Top 5 Ways For Research Groups To Learn As a Team

There is no greater collaborative environment than a research group, whether in the academic or industry setting. When working on a project together, teams of researchers must work together to design and execute experiments, collect and share data and troubleshoot to resolve problems. Even if they are not working directly together on a project, research groups that communicate to learn together are the most successful scientists. But how can they improve and optimize their communication skills? Labguru provides five easy, effective suggestions that any team can implement into their routine.

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1. Group Meetings and Journal Clubs

Nothing will facilitate and foster academic enrichment within your group as effectively as mandatory group meetings and journal club (presentations about research outside of your lab). Adherence to a regular schedule and compulsory attendance are usually the biggest hurdles for research groups, especially large ones. But the benefits—camaraderie, familiarity with each other’s work, collegial input and support—improve scientific proficiency and result in faster troubleshooting. It also allows busy professors a chance to meet with students on a regular basis, for senior members of the lab to mentor younger researchers and as a motivational tool to encourage students to make consistent progress with their projects. Furthermore, journal club presentations of outside research in a seminar-like setting not only serve to increase scientific literacy in the group, they also provide an opportunity for students to hone communication skills, to exchange or debate ideas in an informal setting and practice presentations for future meetings and job talks.

2. Transparent Management and Communication

Team learning is usually deduced to whole scale team communication, something most academic labs are still sadly not structured to support. Many large groups are often broken down to sub-groups (which have their own group meetings), while smaller groups may rely on one-on-one meetings. It’s not uncommon for a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow to spend their entire tenure in a laboratory never knowing exactly what their bench mate is working on. This is a huge mistake. Although many personnel may be working on individual projects, they are still interconnected by the overall scientific aims of the laboratory. Implementing a transparent management system that allows all members to upload data, protocols and specimen will greatly increase the ability of lab members to communicate with each other, ask questions and give feedback—and in the process, learn from each others’ projects.

3. Intra-Group Collaboration

Often, when researchers discuss collaboration, the implication is that it’s between outside groups, whether because of expertise in a particular field or technique.  But groups should also consider fostering collaborations betweenlabmates, perhaps on an ambitious high-risk, high-reward project or one that will develop new instrumentation or methodology in the lab.  While it’s understandable that graduate students and post-docs need to have autonomous projects and publications, collaborative endeavors within the lab increase communication, learning, and mentorship of newer students.

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4. Evaluating Mistakes Openly

A recent study by University of Washington researcher Dr. Ferris C. Fang uncovered an alarming rise in scientific journal retractions over the last decade, with the highest retraction index belonging to The New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world.confirmed the findings, with their analysis showing the early 2000s only accounting for about 30 annual retractions, climbing steadily to 400 in 2011.  In this context, it’s no surprise that recent science scandals have included a retraction by famed chemist Peter G. Schultz, two paper retractions, falsification of a purported 36,000 year old artifact linking humans and Neanderthals by prominent German scholar Reiner Protsch von Zieten, and high-profile fraud by Bell Labs researcher Jan Hendrik Schon, who faked the discovery of a new superconductor made of plastic.  Now, mistakes within a lab run the gamut of low-impact, to safety violations, to outright retractions and/or fraud.  But when mistakes happen, instead of being buried or dealt with behind closed doors, groups should hold an open forum for the whole lab.  Learning together doesn’t always just involve pipetting and data analysis.  Teachable moments present a great opportunity for introspection, policy evaluation and an example to younger scientists so that the mistakes aren’t repeated in their own future labs.

5.  Rethinking Break Rooms and Common Space

It goes without saying that the labmates that hang out together learn together. Simple redesigns of common areas, such as lunchrooms, break rooms and offices can go a long way towards promoting knowledge sharing and collaboration in a lab. Hang whiteboards in kitchen spaces so that students can discuss their experiments in greater length. Encourage students to take communal lunch breaks in the dining area or out on the patio. Have weekly happy hours on Friday afternoons and celebrate lab birthdays. Proximity is an extremely important factor in encouraging collaboration and help scientists produce better research, according to Harvard Medical Researchers, who dubbed it the “water cooler effect."

What do you think of our suggestions?  Do you have some of your own that have worked particularly well for your research team? Please drop us a comment below to let us know!