Bridge Building: Mentorship Done Right


[caption id="attachment_1994" align="aligncenter" width="520" caption="PhD Comics: I Need Your Help"][/caption]

In my previous post I wrote about the need for a research project management tool [again shameless self promotion]. Today I want to explore how research management tools can impact the complicated Student-PI relationship.

There are a lot of factors to measure the success of a lab. An NIH study suggested that the size of the lab matters most, to quote, "Berg says conventional wisdom has long held that, once a lab reaches a certain size, it becomes harder to manage and the average number of publications per dollar falls."

Why is that? Could we develop and offer tools that will help us do better science and improve communication?

I'll share two concerns we hear from PIs and Students regarding this question and try to provide my view on how tools can make an impact on research productivity and better communication. I ask you to keep an open mind as you read on.

PI: "We are a small lab and I communicate with my students directly"

There are two point that I want to raise in response to this statement. Firstly, are you really small? Do you want to remain a small lab? Over time researchers come and go. Labs are involved in many collaborations spanning years. With a built-in high turn over of researchers and information, the challenge in academic labs is to ensure that knowledge stays in your lab. There are miles of academic freezers and tubes with no owners consuming space and resources.

Secondly, some PIs state that they are worried that introducing an online tool will make their lab work seem "too mechanical", too enterprise–ish, and they worry that they will lose the personal connection they have with their students. This has never been a goal of BioData.

We never designed our service to replace verbal communication but rather ensure that both the PI and students see the same research picture. It IS all about communication, when you have a small lab everything is intimate, and personal. I spent time researching in a small lab that at several points ranged from 4 to 7 students.

Laboratory life is  dynamic and always changing. My PI's door was always open to me. I didn't think twice when I had a crazy idea and was always able to discuss it with him. Not all lab members took advantage of his open-door policy - some were more distant and worried that "crazy ideas" = "stupid ideas" and the PI might think less of them.

Even with my open communication channel with my PI (which is not always the case, read Brian's post "To Rule by Terror") there were times when expectations were not aligned.

This is where research management tools come in handy: to ensure all researchers involved in a project are on the same page,  to be able to follow the  path that we set TOGETHER - what questions to ask and which experiments should be done next. Not in a micro-management way - but to ensure progress.

The way we at BioData envision it:  the PI & the researcher should be able to sit together, sharing the same screen, and working on the project track together analyzing the results and setting the next steps.

That's the tool we built. This is what we constantly improve.

Student: "What? My PI can see what I'm doing?!"

Sometimes I hear students fearing their PI will be able to "spy" on them and see that they are stuck or going in the wrong direction. Honestly, I don't understand it.

You chose this PI to guide you through your research. Blocking him or her from what is really going on just puts your thesis at risk. The concept of shielding your PI away is a good recipe for harder times. Communicating is not always easy (as mentioned in Brian's post above), but it is in your interest to meet your research goals.

The fact that you have your progress documented should first be something for you (easier thesis writing, research organization, etc) and only second a tool for the lab (knowing where materials are stored, not running out of reagents, etc). No one should enjoy seeing young researchers struggle to make progress, research is hard as it is. We need to embrace technology to enhance our communication and ensure research continuity.

My personal perspective is that if you find it hard to communicate with your PI, a tool like BioKM is your insurance policy (as harsh as that might sound).

I want to finish this post in a more optimistic note. Seeing the impact that BioKM has had on labs in the past few years has kept me motivated to continue developing this research tool.

In my next post I'll explore how research management can help you achieve clarity as you identify your research assets.