Setting up a New Lab: Overcoming Challenges & Celebrating Success
One year ago, Dr Leonardo M.R. Ferreira took his first steps along the tenure track when he set up The Ferreira Lab at the Medical University of South Carolina, Hollings Cancer Center, USA. As an experienced Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, his founding mission for the lab was to shed light on the biology of different subsets of T cells and help unleash their potential as cell-based therapies for autoimmune disease, cancer and aging.
For many senior life scientists, running a lab of your own is a lifelong goal, but with it comes numerous challenges, sacrifices, and hurdles which must be overcome. In this guest article, Leonardo gives us an inside look at the challenges he faced in year one, including assembling a reliable team, learning to lead by example, advanced problem-solving, multi-level grant writing, and more. He also shares his hopes for the future, and offers valuable advice for those about to take that next step in their academic career by starting a lab of their own...
New lab, new challenges
Setting up a new lab is a huge challenge which comes with a huge new to-do list. All of a sudden you have an enormous number of new tasks and responsibilities, and yet the days don’t magically become longer! This change is painfully obvious at the very beginning. Let’s say you think about doing an experiment. If you’re a PhD student or a postdoc, and it’s not a gigantic experiment or an experiment taking you in an entirely new direction, you can probably just get on with it. But if you’re thinking about doing an experiment in a brand new lab of your own, there’s a lot more to it! First you need to write down every step it might entail, every piece of equipment and consumable it will require, then get started on writing a summary to get a biosafety protocol approved, get quotes to order everything you need… even ordering a chair to sit on to do the experiment! While you’re doing all this, don’t forget to prepare for this week’s faculty meeting, put together next week’s lecture, answer your emails, make progress on your grant, and finish peer reviewing that manuscript whose deadline you got extended twice already! Your list of daily tasks may seem never-ending at the beginning, but good organizational skills and identifying the priority tasks will help you settle into this busy new role.
Some say that one does not really understand a concept until one teaches it. What this first year of setting up a lab has shown me is that one does not really understand an experiment until one has had to acquire all the materials for it and run a cost-benefit analysis for carrying it out. I was fortunate to have outstanding PhD and postdoctoral mentors. One of my postdoc advisors, Jeff Bluestone, always said “don’t do the experiment you can do, do the experiment you should do”, and that certainly couldn’t ring truer if you’re the one getting the funding to pay for it, writing it in your biosafety protocol, ordering the reagents, and hoping it yields relevant insights towards your next publication and, later on, your next grant. And if a PhD student is involved, it better make for a good milestone next time he or she meets with his or her thesis advisory committee!
Time management and self-discipline
As a new lab leader, there is great pressure to be thoughtful, regimented, and have good time management skills (I personally believe I still have a lot of room for improvement in terms of time management). Achieving all of this can be a rather tortuous journey. There are two contrasting approaches and consequent outcomes to handling these pressures. One is ‘goal fatigue’, in which there are so many boxes with broken down tasks to check every day, and often none of them amount to anything immediately visible, but are nonetheless essential to keep things moving, because if you don’t order that reagent on time or fail to get that required signature or letter of recommendation, negative consequences tend to snowball. The other is ‘limited chaos’, where one goes in and does whatever tasks absolutely need to be completed that day. The relative contribution of each of these scenarios and others to daily life will depend on personality, inherent self-discipline, and how close a grant application deadline is.
You’re the boss
Setting up a lab can be very similar to starting a company. Except that you alone will shoulder the responsibilities of founder, chief executive officer (CEO), chief scientific officer (CSO), chief financial officer (CFO), and chief operations officer (COO) all by yourself. You could also add project manager and marketing director to that list. The lab was started by you and carries your name. You must obtain funding to build it up. You must create structure around you and survive based on your wits and your science. If something in your lab doesn’t work, it is your fault for not predicting it, not teaching someone how to do it properly, or not having come up with the best way of doing it or the best question to ask to start with. To retain control it is key to keep adapting and staying focused on the goal of doing the best possible science.
Expect the unexpected
When starting a new lab, it’s important to remember that science will happen much slower than you’re used to, because there will always be some crucial reagent missing at a crucial time (one year later, this still happens sometimes and I go to neighboring labs to borrow reagents!) or something will go wrong in a new way, or something is not set up in the way that you’re used to. Try to be prepared for any eventuality in order to avoid any nasty surprises!
My first year was good in terms of preparation, and I was confident that I had most bases covered after 5 years of graduate school experience (PhD) and 5 years of postdoc experience, both in the US (Harvard & UCSF, respectively). As I said above, I’ve had excellent mentors, in addition to outstanding collaborators and the opportunity to go to many conferences and departmental retreats.
Science, especially biomedical research, is done by people for people, and so it is extremely important to network and connect with colleagues as early and frequently as possible. You can learn a lot from hearing about other people’s problems and solutions which will help you avoid making those same mistakes in your own lab.
Problem-solving at the bench
One aspect that still amuses me though is how starting a lab requires one to be a mix of MacGyver and French bureaucrat. At the beginning, I spent quite some time disassembling and putting back together hand-me-down pipet aids to see why they weren’t working or finding the perfect sized Styrofoam box to put a biological waste containing beaker inside to prevent it from breaking and spilling if accidentally kicked. At the same time, I also spent a lot of time going over templates for documents needed for grant submissions (budget justifications, equipment available, biosketches, and so on), writing biosafety protocols (and later on amending them and now renewing them), and planning out milestones and deadlines.
