The past week was a big week for the juniorprof lab… We lucked into getting some very nice (and very expensive) hand-me-down equipment from a closing lab allowing us to save a good portion of the startup funds. We sent off a big grant for one of NIH’s new mechanisms and our first graduate student officially joined the lab. All of these things are important but I am especially stoked to have successfully recruited the grad student. Why?
I suppose it is obvious but all the equipment in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have motivated people to do cool science with the tools that you put in place. When I landed at the new job I had several primary goals. 1) Get the grants out, 2) get the equipment in place, 3) get my message out (giving talks within the university as often as possible and getting the lab website up and running) and 4) get some good people into the lab. Number 4 was my top priority but is listed last because I knew I needed to do 1-3 to make 4 happen.
It turns out that the website and, to a lesser extent, the talks were a great strategy to attract students to the lab. I’m in a different building from the rest of the Department and I’m not teaching yet so I needed a way to make sure the students knew who I was and what I was doing. Within two months of being here I had 2 students rotating in my lab and several of the prospective students (interviewees for the incoming class) were interested in working in my lab. I have been told by these students, on multiple occasions, that the website played a major role in getting them interested in our work. On the other hand, the talks haven’t been nearly as successful in recruiting students; however, they have instigated a number of opportunities for collaboration, some of which are current unfolding into some grant opportunities. Frankly, I expected these strategies to work out in exactly the opposite fashion (not sure why, but I did). Either way, I’ll take it.
I have been torn on going the postdoc or the grad student route in starting the lab and as realities have unfolded as the lab gets going it has become clear to me that there is no right choice here and a good mix is likely the best way to go. I brought a postdoc (actually more of a research scientist in terms of seniority) with me from my previous location and he has been doing his thing since he arrived. I hired a tech right off the bat and she is competently and efficiently keeping us all in line and doing the behind the scenes type work that is so vital to making a lab like mine an efficient (and fun) place. It looks like we will be bringing in another postdoc (through the website) very soon and I’m confident that he will be a strong contributor to our goals.
All of this is great, but I felt that something was missing from our developing lab culture. I, like all of us, was a grad student once, and unlike many others in the blogosphere, my grad student experience was a pure pleasure. Sure I was poor, but I had great mentors and was learning something new all the time (still am, but not in the same way). One of the reasons I chose to stay in academia was a desire to pass on my experience of grad student life to new trainees through my mentoring activities. Obviously I can do this with technicians and postdocs but there is something to be said for working with and mentoring young scientists when they first decide to take the plunge. So, it is with a great deal of excitement that I accepted my first PhD student into the lab yesterday. She has already demonstrated a good deal of ingenuity and technical ability and I look forward to helping to guide her on her path to being a biologist. Her desire to learn and her incredible curiosity will play a strong role in helping me create the type of lab culture that I would like to see develop.
Finally, after all of this was said and done, I discovered that she already has a fellowship which covers her tuition and salary for the duration of her PhD. Quite a bonus (and great for her — fellowships are important). Looks like someone is going to be going to some extra conferences with the savings (not me, of course)!