8 Ubiquitous Lab Characters

Presenting 8 Characters Every Lab Has…And How to Effectively Manage Them:

“Black Thumbs”

My PhD advisor used this nickname for students that, while well meaning, could not execute a simple experiment successfully even if their life depended on it.  The “black thumb” student might be, and often is, a very intelligent, skilled, inquisitive scientist capable of designing smart experiments - just not implementing them in the lab.  And it’s more likely than not that you might encounter a student like this as a manager, supervisor, postdoctoral mentor or PI.  Try isolating what talents the student does have, and channeling them for the betterment of the lab and their future career.  If they are strong communicators, for example, have them organize a weekly journal meeting.  To help them graduate, forge collaborations and mentorships that will guide them through the intricacies of experimental labwork.  Towards the end of their graduate career, make sure to guide them towards a career choice that makes the most of their interests and skill sets—this may not necessarily involve more labwork.

“The Mooch”

Everyone has experienced “The Mooch” at one time or another in his or her scientific career.  They exploit the collaborative, sharing nature of science to an extreme, seemingly willing to do anything to circumvent doing their own hard work.  Whether peppering you with endless questions, constantly borrowing reagents, goading you into running that last-second gel or designing their experiments for them, The Mooch collects data for their experiments while burdening labmates and collaborators with the brunt of the grunt work.  It’s annoying, and takes you away from work you would rather be doing for your own projects.  When faced with a lab mate that doesn’t want to do their fair share of work, it’s a perfect situation to assert leadership and setting limits, important qualities for future professors and laboratory managers.  Set clear expectations about what you are and aren’t willing to help labmates with, while remaining encouraging and positive about helping them achieve their goals. If you are a PI and think your student feels overburdened, consider helping them manage their workload or assigning an undergraduate student for them to mentor.

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“Professor Postdoc”

Professor Postdoc is a treasured member of any lab.  They’re competent, experienced, have seemingly read every article, are great mentors, and are well on their way to running a lab or their own.  Professor Postdoc, who may be a senior member of the lab, possibly on their second or third postdoc, and their vast reservoir of knowledge is a valuable commodity.  Take advantage of their leadership as mentors and scientists, while giving them the opportunity to get a feel for running their own lab before embarking on an assistant professorship.

“The Social Butterfly”

The Social Butterfly is not nearly as concerned about labwork as they are about arranging the next group happy hour or chitchatting by your bench for hours on end.  Friendly and outgoing, they’re a fun labmate to hang around, so long as their gregarious nature doesn’t distract from productivity and efficiency.  In my undergraduate lab, the Social Butterfly recruited several students to play an online interactive videogame in one of the group offices, to the point that it became a deterrent, sucking away hours of productive time from researchers.  In my graduate lab, on the other hand, the Social Butterfly arranged a daily coffee break where competitive crossword and Sudoku puzzles were distributed, and everyone looked forward to the respite from the daily drudgery.  Use individuals such as these to help plan group bonding events, outings and Happy Hours—ways to reduce stress and ensure a happier group—while ensuring that the primary focus in the lab is still labwork.

“The Squatter”

Every lab has a squatter.  Not officially a group member, they still use your equipment, borrow your reagents, loiter around their friend’s office or lab, prompting you to ask, “Are you even in our lab?!”  Squatters may be either friendly with one of the group members or come from a neighboring lab that is unofficially taking advantage of a piece of equipment. Regardless, to maintain efficiency in monitoring lab supplies and equipment usage, especially if the lab is using lab resource management software as an organizational tool, it is important to have an accurate idea of who is using lab resources and how much.  If you notice unfamiliar personnel using lab equipment or requesting reagents/specimen, make sure you know whose lab they work in and that an official collaboration has been established.  Have them report to the lab manager when using lab resources.

“The Brown-Noser”

Remember the old saying that life isn’t fair?  Well, neither is science.  Every lab experiences the “brown-noser” or teacher’s pet at some point or another.  These graduate students somehow can do no wrong at group meeting or in front of the PI, while behind the scenes, they may not seem nearly as capable.  Some larger labs even have an unspoken hierarchy, where senior graduate students may not necessarily even do the majority of their own work.  While labmates like this might cause friction or tension in the lab, remember that in the long run, talent, hard work and experience are much more likely to pay off to make a successful career.  And while professors are as likely to play favorites as any other boss, you can’t get away with it in multiple labs.  Remember to always keep focus on the long run, especially if a position in academia is your ultimate end goal, and to use situations like these as a reminder to never lose focus on your own research.

“The Underappreciated Tech”

The lab technician is easily one of the most thankless roles in academia.  Their contribution to the lab is enormous—a tech may at one time support the PI, manager, postdocs, and graduate students, all the while possibly conducting their own research on the side.  Yet more often than not, they are the silent member of the lab, whose skills are either overlooked or under rewarded.  They make sure major pieces of equipment keep running, that gels and plates are poured, that cell culture media is prepped, and are often problem-solvers for graduate students.  What they lack in degrees, technicians often make up for with experience. Use that, and respect it.  Give them proper credit at group meetings, during seminars and talks, and if they contributed enough, on publications.  And remember to include them in group gatherings.  A happy technician will lead to a happier, more productive lab. In the end, everyone wins.

“The Undergrad”

 

There is no group member more maligned than the ever-inexperienced undergrad. Bumbling, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and eager to learn, undergrads have not yet been imbued with the inevitable letdown and disillusionment of graduate school. But rather than begrudging their enthusiasm, use it to your advantage.  No overworked grad student or postdoc can deny that a few extra pair of hands in the lab would not be an asset.  And if you let an undergraduate student know that even menial tasks are appreciated and helpful in the bigger picture of investigative research, their inexperience and willingness to learn become assets, not a liability.  Pair a new undergraduate with a strong mentor willing to teach them basic experiments.  Let them get involved in simple tasks that are essential to the lab, such as pouring antibiotic plates, stocking fridges, or doing simple DNA and protein prep kits.  Before long, you might find that you have a trusted assistant to speed up your research, while the undergrad attains valuable experience working in a research lab to help them get into graduate school and start the cycle all over again!

Are there any lab characters we’ve missed?  Do you agree with our choices?  Leave a comment below and let us know.

[Update - Check out this post's comic here!]