Whose lab are you in?

Toad shouting

I have been asked this question many times this year: by a first-year graduate student, but various postdocs, by nearly everyone at a conference I recently attended.  Each time I felt somewhat abashed, and answered in a small but optimistic voice “my own!”

Sometimes it feels complementary.  Like being carded after I’ve spent the day chasing my kids around.  Sometimes it feels insulting.  No, I am not a graduate student.  Yes, I did this work myself.

It’s a good question though.  Maybe I kept getting asked because I don’t know what sort of leader I want to be.

When I started the lab, I had the idea in my head that I would just keep being a postdoc in my own lab.  I think it is fair to say this was not a success.  I was successful as a postdoc because I could ignore everything else and focus exclusively on my project.  As the head of a lab it was impossible to do this— like trying to focus on a painting while my children are vying for attention.  I would forget to set things up and lose track of what I was doing.  I threw away the flies I’d spent a month making in a frenzy of trying to keep things organized.

Once people arrived in the lab I started to see my job as a kind of a scout.  My job was to run ahead of the group— intellectually, technically, technologically— and sniff out things that might be useful to us in the future.  I tried hard to make sure we had all the necessary equipment for each rotation student when they arrived.  I spent many hours trying to come up with good projects for each person in my lab.  I combed through literature and went to meetings looking for the reagents we would need down the road.  Still it felt like things were taking forever.  As of this spring the only data we had was what I had collected myself, and that was only a handful.

As with many things, I found the wisest approach in Frog and Toad.  In the story “The Garden,” Toad admires Frog’s garden and asks how he can grow one himself.  Frog gives him some seeds and tells him to take good care of them.  But he warns him: growing a garden is very hard work.  Toad plants his seeds, stands over them and shouts “Now seeds, start growing!”  He sings to them, reads stories to them, plays music to them but still they do not sprout.  Maybe running a lab is most like being a gardener.  At the end of the story, Frog rushes in to tell toad his seeds have begun to grow.  Toad thanks him but says, “You were right…It was very hard work.”

Several weeks ago, people in the lab began bringing me their own data.  Frog was right, it was very hard work.