The flu & running a lab

Pregnancy, a toddler in kindergarten and perfect health don’t go very well together, I’ve noticed. I’ve caught a flu and it’s incredible how long it’s lasting. I’m hoping to be able to go back to the lab, seeing how today I am at least able to read and write some bits and pieces. It’s very frustrating, as I sent out a proposal the week before (fingers crossed for a beautiful stereomicroscope…) and wanted to spend the week in the lab, finishing some experiments that are still lacking for the manuscript I want to write soon. That’s all postponed by a week now. Oh well.

So, what to do instead then? I’ve made a plan for my technician who will start tomorrow. My very own technician. I’m very excited and very curious how it’s going to be! She will do some experiments, which I will hopefully be able to use as preliminary data for the grant I intend to write as soon as the manuscript is out. So that’s all set.

My student seems to be doing OK. Still got lots and lots to learn, but yeah, that’s why he’s a student or?? I asked him for example to send me a graph of an experiment, where he had to follow cells over a week. I know he wasn’t there on at least two days, but still numbers appeared in his graph? Have to explain you can’t just put in numbers that seem fitting in the curve, just because you weren’t there to measure the actual thing? Or the experiment, which I asked him to evaluate, to which he replied he couldn’t, because he doesn’t know which sample to compare with which. But he seems to be getting the hang of doing experiments, of handling samples, he just has a LOT to learn in terms of theory behind it. Hypothesis, testing, acquiring data, analysing data…

So, that leaves me some time to play around. Since I’ve started in October, I’ve not managed to get my name added to the Institute’s website. The German bureaucracy is horrendous. I decided to give up and just make my own website. I would like to recruit one or two bachelor or master students who’ll stay somewhere between half a year and a year. No one is going to apply though if I don’t exist! I’m sure they won’t be happy if I make my own website, because then they won’t be in control. That’s however their own mistake, as it wouldn’t have been necessary if they just added my name and a bit of text about my research to the Institute’s website.

I wrote a nice description for student projects, that say pretty much nothing. Pretty sad state of affairs. And why? Just because my ex-PI, the one who decided to repeat some of my experiments so they’re not mine anymore and publish without me, that one, he has the habit of sneaking around the internet all day, while his people write his applications/papers/licenses, to sniff out what others are working on and then beat them to it. Won’t fall into that trap! I considered adding some keywords, some random protein names, just to confuse him…


Feedback matters

Interestingly, I’ve come across a a fair number of people recently who don’t seem to be able to hand out a compliment when someone does something right. Even worse, during a recent social event a postdoc told me that it was really hard to tell whether his boss was happy with his work. He asked for more feedback, upon which his boss allegedly told him not to worry about it, that he would let him know if the guy did something wrong.

I mean, really?

All I’m writing here is personal opinion, but I am pretty sure you could find literature to support the statement that positive feedback is rather important too. Just let people know when you think they’re doing a good job, doesn’t hurt you and will make them happy! And happy employees are more productive employees…

If you have something negative to say, by all means, go ahead. I love getting comments because that is how you improve. The important thing here is how you do that. The golden rule is to first start a conversation on a positive note, say for example you really enjoyed the presentation. Then come in with whatever you want to comment on, for example tell them to give a bit more introduction next talk so people will be able to better understand it.

Make it constructive. Don’t just say “that talk was really rubbish”, but give them something to work with. Tell them how they can improve. I think some people here in the UK are really too polite, or for whatever reason too reluctant to really speak their mind, but even your boss should be open to your comments if you bring things up in a good way.

On the other hand: receiving feedback can be difficult at times too. Important thing here is to regard it as something positive. Apparently there is something you can do better next time! The person who gave you feedback is helping you grow as a person, which is good!

By the way – when talking about positive feedback. Do it. But keep it professional. On the work floor, hand out compliments about work related things. Keep the chatter about looks for the breaks – if at all.

Avoiding and resolving negative vibes

Our lab moved to the Institute last Fall. Actually, the entire floor did. Which of course means that everybody is looking for everything and nobody knows what goes where. This is slowly getting better.

Somehow, our lab managed to quickly gain the reputation of messy lab. Which I find kind of annoying, as I always try to be considerate and keep the communal areas clean. No matter how chaotic my bench and fridge spaces always are;  I keep the shared spaces tidy. There are a number of people in our lab though who see that differently…

Me, together with two colleagues, have been tidying up after them for a while. But at the time pointing that out to them – asking them if maybe they didn’t know where to get rid of certain chemicals and that’s why they didn’t do it? Turns out that that was too optimistic. They keep doing what they want whenever they want; leaving a trail of things for others to deal with.

In meantime, I’ve managed to get on pretty good speaking terms with all of the labs we share spaces with. And they somehow keep complaining to me about those colleagues. For a while, I apologised for them and kind of joined in the gossip how annoying behaviour X is. Last Tuesday, I somehow decided I’m fed up with this nonsense.

The main problem is, in my opinion, that we don’t have rules for cleaning our facilities. So nobody cleans anything. Which means we had some fungi growing in our sterile (!) workspace. A girl of one of the other labs sent an email she’s going to clean and looking for help; would be good if the person currently using the space could help. Turns out to be one from our lab, who goes there, collects his experiment, and takes off. Without offering to help. I again apologised for his behaviour, even though I guess I shouldn’t.

Our boss hates cleaning schedules, which is one of the reasons we don’t have one yet. The boss of the other lab, who also happens to be our bosses boss and our institute’s director, only said he will accommodate whatever the lab wants. Knowing that he will support his people, that they want a cleaning schedule and so do I, I sent out an email to them and to my lab to discuss things informally over a cup of coffee.

It was so embarrassing! The entire director’s lab turned up! And from my lab only one besides me… They just don’t care! But anyway, the others are happy I at least acknowledge the problem and took the initiative to solve it. We discussed what exactly the problems are and how we think we can solve them – without being able to change people (who of course did not attend this meeting…). Written up some minutes of the “meeting”. And guess what? Two days later, the rooms are already better.

Our lab manager sent me an email to say that this has been the most productive meeting so far (without disagreeing bosses…) and that he’s really happy to implement the changes we proposed. Especially because he also knows our own boss is against it, but knowing that we have the director’s support, our boss won’t complain. Hopefully, this will do our reputation some good and will give the others less cause to complain about us…

So yeah… What I basically want to say: if there’s something that’s annoying you, stop talking about it but try to change it. Don’t support the gossip but tackle the causes of the problems. Makes for a lot nicer environment 🙂 (although I still don’t know how to tackle the problem of the colleagues who think they’re living for themselves alone…)