert in your area of research. You should know everything about your subject of study. Know what’s going on in the field and who the thought leaders are.  Your PI can’t read all the details of every paper for every project in the lab. They are counting on you to do that. Here are some suggestions on becoming an expert.

5. Show progress each week. We all have our off weeks (sometimes months- dare I say year?) where things just don’t go right. But as Nick mentioned in an earlier article, there’s no need to worry about getting results as long as you are doing things properly. If you can show logical experiments as to how you are approaching the problem and how you are dissecting it, it gives your PI confidence that you can figure it out.

If someone comes in with inconsistent results week after week and can’t figure out why and doesn’t have a plan for getting to the answer another way, they are going to quickly fall down the totem pole. If I have to hear “It didn’t work”, I want it to be followed by “but I think I know why or what to try next.”

6. Other stuff. Some things are obvious- of course you should be helping others when you can, sign up to make the coffee for journal club once in a while, bring the microbrewed beer for Friday happy hour (instead of the Pabst Blue Ribbon), and get the extra discounts for the lab by staying on good terms with the sales folks.

For a busy PI with way too many commitments and not enough time to read all of their emails, the best grad students and post docs are independent and inventive, in control and motivated to succeed. Even as a new student, it is never too late to show your willingness to think for yourself and think outside the box (in my lab, we call it “cowboying it”) .

The most fun we have in R&D at MO BIO is when we get to “cowboy it”. And usually our biggest leaps are made this way too.

I would love to hear from some of you “Golden Child” grad students. I know you are reading. Let’s go superstars. Add to this list and tell us more about how and why you are #1.

~Suzanne (now on Twitter)

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  1. Suzanne on November 15, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Hi Labdave,
    I totally agree. I wrote about that in this article (point #7-

    The difference is asking for help when you really don’t know and when you can’t find out yourself and asking out of laziness. Most new graduate students are expected to ask a lot of questions and are usually paired with an older student to help them get up the learning curve quickly. Part of getting up the learning curve is learning how to think for yourself so if you are going to ask someone else, the person should have thought about it first and have an answer and be “double-checking”. But this is just my opinion…and does not apply to brand new students and new employees who are trying to learn new lab procedures and a new project.

  2. labDave on November 14, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    I disagree with the statement which dissuades researchers from asking questions. Quite to the contrary, much of the knowledge needed in day-to-day lab work is of the kind that cannot be looked up (eg, has a certain plasmid been constructed already? what previous experiments have been run? how do i operate specialized equip?) In short, the people you work with are perhaps your most valuable resource. Of course, you don’t want to over use any resource and asking too many will erode everyone’s patience, but you still shouldn’t be afraid to ask if you see a good reason to. The difference between asking and not asking could be the difference between reinventing the proverbial wheel(or breaking it!)and making new progress and new discoveries.

  3. Melodee Patterson on November 14, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I’ve never seen this in a list of “how to get ahead in the lab” suggestions, Suzanne, but it worked for me:

    Be the Lab Exorcist. Know the spells and incantations for removing lab demons and evil spirits that are messing with your experiments. A good lab exorcism is worth its weight in agarose gel!

  4. Suzanne on November 9, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Wow! Great feedback Maxim! I totally agree.
    Thanks for commenting,

  5. Maxim Schillebeeckx on November 9, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    As a perspective from a new grad student, I offer this to the PIs out there:

    This past week I, along with my PI, attended a meeting in my respective field (epigenomics). Discussing with him afterwards, we both agreed that sending me to this meeting was probably one of the best things he could have done to promote my Ph.D career (I just started my second year… out on my own). Going to a conference fosters those critical social skills and presents great opportunities to practice talking about one’s science and helps a novice to the field become aware of the tools out there. More importantly, getting to meet those scientists whose papers I read and listening to them speak brought the world of epigenomics closer to home; it made everything more interesting, exciting, and real. Participating in a meeting is an encouraging experience as it instills a feeling that you really do belong to a scientific community. This feeling is already helping in keeping me motivated during long days alone at the bench. Meeting your community really brings more purpose to your own research. Furthermore, I was surprised and ecstatic when my PI asked me to come showing me that he was still thinking about me and my work and giving me an opportunity to prove my worth a bit. So PIs, if you really want to motivate, encourage, and build some momentum for your grad students, send them to a conference or meeting EARLY. This gesture will show them your willingness to invest in their work and demonstrate your confidence in them and their future.


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