Vol 7. Issue 5 / February 12, 2007

New Symposium Offers Insights into Scientific Leadership and Lab Management

By Mika Ono

It's not easy making the transition from postdoctoral fellow to principal investigator (PI). As a PI, suddenly knowing the science isn't enough. Also required is a new set of skills—hiring good people, keeping them motivated, resolving conflict in the lab, managing start-up funds… But where can aspiring scientific leaders find help with these critical skills?

Last week, for the first time 150 postdocs and junior faculty from institutions on San Diego's Torrey Pines mesa took advantage of a new resource—an intensive, two-day seminar addressing issues of scientific leadership and laboratory management.

"A group of us from Scripps, Burnham, Salk, and UCSD initiated the course," said Ryan Wheeler, manager of The Scripps Research Institute's Postdoctoral Services Office. "We wanted to provide a forum for young scientists to learn the cornerstones of leading innovative and productive research programs."

The event, modeled on a highly successful seminar developed by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was held on February 2 and 3 at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Featured in the first San Diego Lab Management Symposium were talks by junior faculty who had recently set up labs themselves, senior faculty who had worked their way up through the academic system, and institutional administrators who can act as resources for investigators. A roundtable discussion and happy hour also provided opportunities for networking.

"It's About the Science"

Richard Murphy, president and CEO of the Salk Institute, kicked off the two-day event with a keynote address that reviewed the needs of lab members and shared advice on leadership.

Referring to a 2005 Sigma Xi/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation study of the postdoctoral experience, titled "Doctors Without Orders," Murphy began his talk by outlining some facts about postdocs—one of the key constituencies in scientific labs. Postdocs now consist of a whole different demographic than in his time, Murphy noted, when postdoctoral training usually lasted only two years. Today, with young scientists sometimes spending up to six or seven years in postdoctoral positions, many more are married (now 69 percent) and have small children (now 34 percent).

In the national survey, while most postdocs expressed overall satisfaction, many also voiced a need for what Murphy called "comfort issues," such as retirement benefits, dental insurance, child care, and effective orientation. Postdocs also underlined the importance of career preparation, especially in an environment of scientific excitement and excellence.

What does this mean for current and aspiring PIs? First, Murphy urged PIs to recognize the importance of trainees, who will be invaluable to the progress of their research programs. "Forty-three percent of the papers in Science in 2005 had a first author who was a postdoc," he noted.

PIs can play a key role in orienting their lab members and explaining the rules of the road to new hires. "Your initial investment of time will pay off," Murphy asserted. Moreover, PIs hold "big responsibilities" for charting the direction of their research and setting the tone of the lab.

According to Murphy, PIs must act as thought leaders, taking the time to ask the important questions. "Never do an experiment just to get the next paper," he said, citing the fact that neurobiologist Torsten Weisel was awarded the Nobel Prize with only 23 papers—but 23 with a tremendously high impact.

Principal investigators must act as role models. "You have to be the one to say ['we're not ready to publish yet']," Murphy said. "You have to be the one who is the most candid, most demanding, and most driven by the truth." He also advised young PIs to seek out role models themselves, reaching out to someone they respect for help and advice.

PIs must be empathetic, helping everyone in the lab to develop their talents, without playing favorites. Murphy noted that the weakest member of a team needs as much help as the strongest, sometimes more. And PIs must be organized, as lab members tend to do better in an organized environment.

"It's about the science and [your lab members], not about you," said Murphy. "For most people, mentoring does not come easy, but it will pay off."

Additional advice, drawn from both from Murphy's own successes and failures, included:

  • For presentations, manuscript writing, and grant applications, "tell a story."
  • For managing home and work, "strive for a balanced life" (Murphy wishes he hadn't missed so much of the first five years of his son's life).
  • For navigating your institution, "respect the uniqueness and fragility of academia."

Closing a Gap

Over the rest of the symposium, participants continued to explore many of the topics Murphy raised in more depth.

Specific sessions focused on effective hiring strategies (in a panel that included Scripps Research Associate Professor Mari Manchester and Assistant Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire), time management (featuring Scripps Research Cell Biology Chair Sandra Schmid), communication and conflict (co-hosted by Scripps Research Vice President for Human Resources Judith Muñoz), and start-up budgets (in a panel that included Scripps Research Assistant Professor Kerri Mowen). Other sessions examined leadership styles, university structure and the tenure process, and mentoring.

Manchester, who was the faculty advisor for the symposium, noted the sense of excitement and positivity among participants throughout the event. "There is no group willing to work harder than the people that attended this course," she said, "so it was especially rewarding to see them take in the specifics of what to do and how to do it—like a curtain being pulled aside for them to see their future as a new PI."

The evaluation forms collected after the event included comments such as:

  • "This is a really excellent course; there was no exception. I got important information from all the sessions. The two-day format is just right and the price is affordable. I will absolutely recommend this course… It is closing a gap that wasn't really addressed otherwise."
  • "The speakers were really good. It is refreshing to be encouraged to think that you can have your own independent career."
  • "Very good. Much needed. Valuable information that I will be using next month in negotiating my position."
  • "Excellent. I am enlightened."

Sessions singled out as particularly helpful included Schmid's talk on time management. "It was absolutely brilliant for time management to be addressed from a woman's perspective," wrote one participant, "and that it addressed work and home management." Another popular session was the panel addressing start-up budgets. "We get so much scientific training during Ph.D. and postdoc years," said another participant, "not much on finance." Also noted was the session on staffing your lab, which included advice on interviewing, checking references, defining expectations for new employees, and trouble-shooting.

Adam Mullick, a participant as well as an organizer of the course as past president of the Scripps Research Society of Fellows, believes the symposium gave him many insights into the challenges and demands that lie ahead. "With this course, I feel more confident about what to expect with a junior faculty position," he said. "Such information will unquestionably help with my research pursuits."

In addition to Wheeler, Manchester, and Mullick, organizers of the symposium, who came together under the name of San Diego Postdoctoral Training Consortium, include: Jan Hill, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, The Scripps Research Institute; Huong Huynh, program coordinator of the Office of Postdoctoral and Graduate Training, Burnham Institute for Medical Research; Jennifer Oh, director of postdoctoral scholar affairs, Office of Research Affairs, University of California, San Diego; and Leanne Chukoskie, research associate, and Kurt Krummel, former research associate, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The organizers aim to offer the symposium annually or biannually. Some of the resources from the symposium, including recommended books and articles, will soon be available through the Scripps Research Postdoctoral Services Office. Contact Wheeler, at rwheeler@scripps.edu, for more information.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu












"For most people, mentoring does not come easy, but it will pay off."

—Richard Murphy



















"There is no group willing to work harder than the people that attended this course, so it was especially rewarding to see them take in the specifics of what to do and how to do it—like a curtain being pulled aside for them to see their future as a new PI."

—Mari Manchester