Research isn’t easy. Not only do you deal with experimental failures and demanding supervisors, you also work with other lab members — people who are under the same pressures and stresses as you. Staff, postdocs, PhD students, and undergrads are often given bench space and a desk and encouraged to sort out the personal side of things themselves. Sometimes this creates a very productive and happy workplace and fosters lab cooperation. Sometimes, however, it starts to feel like the Game of Thrones, and your character definitely isn’t going to make it to the end of this season.
Geniuses Still Have to Clean the Lab
Scientific research is a tough profession, and we all worked hard to be here. Many of us strived to be at the top of our class from high school onwards and are used to overachieving. However, being very smart and hardworking does not absolve you of your responsibilities. Being under pressure is not an excuse for leaving basic housekeeping to lesser mortals. You might be the most brilliant scientist in your field. Maybe a Nobel Prize is in your future. That still doesn’t mean you can act like a terrible human being.
Don’t act like lab cooperation isn’t your problem, no matter how busy and important you may be. You might be busy but you aren’t important enough to skip out on cleaning. Get out the disinfectant and roll up your sleeves (using gloves of course).
A Systemic Problem
There is a certain culture in research that very clever or senior people can behave exactly as they like. Their behavior often isn’t challenged because of the very strong, yet invisible hierarchy that exists in science. New students and junior staff are encouraged to be docile and extraordinarily hardworking, and never talk back to the boss. In a profession in which jobs, funding and inside knowledge can be determined by who you know, nobody wants to take the risk and alienate someone important.
Unfortunately, this culture encourages researchers to adopt unquestioning deference to those above them while treating junior lab members poorly. You may think this all comes with the territory. After all, your time as an Honors resesarcher or intern was stressful and nobody wanted to help you. Why should you help the new kid?
You worked incredibly hard for the knowledge you have so, why should you make someone’s life easier by sharing it? Why indeed.
History is full of famous disagreements between eminent scientists. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison engaged in the ‘War of Currents’, while Frederick Cook and Robert Peary bickered over the discovery of the North Pole. Peary’s point of view was telling: ‘I must have fame!’ he wrote to his mother. When money and prestige were at stake, 19th century eminent scientists and entrepreneurs behaved like spoiled children. Unfortunately, in some labs it might seem like not a lot has changed.
After spending some time in research, almost everyone hears hushed horror stories about the senior academics who insist that a postdoc alter or fudge results or dominant lab members who harass and bully junior lab mates. In some labs, turf wars or bad behavior are accepted as inevitable, but the reality is that a lack of unity in the lab can seriously affect research output and productivity.
It’s a problem in all fields and professions but it seems that the problem is even more acute in research because two things above all are prized: funding and publications. Good press for a lab group is good press for the university. Most universities have protocols in place for dealing with poor workplace behavior but someone has to report that behavior first. Most lab members are either too intimidated to make a fuss or decide that it isn’t their problem. Even worse, sometimes the university or institution is reluctant to follow up on complaints.
Small Problems Can Turn Into Big Issues
Bickering and personal differences in the lab can seem like minor annoyances but consider how much time and money is potentially wasted. Maybe a new student needs help with a technique but is scared to ask the rude and grumpy postdoc. Perhaps equipment and bench space become filthy because no one is willing to take responsibility, leading to contamination issues. A lack of cooperation can lead to precious dollars and time being wasted. So, how can these problems be addressed before they become major issues?
Lab Cooperation Starts With You
The answer is simple: don’t be a jerk.
Encourage and support new lab members, even when you don’t necessarily have to. If you develop a new protocol or technique that isn’t confidential or about to be published, share it with anyone who is interested. Keep your part of the lab clean and organized and take the time to keep shared areas clean as well. You could also suggest or organize social events for the lab to encourage a harmonious workplace and allow information sharing in an informal setting.
No matter if you’re a professor or a new student still learning to hold a pipette the right way, there’s something you can do to help your lab become a more enjoyable and productive place to work.