Is there anything scarier than starting up a new lab from scratch? You go from the comfort of using your supervisors grant money to frantically applying for your own money. Switching from setting up your western blot in the morning to sitting in a three-hour long faculty meeting. You weren’t prepared for this. You don’t know what to do. But don’t worry you are not alone. Fortunately, there are hundreds of new PIs out there all going through this same thing. We caught up with Daniel Cifuentes who started a group leader position at Boston University School of Medicine two years ago. He gave us a few insights on how this whole process goes down.
In the beginning
The transition from postdoc to running your lab can seem incredibly daunting. When I think about the challenges you face during this time one of the most significant questions for me is – how do you know what to do? It’s such an enormous difference in your day-to-day routine. This is what Daniel had to say about this.
“This question really has two sides to it; knowing what to do regarding pure science and knowing what to do with this empty room you just inherited. Concerning science, this is the easy part however it is still different from the previous experience you had. You may think you were independent as a postdoc, but now you are truly the one calling all the shots. For sure you will carry on in the field you worked as a postdoc however you will have to try something different. You can’t compete with your previous supervisor as you will never be as good right away. Start off by playing it safe with some projects you think will work to get your lab going and then little by little start the crazier exciting ideas.”
“The other side to this question – what to do with the empty room in front of you? This is trickier. You don’t get training in your PhD or postdoc on how to run a lab. It isn’t something that anyone will have prepared you for. Some advice would be if you are a postdoc try to take part in workshops or courses aimed to teach you leadership or hiring skills. Also, start to take notice of how your PI is running their lab and how they handle the people in their lab. When I set up my lab, I had no formal training, but I knew from experience some parts of what I should do.”
You can’t compete with your previous supervisor as you will never be as good right away.
A place to call home
You’ve finally plucked up the courage to apply for a group leader position. Where are you going to go? What are the essential things you need to think about when you are applying to places for a PI position? This isn’t like starting a postdoc; it will be much more permanent than a three-year job. Choose wisely.
“The biggest limitation is firstly places that are looking for new group leaders and secondly the offers you will get. My biggest piece of advice would be; never apply to places you wouldn’t want to live. Make sure you have seen the place and the surrounding area. The most important thing for me is that this is going to be the place where my family is happy, and my kids would grow up here.”
“Secondly, think about if you enjoy teaching. If this is something you want to do, apply to universities with students on campus taking lectures. If this is not for you, apply to institutes to avoid this. Working at the Boston University School of Medicine has been great. The department has many other young PI’s so there are many people I can go to for advice. It has a good energy here, a young mentality and environment which is great for ideas and research. Also, Boston is surrounded by top-level universities including Harvard, so there are plenty of good collaborators around.”
The most important thing for me is that this is going to be the place where my family is happy, and my kids would grow up here.
Set up shop
Is there anything more terrifying than being given an empty room and being told: “go make some science!” I don’t think so. What do you do? Where do you start? How much is all this going to cost?! Don’t worry, here’s some good advice to help you on your way.
“You will not need to worry about this room being empty for long, the first day you open shop you will be flooded with sales reps. One good piece of advice, before you buy anything make sure you ask around the building first. Some labs may have equipment they never use, and they may be open to sharing. Some people in the building may have retired, and their equipment could be up for grabs. Keep your eye out for these notices.”
“If you are keen to buy your equipment new, make sure you think carefully about what you are buying. When I started buying equipment for my lab, I had in mind that each piece of equipment should have multiple purposes. For example, get a centrifuge that has lots of different rotors that you can switch in and out. This way you are paying for one centrifuge with many functions rather than many individual centrifuges.”
Some labs may have equipment they never use, and they may be open to sharing.
Getting to know you
Who should you hire? You don’t want to hire someone who seems normal on paper but then turns out to be a massive bag of crazy and you’re stuck with them for the next three years. Hiring takes time. You need to be sure that this person will be a good fit for your group and on the flip side, they need to be sure that the lab is a good fit for them.
“When it comes to hiring I don’t think there are any solid rules. No one can know for sure if the person you hire will be a good choice. It will always be hit or miss. That said there are a few things I look for in the candidates that apply. I look for passion and enthusiasm for science. Rewards from working in science are scarce. You need to have an energy and enthusiasm regardless of the results you get in the lab. It is often not so important how smart someone is but rather how motivated and driven they are. You need people who will fight for their results but also work well in a team.”
You need to have an energy and enthusiasm regardless of the results you get in the lab.
Being the boss
Everyone dreams that one day they will be the cool boss. They will do things differently. Be the boss that people like. In practice, it isn’t that simple. You’ve got a lab to run, and you need everyone in your group to get along. But you also need them to work efficiently. This is going to take careful team management.
“There is no such thing as an ideal supervisor; however, you can make an ideal pairing between student and supervisor. I find it important to adapt my leadership style to the individual people in my team. The is no PI fits all as such. You should tailor your mentorship to everyone individually to get the most out of them. What works well with one person will never work the same for another. You must be flexible. But again, there is no formal training for this. You have to do what you think is best for you and your team.”
You should tailor your mentorship to everyone individually to get the most out of them.
5 tips for setting up a lab
1) Apply for grants early – the process takes an incredibly long time.
2) Hire early – but not the first person to come through the door. However, it will take time to get people to move and start their position.
3) It’s still early days! I’ll get back to you with more tips once I know more myself.
Need a helping hand for your new lab?
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1. You must be a principal investigator/lab manager from an academic institution or official affiliate organization
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