Mind Matters: The Complex Biochemistry of Laboratory Friendships

Just as bacterial cultures flourish in an agar-filled petri dish, laboratories are ideal breeding grounds for close friendships. It seems the combination of common interests and frequent contact is a potent formula for forming and nurturing relationships among science trainees.

Shared passions–specifically the scientific kind–bring together people from different backgrounds and cultures and many parts of the world. Many science trainees and early-career scientists spend more waking hours with co-workers than with roommates, partners, or spouses. It’s not surprising that so many of these relationships blossom into friendships that extend outside the laboratory. Yet, these friendships can have advantages and perils, both personal and professional.

Easy bonding

After receiving her doctorate, Crystal Loving moved to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, from a small research facility in Ames, Iowa, to study host immune responses to inhalational anthrax as an intramural postdoc. She didn’t know anyone in the area. “I was fortunate enough to hit it off immediately with one of the female technicians in the lab. We spent time talking about our weekends and planning outings together,” she says. She credits the friendship with helping her adjust to a new and different environment.

When environmental consultant Larry Woods was a trainee at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, he often met up with other single lab colleagues for outdoor excursions. “I learned to backpack, ski, canoe, fly fish, and many other outdoor things from my work mates,” says Woods. But interactions with his friends did more than enrich his personal life. Most Friday evenings he and one particularly close fishing buddy had deep conversations over dinner about “the origins of biological life and its chemical and physical basis,” as Woods puts it. Looking back, he now realizes that these conversations, and the articles and books they both read, shaped the direction of his scientific career, both in terms of his interests and the courses he took.

“I would not have been able to survive graduate school without friends in the lab,” says Melissa Davis, who will receive her master’s degree in biochemistry this month at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The small group in her lab includes two graduate students, one postdoc, and one more senior scientist, all of whom are close. Their weekly lab meetings consist of the entire group having lunch at the student union. “I know I can go to my lab mates for anything, be it help with an experiment or to discuss more personal matters,” says Davis. “Having such a friendly and easygoing lab environment makes going in every day so much easier, especially when the experiments aren’t working!”

Lab friendships: Value added

A 2001 survey of a random sample of more than 1000 U.S. workers aged 18 or older published in the Gallup Management Journal ( GMJ) supports the idea that friendships and work are synergistic. The study found that having a best friend at work trumped good pay and benefits in engaging workers. Greater engagement was linked to enhanced productivity, safety, and profit.

Loving agrees. She says that she is more comfortable asking her friend for help in breeding mice or labeling tubes than she might ordinarily feel asking a co-worker with whom she doesn’t have a close relationship. When you feel good on a personal level, it makes the work setting more productive, she says.

Lab friendships also provide opportunities for mentorship. “Probably the closest friend I had in the lab was the girl who graduated before me,” says Davis. “We overlapped for 2 years or so, and she literally was crucial to my survival.” Davis admits that when she joined the crystallography lab, she didn’t know much about that branch of science and felt adrift. The more advanced grad student took her under her wing and showed her the ropes. The two became very close friends. “Even though she’s a postdoc in a different state now, we still talk constantly via phone and e-mail,” she says.

David Germain, an undergraduate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, has worked in a life-science research laboratory since the summer of his second year of high school. “I had always been the youngest or second-youngest member of my research team, and I was overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of my lab mates’ knowledge of their fields,” says Germain. “The most important thing that helped me overcome this intimidation and really prosper as a young investigator was developing close friendships with my graduate and postgraduate colleagues.” Germain has been a co-author on two peer-reviewed manuscripts and has been acknowledged on two others.

Potential perils

Rachel Morrison, an organizational psychologist at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in New Zealand, conducts research on interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Although much of the extant empirical literature focuses on the beneficial aspects of workplace friendships, Morrison’s groundbreaking work suggests that friendships can be a double-edged sword, creating stress and role conflicts that hinder productivity. Friendships and work relationships have different social norms, she writes, and workplace friendships–which operate somewhere between the two different worlds–are fraught with fragility and ambiguity.

With her colleague Terry Nolan, also of AUT, Morrison recently analyzed qualitative data collected from an Internet-based study of 400 people. The group surveyed included academics and practitioners in the field of emotions within organizations and industrial psychologists who had the opportunity to observe friendship in the workplace. That research documents some of the adverse effects of friendship on job performance. “Some of our respondents noted the distracting effect of having friendships at work, including an effect on those at the periphery of these relationships. Also, many respondents mentioned being burdened with additional work responsibilities to compensate for a friend’s lax work attitudes,” says Morrison.

The study highlights unique difficulties in hierarchical friendships involving a supervisor and a team member. “These are particularly a source of strain when the supervisor has to provide negative feedback or sanction the friend in some way,” says Morrison. “Our respondents used terms such as ‘difficult,’ ‘uncomfortable,’ ‘awkward,’ and ‘challenging’ to describe their feelings when having to issue or take orders from friends.” When a supervisor is perceived as favoring a subordinate friend over his or her co-workers, it can contribute to bad morale affecting an entire laboratory.

Davis agrees that although it is common for trainees to develop friendship bonds with advisers, there are boundaries that still need to be respected. Because the relationship between any supervisor and subordinate is inherently unequal, if the relationship goes awry for any reason, the trainee might feel vulnerable and at risk for having shared certain confidences. For that reason, these friendships require some caution and discretion. “An adviser is never going to be the first person you would think of calling if you’re having boyfriend troubles,” she says.

Managing friendships at work: Proceed with caution

Clearly, lab friendships pose challenges for principal investigators (PIs) as well as trainees. Therefore, although everyone in a lab needs to be aware of their potential impact on the workplace, PIs have a particular responsibility because if relationships in a lab turn sour, they can undermine both job performance and satisfaction.

Loving points out that in her lab, many responsibilities are shared among lab members–such as breeding mice, taking care of them, and cleaning the biosafety level 3 facility. When friends are confused about their shared roles or fail to communicate with each other, animosity can result, and it can interfere with work. She places oversight responsibility clearly in the lap of the PI. “I think it is extremely important for the PI to be aware of all the relationships in the lab, good and bad,” she says. “The PI has the responsibility and ability to keep things in harmony. Being unaware of individuals in the lab who do not get along paves the way for difficult times.”

Morrison offers some additional pointers, for both supervisors and trainees:

      Like most things, close friendships at work can be a help or a hindrance, depending on your awareness of the potential pitfalls and how well you manage them. “Best friends are a great thing in a good workplace–and a bad thing in a bad workplace,” writes Susan Ellingwood, author of the GMJ study. When a workplace is rife with communication problems, overlapping responsibilities, resource and time constraints, and a lack of focus, best friends may use their relationship to commiserate with each other and further disengage from the job at hand. But in that case the friendship itself is not the issue. “Clearly, the management challenge in such instances is to improve overall conditions, not to discourage friendships,” she adds.

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