Steering the ship

Oct 13 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I attended a seminar yesterday in which the speaker outlined an ecological problem for which there is certainly a mechanism that could be revealed through molecular biology. The speaker then made the comment that the answer would tie up a very nice story that the lab had been working on for nearly a decade, but the speaker was not comfortable with molecular biology, and therefore, their lab would not be pursuing this important piece of the puzzle.


20 responses so far

  • HennaHonu says:

    I'm one of the first people in my lab to do a lot of molecular work to finish one of our puzzles. It has been incredibly time consuming, difficult, and frustrating to get it to work. After 3 years, I barely have any data and we are still having problems. My PI has done a bit of molecular work before, mostly sequencing, and we have a post-doc with an entirely molecular background. Despite that, it has been difficult to make it a successful project.

    If it's something they can do with collaborators primarily, I think they should go for it. But I don't think adding molecular work to your labs repertoire should be a decision taken lightly.

  • Liz says:

    one word: collaboration

    I have seen first hand how things can end badly when a lab tries to chase a particular answer by jumping in way outside of the PI's field. It may be possible if you bring in a talented post-doc with the right expertise but it may be hard to attract such a person to your lab if you are outside of their field of interest.

    Finding a collaborating molecular biology lab would definitely be my appraoch. I wonder if the seminar speaker was actually fishing for one at the talk?

  • FSGrad says:

    It is probably time to collaborate (or coadvise some grad students with someone in the department who can help).

    Plus, not all molecular work is created equal -- some things seem to be far easier to pick up than others.

  • Natalie says:

    Sounds like a pretty blatant plea for collaboration to me. Whether it is worth pursuing depends on what techniques are on the table, and the resources available for side projects.

  • strigiformes says:

    I agree with HennaHonu; labs like these screams collaboration opportunities.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    How far, then, would people be willing to let a graduate student stray from the PI's Circle of Knowledge?

  • FSGrad says:

    As a grad student, I have strayed quite far from my PI in terms of system, though not too far in terms of questions. I am lucky enough to have a PI with very broad knowledge of the field who feels comfortable letting his students wander off out of his systems.

    Also, if a PI is not willing to let (and even push / encourage!) a student to learn techniques that one can only assume are going to be of increasing importance during the course of the student's career, that is doing the student a great disservice.

    Caveat, of course: a high-risk enterprise like that should maybe not be the sole basis of a dissertation, because no one wants their dissertation to not work.

  • PhysioProf says:

    That's pathetic and sad that a scientist would be so cowardly.

  • anonymous says:

    What everybody else said about collaboration. This has happened to me several times - where answers become molecular, or chemical, or one time in some modeling beyond my abilities. I just picked up the phone, and found people to work with, or made connections at meetings, or looked up an old friend.

  • odyssey says:

    I agree with PP - it's cowardly not to pursue the work that will tie things together just because you're "not comfortable" with it. Whether the PI finds a collaborator or has someone in their own lab try it, the work should be done.

    And. as a PI, once you have a research program established you should not be limiting the directions it takes by insisting people only use the techniques you're conversant with.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    This is precisely the type of lab that doesn't deserve to get their grant renewed. Jesus...I taught a high schooler basic cloning, subcloning and mutagenesis over a 6 week period this summer.

  • HennaHonu says:

    I don't think learning a new technique is the same as tackling molecular biology. There are entire degrees based on molecular biology. If you are doing things with well established detailed protocols then it is doable. However, if you are trying something with an organism that's never been studied, or otherwise making your own technique from scratch, you really need a collaborator. It is extremely difficult to troubleshoot when you don't have anyone who knows what they are doing. Doing "one thing" in molecular biology usually means a lot of new techniques and machines.

    I agree that it is a very useful thing for students to learn and that PIs shouldn't be limited by techniques, but I think there is a practical limit to how well a student can translate a PIs dream into a practical reality.

  • JGB says:

    Teaching basic molecular biology is easy, getting them to work to get all the way through a project is a different matter altogether. Those techniques though can be fraught with all kinds of silly reasons that "standard' techniques aren't working. So barring other context it seems fairly defensible to not try and stretch out the lab into an area far afield.

  • Allyson says:

    I'm a member of a molecular (DNA) lab which has in the past been the target of graduate students (and sometimes PIs) who want to "do the genetics" and add to their ecology projects. What everyone has been saying is right - you need to collaborate because lots of problems will come up. The other thing that often gets overlooked is the cost - many of these molecular "side projects" cost at least an order of magnitude more than the ecological main project. It is not something to assign to a graduate student as a main component.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I find the divide here between PIs and students to be very interesting. I fall on the "follow the questions" side of the fence, be that by collaboration or brute force. I wouldn't hesitate to put a student on the type of project that would take them well outside the expertise of the lab, provided that they had some formal or informal guidance. It would also push me to get up on the relevant lit as well, so that I'm not sending them into the darkness alone. Obviously cost has to be part of the equation, but that can be overcome in a realistic way.

  • Liz says:

    I think the PI/student divide results from the difference in risk vs. reward.

    For the PI (in a relatively well established and well funded lab), this might look like an exciting sub-project to explore a new area, make some new connections, tie up a story that has been ongoing in the lab, etc.

    For the student, this looks more like setting the scene for a boatload of troubleshooting and likely no one to throw ideas around with if the project falls far outside the norm of the lab, which to me hints at a potential miserable PhD.

    Not to say that it would certainly go badly but, after seeing it go badly for two friends of mine, I personally decided to never take on a project as a student that fell too far from the lab's expertise

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Liz, my lab is neither established or well funded in the sense you mean. I can also I'll afford to have a project crash and burn at my career stage. Planning any project as boom or bust is stupid and there need to be appropriate measures taken to ensure there are publishable results no matter what. I have, however, taken such a calculated risk already and while it did not come out as planned, the results have been tremendous.

  • Dr. O says:

    I was a student and postdoc who stepped out of the realm of my PIs expertise - way outside in one case - and it was completely rewarding. I don't understand why a PI would hold a student back for that reason, and I don't understand why a student (or postdoc) would WANT to be held back. So long as the support (collaborations/funding) are there, jumping out of the circle is a great way to learn and become independent, and move your career forward.

  • Natalie says:

    @Dr.O: I can empathize why a student would "want to be held back" - it requires a certain personality type to be the trailblazer with no backup. We have such a student in my lab (I'm a tech) right now- an ecology major who is tackling a molecular project with no luck. She's doing a technique I'm not familiar with, nor is her supervisor, nor is anyone else at our modest department. She is constantly on the phone with the major supplier to get troubleshooting tips and she seems frazzled.

    There should be a formula, something like: 0.2*(PI's knowledge of technique)+0.4*(accessibility to money)+0.25*(networking & publication benefits)+0.15*(proven student independence)

  • Lab Rockstar says:

    Sounds like code for "we're sick of this research question". Obviously there are molecular biologists who would love to help.

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