Faculty: Making your research count


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Faculty members don’t usually get formal training in research program management, but that might be changing.

Managing an academic research group means keeping an eye on the big picture—long-term goals, funding agency priorities, and a publication plan. Faculty members are also charged with training students and postdoctoral fellows. To meet these dual demands, principal investigators must match people to projects in way that gets the group to its goals while encouraging its members to mature as scientists. Faculty members don’t usually get formal training in research program management, but that might be changing.

When Robin Wright was a new professor, her approach to setting up her research group was “kind of organic.” She considered how many postdocs, students, and technicians she needed when writing a grant, but once funded, she says, “I just got the best people I could and assumed we were all equals and everyone, including me, would do everything, including the dishes.” The strategy worked. Wright is now University of Minnesota associate dean of biological science administration and is starting CourseSource, an online science education journal. But if she launched a new research program again, she says, “I’d be more intentional in thinking about how people would fit into the group, what they’d bring personality-wise and skill-wise. I’d be more proactive about recruiting promising students from my classes.”

Traditional research training doesn’t cover developing an intentional management strategy. Although we have some excellent science career guides, we don’t have extensive formal literature on research planning, says Wright, but we could learn from management studies. “When I was starting as a professor, I never thought of reading the literature on teamwork,” she says, “but there’s science behind team building that could make people in your lab happier and more productive.”

There’s science behind team building that could make people in your lab happier and more productive.

Producing mature scientists—and publications

Biology professor Malcolm Campbell has given a lot of thought to strategic research planning. He powers his genomic and synthetic biology projects solely with undergraduates at Davidson College in North Carolina, which has about 2,000 students. Ideally, says Campbell, students work as full-time summer researchers after their first year, after going through an application process that includes recommendations and interviews. Undergraduate researchers are much more productive in the summer than during the school year, when they have to plan experiments around classes and academic breaks, says Campbell. After training in his group, he encourages students to get experience working in large research institutions in subsequent summers.

Campbell uses an American football analogy to describe his approach to project planning. “If you imagine a full project as 100 yards, I might give students 10-yard subprojects that are designed so that even if they only get a few yards, they don’t have to punt, they’ve still accomplished something that could be a poster or presentation.” For overall program planning, Campbell, who has bioinformatics collaborations with Davidson Mathematics Professor Laurie Heyer, uses a computing analogy: parallel processing. “We never have students competing,” he says, “but sometimes they work on something, like cloning a gene, using different methods. Whoever gets it first, we all celebrate together and move on.” At the same time, Campbell lets students design, order reagents for, and troubleshoot their own projects, to give them independence. “Sometimes you nurture and sometimes you let them flounder on their own,” he says, “for a rich learning experience.”

Campbell says filling the lab with students with diverse backgrounds and experiences creates synergy. The bioinformatics projects spur math students to take biology and biology students to take computer science. Paradoxically, having more students in the lab is easier than having a few. “Having eight students is less work than having three,” he says, “because the students start relying on and training each other.” Having an office within earshot of the lab helps, says Campbell, because he hears students debating questions. As long as they are on the right track, he lets them work out problems on their own.

Of course, funding is the cornerstone of a successful research program that also trains early career scientists. Campbell’s strategy of guiding students from laboratory novice to potential graduate student begins with paying students as summer researchers. He suggests that faculty apply to government agencies such as the National Science Foundation Research in Undergraduate Institutions, and private sources such as the Beckman Foundation, the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology, and Sigma Xi.

Funding also affects program planning with Ph.D. students. In many U.S. graduate programs, students rotate through several groups before choosing their thesis advisor. For graduate students in other systems, for example at European universities, funding is for a limited time for a specific project, and deadlines are strict.

Professor Laura Machesky, Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, says her students have only a few years of support. Fortunately, they often arrive with undergraduate research experience or possibly a Master’s degree. Her clinical fellows, who come in with an M.D., have three years to earn a Ph.D. “I tell them at two years and six months, you have to start writing your thesis now,” she says. The funding scheme leaves no time for failure, so Machesky often starts Ph.D. students on several experiments, saying, “Some are safe, so that even if the results are negative, we can probably publish them.” An example is changing a gene’s expression and asking if a phenotype changes. For a challenge, says Machesky, “I also give them something more open-ended.” To develop independence, Machesky likes people in her lab to follow the occasional hunch. “Do an experiment I don’t know about,” she says. “You can tell me later if it works out.”

In distributing projects, Machesky considers the amount of supervision a person will need. Undergraduates or Master’s students might be initially paired with a senior scientist. Postdoctoral and especially clinical fellows are treated as colleagues. “I give them credit for their training and let them guide their projects. It’s a partnership in which the clinicians see how basic research is done and how it applies to their work, and our senior scientists explain to physicians why their research is relevant.” For these more experienced scientists, says Machesky, “the project has to let them to be creative: to think about where it’s going and how to get there, to take ownership.”

Ownership of projects is what Campbell develops in undergraduates and Machesky promotes in graduate students and senior scientists. It is what Martin Chalfie, professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, looks for in his lab personnel. “Especially postdocs,” he says, “should come in as a colleague. They should write their own proposal about what the next experiments should be or what new skill they’ll bring to the field. People are more excited about and committed to projects they thought of on their own.” Even with graduate students, says Chalfie, “I don’t assign projects. I ask people what they are interested in.” If he wanted a specific experiment done, he says, he’d probably ask a technician to do it rather than assign it to a student or postdoc.

