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The Black Hole

Two heads are better than one: Making a case for jointly run labs

BY DAVID KENT | MAY 23 2010

While I was completing my doctorate, I was in a “big” lab. At its peak, the lab reached about 25 people (~8 each of graduate students and post doctoral fellows plus technicians and research students). Competing for time and attention with the boss was a definite reality – and my particular supervisor was not exactly working a 40 hour week either… the double all nighter before a conference trip was not an uncommon sight with trainee meetings often running well into the late evening and weekends. Clearly this model can work as numerous professors have been spun out from this lab and others just like it, but it takes a pretty special person to be able to train and direct the research of nearly 20 junior scientists. Additionally, it does not exactly work toward reducing the major stresses caused by the changing human resources of science.

This blog entry is a pitch for the large scale adoption of an idea that could be used to put a major dent in the number of professor hopefuls that are currently drowning in a sea of competition that has more sharks added daily. The amount of physical lab infrastructure that has been added over the last 20 years (especially through the efforts of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and charities too numerous to name) has been exceptional in Canada – just look at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto as a shining example. With this relative abundance of space compared to the 1990s, many more groups are growing to big lab status having major implications on the training and research workload thrust on a single lab head. What we have yet to embrace is a shift from the “top-down, one person runs this show” mentality and this blog entry details the benefits that might be gained from having jointly run laboratories.

Hybrid Vigor: The tag team effect
We all know professors who do some things brilliantly, and make a miserable mess of others. Some are excellent experimentalists but just can’t seem to nail that massive grant while others thrive on big picture blue sky thinking, but lack the ability to help their trainees troubleshoot the nitty gritty. In any case, finding the perfect combination is a rarity and it stands to reason that some of these deficiencies could be complemented by a joint lab head with those particular strengths. A nice analogy is found in something my brother used to throw at me whenever I thought a musical was entertaining – “good singers do opera, good dancers do ballet, a musical tries to combine them both and ends up wallowing in mediocrity”. While I still maintain that there are people who can do both quite effectively, I can also see that sometimes it’s a good idea to let the singers sing and the dancers dance.

Reduced down-time
Ask a new tenure track laboratory professor about their first two years of research productivity in the new lab. My guess is you’ll be hit with a barrage of “not much because it took a long time to set up _____, _____, and _____”. If a newly minted principal investigator were instead able to join a group that already has things running smoothly, the list of blanks would be cut down dramatically and they could get on with the research much more quickly.

Mentoring
If one of the joint lab heads is more senior than the other, there is a remarkable opportunity to benefit from close mentoring. Poor navigation of the institute, university or external politics and administration are the first things that come to mind for slowing down research for no good reason. If the senior professor derives direct benefit from a successful junior researcher, then the help from this end will flow much more rapidly. Additionally, the trainees in the lab would benefit from having multiple perspectives on their research projects.

Possible Career Changes
Why do very few experienced laboratory scientists enter politics, journalism, or industry? Because if they left their laboratory full of graduate students, post doctoral fellows, and current grants, they would never be able to come back. If you could take a year or two to try something out (something like what UBC based Nobel laureate Carl Weiman just accepted from the Obama team) and leave your lab and trainees in the trusted hands of your co-investigator, the decision would be made substantially easier. As it stands now, a 3-6 month sabbatical sometimes cripples a lab’s productivity or an individual’s aspirations to complete a thesis – in short… there is never a good time to leave the lab.
In the end, the jointly run lab model would create more jobs without unreasonable strain on the overall laboratory research budget, would allow more time energy for alternative projects and teaching by the top tier of researchers, and would result in a more diverse training environment for graduate students and post docs. Importantly though – this cannot be made into a short term training post and needs to carry the same stability that a standard assistant professor position would carry and hold the same potential for career progression. It’s time to change the old model of “one person in charge” as team science becomes increasingly prevalent and good scientific training is often the first thing to get cut from busy professor’s schedules.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

PS: A huge thanks to Philip B, Mike O, and Lindsay G specifically for some great chats about this series of thoughts.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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