I still get to do experiments and learn about techniques and instruments though, which for me is very important, because it is part of the fun of doing science and keeps me grounded when thinking about science and writing about it, be it a grant application to do future work or an article about already conducted work.
Building a strong team
Assembling a good team is extremely important. The lab is the team. While the lab at the beginning is obviously going to be largely shaped by the vision and knowledge of the principal investigator, part of the beauty of academia in comparison with other ways of doing science is the freedom to follow the science wherever it takes you. An academic lab should be a teaching and collegial environment where ideas collide and are born. For instance, while in a company there are products to test and develop, in an academic lab I take great pleasure in having students develop ideas from testable hypotheses into projects, in an iterative process between their individual interests and what the lab is already good at and is funded for.
Inspired individuals at every level
My lab has a mix of people at different stages of their scientific careers: PhD students, technicians, undergraduate students, and even a high school student! We have also welcomed a medical student and a couple of visiting scientists (one from the business world and one who is a physician) who have made important contributions to the lab and its culture.
Science has increasingly become a team effort, but, as I remind my lab members every now and then, while science is a group effort at the macroscopic level, it is an individual endeavor at the microscopic level. For every experiment, there ultimately must be one person who owns it, who has a burning question, who keeps notes of all of it, who has all the controls in place, and who will use it to inform the next experiments. Too many cooks in the kitchen and you can easily imagine a scenario where it becomes hard to manage who counted what cells, and when was a specific reagent batch made or by whom.
Motivation over qualification
When you start a lab, you won’t have made a name for yourself as a principal investigator yet. You will also likely have less funds and space available than your doctoral or postdoctoral mentors. So, you’re in this position where every single lab member and every single experiment counts, and yet you don’t necessarily have the name recognition to acquire the skills of the best and brightest scientists.
However, I have been extremely fortunate with the people joining my lab. Everyone in my lab is self-motivated and always wants to do more, and they all came highly recommended thanks to their own accomplishments and initiative. A research scientist joined the lab after doing his college senior thesis work with me for 6 months. Two PhD students joined the lab after being admitted in the Biomedical Sciences graduate program at MUSC, working in my lab for two months (rotation), and interacting with me in the classroom in a course I co-directed. The two undergraduates in the lab came after applying to and being accepted in MUSC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). A medical student was able to work in the lab full time also through an MUSC program called FLEX research. It’s been a real pleasure growing the lab and assembling such a good team. This was fostered by MUSC’s many training programs in place that attract talented individuals to the university.
Seek funding from wherever you can
Funding and grant writing is of course essential when setting up a new lab. I’ve received some external funding (outside MUSC), including some federal funding (NIH – National Institutes of Health). Yet, I have not obtained the grant that represents a true rite of passage for an independent investigator – the 5-year 1.25-million-dollar R01. My best advice for those seeking funding for a new lab is as follows:
1) Be prepared to start small
It is important to apply to grant opportunities of all sizes. For instance, universities have pilot grants tailored specifically for young investigators which give enough money to buy reagents to try out a new project. If successful, that preliminary data can be used to obtain a grant that will provide 10 to 100 times more funding than the pilot grant.
2) Be clear about what you want
Make your rationale and aims as crystal clear as possible. Don’t sacrifice clarity for perceived originality, as it might just make the idea more convoluted and hence less likely to be funded. Sometimes it’s better to just write simple ideas down without dressing them up too much. Do not be a prisoner of perfectionism.
3) Be willing to collaborate
Collaborations are fun and can be productive. They can give you a chance to expand your horizons and write grants with other professors with varying levels of experience and different styles of writing and planning experiments.
Inspire the future by being present
My goal is to have my lab become a hub of discovery, a cradle of innovation, and a training ground for current and future generations of immunologists. A place of scientific pleasure. For all of this to happen, I believe it is important to lead by example. I will never forget that when John Gurdon got the phone call announcing that he got a Nobel Prize almost ten years ago, he ended it by saying “I really have to go back to my PCR”. This is because, to this day, he still comes into the lab before everyone else and does experiments. I think it is important for students that the mentor, the principal investigator, is present and is invested in the science happening in the lab.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, my advisor Ana Urbano taught me how to culture cells and gave me the opportunity to co-write articles and grant applications. When I was a graduate student at Harvard, my PhD advisor Jack Strominger would come into the lab almost every day and ask me what I was doing that day, because, in his words, he used to be a microbiologist and hence still expected a new result every day. He also always said that it was not worth doing something unless it was fun. Chad Cowan, also my PhD advisor, met me every Friday during my rotation in the laboratory to talk about experiments. Qizhi Tang, one of my postdoc advisors at UCSF, taught me how to do DNA transfections and isolate T cells, while Jeff Bluestone, also my postdoc advisor, would sometimes take my notepad and write down additional controls into my experiments during our one-on-one meetings. During my undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral training, I got to play in the sandboxes of extraordinary and supportive scientists. I want my lab to become a sandbox that many future scientists will want to play in.
About the author
Dr Leonardo M.R. Ferreira is an Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and the Hollings Cancer Center. He studied biochemistry at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, before completing his PhD at Harvard University, USA, where he worked on transcriptional regulation in human pregnancy. A postdoctoral role later took him to the University of California San Francisco where he worked on next-generation regulatory T cell therapies for type 1 diabetes and organ transplant rejection.
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