Wednesday, 15 May 2013

How to set up your first research laboratory

Building your lab

By the time John J. Curtin, PhD,
was ready to set up his own lab,
he was an old hand. During
graduate school, his mentor
turned to him for help setting up
his lab when he expanded into a
new space, then hired him to set
up another new lab when he
switched universities.
"I set up my own lab very much
the way I set up his," says Curtin,
now director of the Addiction
Research Lab and associate
psychology professor at the
University of Wisconsin–
Madison.
Most new researchers aren't so
lucky. And how to set up a lab
isn't something that grad school
curricula typically cover, say
Curtin and other researchers.
"I had to learn by asking around
when I showed up," says Jeffrey
M. Zacks, PhD, who directs the
Dynamic Cognition Lab and is
associate professor of
psychology and radiology at
Washington University in St.
Louis. But you're better off if
you start preparing even before
you start your job, say Zacks and
others. They urge beginning
scientists to carefully research
their equipment needs, be
assertive during negotiations
with would-be employers and
invest in whatever they need to
set themselves up for productive
careers.
Zacks, Curtin and other early
career psychologists offer more
specific advice:
Determine your needs. Ask your
mentor and other researchers in
your field for the equipment lists
they used to establish their own
labs, says Curtin. Or, start
assembling your own list by
paying close attention to the
day-to-day functioning of labs
you work in during grad school
or as a postdoc, advises Melissa J.
Glenn, PhD, director of the
neuroscience lab and an
assistant psychology professor
at Colby College in Waterville,
Maine. By noting the cost and
vendors of supplies, she says,
you'll be ready to put together a
detailed budget to use when
negotiating with would-be
employers. Keep in mind that the
psychology department or other
departments at the schools
you're interviewing with may
already have some of the
equipment you need, she adds.
Negotiate a start-up package. "A
generation ago, if you got a
computer and a desk, you were
sitting pretty," says Zacks, who
co-wrote a chapter on setting up
labs in "The Compleat Academic:
A Career Guide" (APA, 2003).
These days, he says, most
colleges and universities offer
new faculty start-up packages
that might include funds for
equipment and lab renovations,
access to fMRI scanners or
animal facilities, paid research
staff and other resources.
Packages vary by institution and
even within departments
depending on researchers'
needs, he says. "Some people say
to ask for the moon," says Glenn,
although this was advice she
didn't follow. "I felt really
uncomfortable with the idea of
asking for things I didn't need."
But do be assertive when it
comes to negotiating, she
recommends. She was able to
negotiate a package that
included a pricey microscopy
system by explaining it was a
long-term investment that would
expose students to state-of-the-
art equipment.
Don't skip the details.
Negotiations can be especially
tricky in medical settings, says
Kevin A. Hommel, PhD, director of
a treatment adherence research
lab at Cincinnati Children's
Hospital Medical Center and
assistant professor of pediatrics
at the University of Cincinnati
College of Medicine. That's
because start-up packages aren't
always the norm, and space is
extremely limited. "You might
have to come in with a grant," he
explains. Be sure to dig into the
details and get things in writing,
he recommends. If a position
requires you to spend half your
time seeing patients, for
example, note in the contract
exactly how many billable hours
you'll be expected to spend with
patients. In any setting, find out
how long the start-up package
lasts, if there are restrictions on
the funds and what happens to
money you don't use. Also, ask
what's available in terms of
technical support, such as on-
campus computer programmers,
support staff and grant
preparation assistance.
Get a head start. If possible,
establish your lab the summer
before your job officially begins
so you can start the year ready
to research, says Curtin. If you
can negotiate a summer salary—
which Curtin says is fairly easy
to do as part of your start-up
package negotiations—so much
the better. Even if you can't be
there, order your equipment as
soon as possible. "It can take two
months for stuff to arrive after
you order it," says Curtin. "That's
very frustrating when you're
excited to get started."
Don't hoard your funds. Early
career researchers are
sometimes tempted to hold off
on buying equipment or hiring
staff for fear that they'll use up
their money too soon, says
Zacks. "That's not smart
strategy," he emphasizes. "Failing
to be as research-productive as
you can only hurts your ability
to get that first or second grant."
Instead, use your start-up
package to invest in whatever
you need to launch your
research program.
Gather a great group. Choosing
the right lab personnel—even
volunteers—can be a challenge,
says Hommel, noting that
enthusiasm doesn't always
translate into good work. When
choosing a research assistant, he
supplemented his own judgment
by asking other faculty members
to interview candidates as well.
Because the ability to work well
with others is so important, he
now insists that anyone hoping
to work in his lab do group
interviews with lab members.
Retention is also important, says
Glenn. To keep the students
working in her lab, she
encourages them to "take
ownership of some of the
research" rather than merely
take on lists of tasks. "That way
they feel like researchers in a lab
rather than just workers," she
says. "I want them to feel they're
making a meaningful
contribution to the field."
Establish good habits. Taking
the time to set things up
properly in your first year will
serve you well in the future, says
Curtin. Set up a central server
rather than letting personnel
work off their own computers,
and you'll find you may save a
lot of time in the long run. And
develop a lab manual—whether
it's a computer file, Web site or
wiki system—with answers to
questions that come up
repeatedly. "The next time a
student or staff member comes
with a question," says Curtin,
"you just point them to the
manual."

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