Building a Motivated Research Group

lab personalUri Alon, a PI in the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, recently published an article in Molecular Cell where he discusses how to build a motivated research group.

Motivation in a research group is very important as that is the way that work actually gets done. Its not enough to go uninspired through the motions and conduct experiments because if it doesn’t work out – what is going to push you to keep trying? I personally have spoken to many involved in research asking what it takes to be successful in science and research, particularly for those in the academic field. The two words I have heard over and over again are perseverance and motivation. Now that we have established that motivation is important in the laboratory, how can we instill motivation in our students, lab members, and maybe more importantly – ourselves?

Dr. Alon presents a study done by psychologists Deci and Ryan who have been studying conditions that enable self-determined behavior (such as motivation) since the 1970s. You can read the specifics in Alon’s paper, however the result of the study were a “surprise” because it seems ”that money and other rewards in these types of tasks apparently act to reduce motivation. “

The question remains: What makes people motivated?

Deci and Ryan concluded from a range of studies that there are three conditions for self-determined behavior: competence, autonomy, and social connectedness. Alon explains how he implements each of the conditions in his lab and how it has been successful.

Instead of throwing new, fairly inexperienced students into complicated procedures, Dr. Alon strengthens his students’ competence by taking the time to gradually build competence and confidence. Alon explains that easy steps allow for positive reinforcement. His experience has been that once a student’s confidence was boosted, “his motivation skyrocketed.”

The second condition essential for motivation is autonomy. Alon explains autonomy as “the sense that the project emanates from the person and not from an external source.” Threats and punishment are obvious detriments, however Alon was surprised to learn that intimidation also lead to a decrease in autonomy.

Social connectedness, the third of Deci and Ryan’s conditions, is when a student or researcher is taken under the wing of someone else in the research group. Alon describes how his weekly lab meeting has become an event that enhances his group’s social connectedness. Discussing birthdays and the news helps bring the group together. “Our connection to a community and a culture,“ write Alon, “provides us context and empathy during our struggles, celebrations and acknowledgment during our successes. “

Dr. Alon concludes his essay showing how to choose an appropriate research project using a method that he says enhances self-motivation. A Venn diagram shows how it is important for students to combine their passion, talent as well as the objectives of the lab to find a suitable project. Alon explains this theory, “Being in the intersection of talent, passion, and scientific objectives is motivating, because talent is related to competence, passion is an ingredient of autonomy, and shared objectives enhance social connectedness.”

This essay is very important, not because it brings a new message, but rather because it touches both on personal and group motivation – something not all PIs consider. While each lab member being motivated on his own is great, working as a motivated lab team results in more success and a happier research environment.

References: Alon, U. (2010). How to Build a Motivated Research Group Molecular Cell, 37 (2), 151-152 DOI: 10.1016/j.molcel.2010.01.011

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