Chalfie says his strategy for populating the lab, generating projects, and accomplishing research goals is “flexible.” People in his lab work to solve major challenges in the field of nerve cell development rather than ticking off projects listed in a grant proposal. Like Machesky, Chalfie encourages his team to be open to discovery. This is how he came to develop green fluorescent protein as a reporter for gene expression, for which he was coawarded a 2008 Chemistry Nobel Prize. “I never wrote a proposal to do that,” he says. “I just got excited about it, and it was in keeping with work we were doing, so I did it. You can’t be slavishly tied to a particular plan of work.”

Building a strong team

At the University of Minnesota, Robin Wright’s colleague Nathan Springer has adopted a more structured method for group management—the Strengthsfinder system. Strengthsfinder identifies personal traits such as adaptability, discipline, and responsibility, and is offered to incoming University of Minnesota students. “If people are willing to share their results,” says Springer, a biology professor and director of the Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute, “I use the findings to see which parts of a project they might find easy or difficult. For example, some people are strategists and like to plan. Others are more adaptable and might need help planning their project.” Springer doesn’t use Strengthsfinder results to assign projects or tasks—everyone should be exposed to all aspects of research, he says. But the information might help his group be more efficient. “Sometimes students get stuck on something,” he says, “and this just helps me think about what might help them.”

Springer also draws on psychosocial studies that have found that “success begets success.” He initially puts new students on a fairly mature project before starting their own independent work. “It lets them see what finishing a project and writing a paper looks like,” says Springer. “I think learning the habits of success is better than struggling at something for a long time.” And since the projects that get new students are led by senior students or postdocs, says Springer, “the other side is that the senior people get experience leading a team.”

Although Springer is not convinced he has the optimal program management strategy, it aligns with current trends. Recently, four leading biomedical scientists called for more thoughtful training in their field, including giving students a broader range of skills to prepare for diverse careers, for example in industry, communications, law, or policy (scim.ag/1x2XzNq). Strategies like Springer’s might help faculty members think about their advisees’ natural skills, to guide conversations about job options.

For some scientists, building research teams and designating projects might be a matter of survival. Professor Helen Amanda Fricker, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, does research that includes deep-field sample collection, for example in Antarctica. Fricker says everyone in her group eventually has to sit down at a computer and analyze their data, but they do a bit of self-sorting around the data sources. People who aren’t polar explorers at heart can work on projects that use satellite data or computer modeling. When people joining Fricker’s team specifically ask to collect glaciology data onsite, she tries to accommodate them. However, she says, “The people who do that work need stamina to endure the tough conditions and the work hours. Because of the long days at the poles in the summer, it’s easy to forget what time it is and work past midnight. People have to be able to think on their feet and also be willing to chip in with cooking and cleaning at the campsite.”

“Resilience” is the Strengthsfinder-type term for the characteristic required for field research, says Nicholas Lapthorn, head of center at Field Studies Council (FSC) Nettlecombe Court. The FSC is a nonprofit organization in the United Kingdom that works with secondary schools and universities to promote environmental understanding through fieldwork. The demands of outdoor data collection, says Lapthorn, include “being able to work in rain and the cold, when it’s starting to get dark, and when you’re tired of walking and carrying equipment. You have to be able to solve problems onsite in a complex environment and communicate and cooperate with others.” In this way, a field research team is an intense version of any research group and Lapthorn’s recommendations about building an effective team and assigning tasks are universal. Research teams need diversity in skills, says Lapthorn: “Not everyone can be a leader. Dividing up roles is critical to success in teams.”

Like Chalfie and Machesky, Lapthorn stresses the importance of project ownership, saying that people are most effective when they are personally invested in their project. “When students have a say over what they are investigating,” he says, “they are motivated to collect data and that makes it easier for them to do the analysis later.” To cultivate the qualities of resilience and personal investment in a project, Lapthorn says students should be exposed early, before college if possible, to risky, less directed science. This shows them what research is really like—that data will not always confirm expectations and might lead in unexpected directions.

Paradoxically, the best way to cultivate team flexibility, resilience, and adaptability might be careful, advanced planning by the principal investigator. Thinking ahead about how to deal with potential personnel issues, funding ups and downs, and unexpected events such as departmental changes could help a research group hold its course toward long-term goals. A well-managed research team maintains the capacity to recognize and exploit novel results.

Most science faculty members learn by doing when building and managing a research group. However, tools and resources from the management world such as Strengthsfinder and similar programs are finding their way into academic science. Some professional organizations like the American Society for Cell Biology hold workshops on project planning, grant budgeting, and human resource management. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Howard Hughes Medical Institute have free online scientific management training manuals (scim.ag/1zVuVQt).

Fricker says she would appreciate training in research program management such as workshops on budgeting with multiple grants. “They would especially benefit new faculty members,” she says. “Some people have a natural gift for this, but not me. It would be nice to have training in easy, essential skills for managing grants and projects.”

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