Friday, August 05, 2005

Science in times of famine

So, our lab budget has gotten tighter but we still have the same number of people. So in honor of that, a few of my least favorite human behaviors:

1. Hoarding. One person takes a tube of enzyme buffer, so the next person can't find it. So the next person realizes they better take some too, or they'll be stuck without it next time. This behavior tends to propagate, resulting in many many overlapping reagents that will all go bad before they get used up. It's a royal waste of money, nevermind the irritation factor for the people who would rather share than hoard.

2. Useless equipment purchases. Some things got broken in the move, plus we had to buy some new stuff since we can't share with the same people anymore. Well, at least one thing needed to get fixed and our advisor thought it looked old, so we were told to buy a new one. It would have cost $100 to fix it, but our fearless leader spent $1000 on a new one, and we'll still get the old one fixed. We don't need two. Does this sound like a logical use of resources?

3. Pass-the-blame. We have a new person doing ordering, so of course when stuff doesn't get ordered, it's not the fault of the person who used the last one, it's the fault of the person doing the ordering (whom no one told). Poor kid doesn't know which way is up.

Part of me thinks if we had a stronger PI, who was more in touch, this stuff wouldn't be happening. Another option would be to have a stronger lab manager, whom people respected more. Instead we have burgeoning chaos and diminishing funds. And a meeting planned to 'discuss' some of these 'issues.' Oh, I'm so looking forward to that!

... Note added in proof: meeting took 1.5 hours. Same 3 people volunteered for most of the lab jobs, what else is new?

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At 1:30 PM, Blogger dubiousbiologist said...

Okay I have a limited sample size but I have long been an advocate for the strong lab manager. Just during my rotations (krikey, over 10 years ago) and just observing other labs, I noted that those that ran well--regardless of the personalities of the lab--had a well-seasoned lab manager who kept apprised of everything in the lab, had longitudinal memory, kept track of OSHA regs, tracked budgets, etc. Labs with newish lab managers--or worse, let the postdocs and grad students manage themselves--boarded on disfunctional. The PI has to give the manager some teeth. Even if you have PDs and GSs with pliant personalities, the strong hand of a good lab manager only makes them better.

Even a well-meaning PI with a smallish lab (4-5 people) can't keep up except maybe when the PI is actively (I don't mean has token bench but actually mano-a-mano with everyone else for centrifuges and enzyme buffers.)

Then again, I've seen some PIs who run their labs with everyone at each others throat (especially 10-20 people labs). First result gets to publish, everyone else gets shafted.

Then again, I am totally an iron fist in a velvet glove kinda guy.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

boy, that last image is really... visceral. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

My issue with strong lab managers is that they're not always staff scientists with PhDs, but I think they probably should be. I always have issues with someone who has a bachelor's degree in biology telling me what I can and can't order, for example, or that I shouldn't need access to a telephone. What the hell do they know about what my job really entails? They certainly don't have the time to follow me around for a week and find out.

So I guess the question becomes, would you rather have your PI, who is totally out of touch with the lab, making these kinds of decisions? Maybe lab managers should be people who also have business experience, so they understand ordering, pricing, getting quotes on equipment, as well as interior design experience (where the centrifuge should go)? I'm just tired of this system where everyone's job is nebulous, and their qualifications even more so.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger dubiousbiologist said...

I guess I feel passionate about this because I am forever grateful to have trained in a lab with a great, experienced lab manager. She "only" had a B.A. but she had 20+ years in academic labs. She could be persnickety at times, but usually meant someone was doing something *wrong* (and often dangerous) or was acting in a way contrary to efficient running of the lab. A couple of postdocs hated her because she wouldn't let them do whatever they wanted when they wanted. When it came to the PI, she usually over-ruled them.

I've seen other labs with tyrannical-yet-know nothing managers to newbie managers who let the researchers walk all over them to PhD-credentialled managers who couldn't manage their way out of a wet paper bag to labs that are essentially unmanaged.

I think we as academics tend to be overly obsessed with "qualifications", particularly in the form of degree initials after a name. I don't think a good lab manager necessarily needs a Ph.D. or an MBA (if anything, the PhD seems to be a hinderance). A BA in science, probably. Actual lab experience, definitely. Good people skills (at least better than most scientists), most definitely.

And I'm not saying the PI abdicates their leadership to the lab manager. A good lab manager understands the PI's needs and wishes; a skilled lab manager may even shape those needs.

A good lab manager keeps things running smoothly. A good lab manager will over time develop savvy as to which vendors are good to work with, who to cut deals with, etc. A good lab manager knows the SOPs of dealing with institutional bureacracy and keeps the researchers from having to handle POs and invoices (partially to keep paperwork away but mostly because we're usually bad at it anyway.) And because the lab manager is handling the POs and invoices, he/she ought to have a sense when the money is drying up.

Deciding who can or can not use a telephone: well that's just silly. If the lab manager is setting policies like "well I think you spend too much time on the phone and I'm cutting you off," then something is wrong. On the other hand, if the PI doesn't want PDs and GSs using the phones for personal/LD calls, let the PI set the directive with the lab manager enforcing it. Anyway, problems like this are usually departmental policy or a budget issues and not whimsy of the PI or lab manager.

If the lab manager is giving out special "favors", then he/she IS NOT a good lab manager). If the lab manager is an unreasonable obstacle to work, then he/she IS NOT a good lab manager.

I think your point about the problem being that job {titles | responsibilities} are nebulous is on the right track. I suppose a lab could run without a lab manager if everyone's duties and responsibilities were clear with the PI keeping an eye on things to make sure things actually run smoothly. In the absence of leadership and cooperative comraderie, I think we just slip into being self-focused, and this slips into unthoughtful, thus capricious and selfish, behavior. Not necessarily detrimental to research (see previous comment), but apallingly inefficient.

When you become a PI, I hope you remember all this. :-)

At 7:26 PM, Blogger utenzi said...

If the lab manager is mainly managing and not doing research then having a PhD is a waste. Experience in wet work and lots of experience in how the company or school works is what is needed. And a good feel for how other people think so as to head off problems before they start.

At 4:04 AM, Blogger utenzi said...

You're taking life way too seriously. Here, take a short break and express yourself:

You have been tagged!

At 7:48 PM, Blogger Tim Mayer said...

I've seen just about every type of lab manager in my twenty-five years as a chemist. The best ones give you clear guidelines and let you do your job.

At 7:48 PM, Blogger Tim Mayer said...

By the way, is it OK to list this Blog in my "link" section?


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