Leverage

October 2, 2010

There is a very interesting discussion going on at Biochem Belle’s blog concerning who in a lab needs to “understand” a method in order for that method to be effectively deployed. Interestingly, the ridiculous claim is being made by some participants in the discussion that PIs need to have experience with a method in order for that method to become part of the expertise of the PI’s lab.

For example, Biochem Belle says:

Let’s say you’re a protein crystallographer–you’re not going to send someone off to another lab to learn how to do protein NMR and then be able to claim this as an expertise in your lab.

This is 100% totally wrong. You damn well can send a post-doc from your lab to a protein NMR lab to learn how to do protein NMR, and then come back to your lab and start doing protein NMR in your lab. And you as the PI need to learn from the post-doc what she is doing, how she does it, and how she interprets data. And you get feedback and gut checks from your colleagues who routinely do protein NMR. And you and your post-doc publish paper(s) with protein NMR data in them generated by your post-doc. And then, other trainees in your lab can learn from the post-doc and from you. Ultimately, without ever having done a single fucken protein NMR experiment in your life, you the PI have become an expert at protein NMR and have incorporated that expertise into the armamentarium of your lab.

I know that as a trainee who is chained to the bench and immersed in the technicalities of what you do, this sounds impossible. But this is because trainees lack the broad vision and perspective necessary to think boldly like this. How fucken boring do you think a lifetime career in science as a PI would be if you never incorporated new conceptual and technical approaches in your lab via the creative efforts of your trainees?

When I was a post-doc I did exactly this: with the collaborative help of another lab that already possessed appropriate expertise, I developed a project in a substantive scientific area using a model organism, neither of which had my post-doc mentor ever had any experience with. Now both this substantive scientific area and model organism are the heart of my post-doc mentor’s research program.

I also do this all the time in my own lab as PI, such as with my grad student who is learning a new model organism with help from a colleague’s lab. When new people join my lab, I will encourage some of them to also work on this other model organism, and it will become incorporated into my lab’s expertise. Another way to bring new expertise into your lab is to recruit post-docs with particular new expertise, and then leverage off of their talents to create a self-sustaining expertise in the culture of the lab. You can also send trainees to take intensive summer courses at places like Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory or MBL, and then they come back to your lab and develop the expertise there.

This all seems implausible and scary to trainees, but that is because of the very limited scope of their vision.

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7 Responses to “Leverage”

  1. biochembelle Says:

    I know very well that it’s possible to bring in new concepts and methods because I’ve seen PIs do it and do it quite successfully. I spend a considerable amount of time sitting in seminars and perusing the literature in areas that have little to nothing to do with what I work on, and I think about ways that approaches and concepts could be applicable to what I’m doing now or might be interested in doing in the future. I’m just saying that there are some methods (and they are probably a slim percentage and field dependent) that would be extraordinarily difficult to bring into a lab with no prior experience/expertise.

  2. GMP Says:

    Hehehe – for someone who only yesterday said they’re bored with their blog, you’ve sure been prolific!

    Btw, I agree completely with your description of the mechanisms by which a lab acquires new expertise. And indeed, the broader one’s vision within the field, the more easily one assimilates new concepts and techniques.

  3. Spiny Norman Says:

    PI’s who can’t or won’t do this generally become boring and stagnant, and they tend to have boring, stagnant labs.

  4. Namnezia Says:

    I think you have the argument backwards. My take on the discussion at BB’s was not that PIs need to be experts in a method in order to bring them in the lab, but rather once a new method is introduced in the lab (by say a new postdoc or student) the PI should become familiar enough with that method in order to: 1) ensure some continuity in case the one person leaves, b) help troubleshoot and understand what is and what isn’t possible with the technique, and learn to spot experimental artifacts c) know the technique’s limitations to aid in interpreting data, d) and if the trainee is newish ensure that he/she is not making some major mistake.

    So what if this new student with the new model organism in your lab is making some large rookie mistake? If you are not familiar with his methods how will you ever spot this? You colleague’s lab who is helping him does not have the vested interest in your research as you do, so is not as likely to be so vigilant.


  5. I don’t have the time to be in the lab anymore. If my trainees were only using techniques that I knew how to do, we would be fucked. Well, more fucked than we currently are, anyway.


  6. Nice post!

    Sometimes a technique is lost when a postdoc or student leaves, and this is down to poor oversight by the PI.

    I agree that a PI does not need to get his hands dirty in order to become an expert in a technique, however, a newer PI will still benefit from learning with or from a postdoc via a more hands-on approach.

  7. becca Says:

    Not implausible and scary, to imagine ourselves in the PI role doing this. All-too-plausible, and annoying as fucke, when our PIs who CAN’T do this effectively THINK they can. It’s not impossible to do well, but do you even REMEMBER the frustration of insisting you needed 2x the reagents/cost/time in order to do the proper controls for a technique your PI didn’t quite understand completely?


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