By Erin Weeks
For many researchers in training, making it as a scientist involves the dream of one day running their own lab. But becoming the head of a laboratory takes far more than research chops — you’ve got to have serious people skills, too.
A March 13 panel called “Managing a Lab: Insights from Academia and Industry” advised an auditorium of Duke postdocs and PhD students on how to meet the management challenges they may face one day as principal investigators (PI). “Effective lab management can be as crucial to career success as the research itself,” the description for the session read.
Sally Kornbluth, Vice Dean for Basic Sciences at Duke Medicine and Duke’s provost-elect, drew from her own experience as a PI as she walked the audience through the nitty-gritty of building a lab from the ground up.
“The lab takes on the style of the PI,” she said. The job of the lab head is to set its scientific direction, obtain grant money and hire the right people.
PIs have to make decisions about what kind of leader they want to be — how accessible do they want to be? How will they motivate their lab members? How will they deal with difficult personnel situations? Some of these questions will be determined by the lead scientist’s personality, Kornbluth said, but others may require trial and error to figure out.
The panel, put on by the Office of Postdoctoral Services, included three other lab managers representing both academia and industry: Mohamed Noor, professor and chair of the biology department; Jessica Monserrate, a scientist at Bayer CropScience and former Duke postdoc; and Susan Smith, a scientific investigator at Stiefel and also former Duke and Duke Med postdoc.
The speakers fielded questions reflecting anxieties about the work climate many students and postdocs will soon enter, in which grant budgets are shrinking and PI positions are highly competitive. But the audience also asked evergreen questions about careers in science, like how to keep up lab morale and balance research with family life.
“Choose your spouse very wisely,” Kornbluth said, drawing laughs.