Getting Away from the Toxic Lab

The journal PLoS Computational Biology recently published an article Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. Written by a PI it was obviously aimed largely at those who might be just setting out with their own groups, but clearly any leader can benefit from thinking harder about group dynamics and how they, as leader, interact with everyone around them; and, just as importantly, how they encourage the rest of the team to interact with each other. Almost all of the ten points, and their broader explanations, I could wholeheartedly agree with. However there were a couple of sentences when things jarred with me.

First up, was a very curious clause

banning all forms of harassment and discrimination within the lab

This reads rather like banning cigarette-smoking in the lab: it’s OK as long as you do it outside. Banning is simply not the right word. I would have felt much happier with some phrase like

making it clear that harassment and discrimination are simply never tolerated, ever, anywhere.

‘Banning’ conveys entirely the wrong message. Harassment and discrimination should be outlawed with a clear message given that it is just as unacceptable down the pub or in a conference setting as in the lab and that any behaviour along these lines will have consequences.

Secondly, the whole piece read as if students and postdocs turned up and worked the hours they worked – these could (in the author’s view) be flexible times, they could choose to work a bit longer or shorter as long as they got the work done and, where appropriate it could be done from home – but there was no suggestion that there might actually be a motivation to do the work for joy, satisfaction and the sense of enquiry that drives so many scientists at every stage of their career. I felt it all came across as a bit grindstone. Does the PI not enjoy their work? Was that what we were meant to deduce? It is true that the further one gets from the bench (or whatever the equivalent is in computational biology), it is harder to get the buzz of discovering the new result, the unexpected twist in an experiment or an analysis, but that sense of discovery lurking around every corner ought to be a sensation that every student gets caught up with at some time or another during their project.

Instead, the only nod in the direction of the researcher who voluntarily wants to chase unicorns because it’s so damned exciting was

as PIs we should also respect those lab members who choose to work for long hours because they feel that they must do so to be more productive, to secure a position in science, or because they have the ambition or the desire to be so.

It’s not all about ambition and the next career stage. Pleasure and satisfaction should get a look in.

Finally, what wasn’t mentioned at all was ‘support’ – the nearest heading was ‘Promote the professional development of your lab members’, although there was a nod also to taking note when students were going through a tough personal time. Important though that undoubtedly is, offering support can cover this but also encouragement when things go scientifically awry, developing students’ resilience, pointing them in the direction of opportunities and helping them write their CVs.  Group leaders should be very aware of their role as mentors and/or sponsors – which of these is appropriate may depend on the career stage of the researcher under consideration. They need to think about the skills acquired beyond the bench/computer terminal/conference hall/paper-writing. They should be thinking how to encourage a shy student to speak up in group meetings and how to teach another student to tone down the sarcasm addressed to the less sparky.

They should – and this was touched on under the heading ‘Promote the well-being of your lab members’ – be aware that a student may become depressed either because their paper has just been torn to pieces by a referee or because their mother is seriously ill. It is important to create an environment in which the student can open up if they feel so inclined, but certainly one in which they can feel that there are those around who care and who would offer help if help was acceptable to them. These points were, I felt, insufficiently addressed in the PLoS Computational Biology article, and yet I feel are crucial to creating a healthy working environment.

Let me return to the point about assisting with CV writing so that I can shoehorn in a point of discussion I recently had with a colleague about gaps in CVs. Should a job applicant, for instance, just sweep any periods of relative unproductivity under the carpet i.e. not mention them at all, or does that lead to concerns that the person is indeed unproductive, rather than that they produced a baby, or looked after that seriously ill mother or had a bad spell of ME? I am firmly of the view that such declarations should be made, even if only in outline e.g. mentioning caring responsibilities or ill health. Too often otherwise a committee reading a job application (for instance) can say, but what happened in the 2 years after the PhD, there’s nothing to show for it? This must be a weak applicant – and then bin the application. Instead of thinking, goodness they’ve done so much on top of having premature twins (or whatever) and form a proper judgement.

When I first started working in the gender space 15 or so years ago, I was astonished to be told by various early career researchers that their head of department or some other adviser had told them to omit any mention of periods of maternity leave on their CVs. I promptly gave them the opposite advice. It seems such uncertainty over what to do persists. Perhaps there are still panels out there that look at forms that mention maternity, shudder and toss the application aside. We all know misogyny is going strong – think of the obnoxious trolling of Katie Bouman, the STEM woman of the moment in the eyes of the media – but what objectionable behaviour is ‘safe’ in the anonymity of Twitter or the Reddit pages does not really apply to an academic panel. I would hope there are enough decent people out there to turn on anybody who tries to behave like that regarding job applications. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but we have to keep hoping.

To return to my main theme, there are many things that can be done to ensure there isn’t a toxic atmosphere in the lab, where clones of the group leader thrive and everyone else is ignored or worse. Articles such as the PLoS one are helpful, but we should be aware of what is missing and keep working in our own spaces to be sure that future generations develop and prosper to the best of their abilities.

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2 Responses to Getting Away from the Toxic Lab

  1. Pingback: Formatting a CV for a faculty job application | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Steve Eichhorn says:

    Thanks for this post. I think you’ve rightly highlighted the lack of humanity in the guidance. If people had ever encountered directly the problems of their group they would and should consider their roles as mentors, not just on an academic level but also personally. Goodness knows I have had to help my students through a variety of issues (e.g. cancer, sexism, death, racism, bullying etc.). Academia needs to get itself into the mindset that it does not sit outside of society. It is very much part of society, and therefore subject to all the issues that come with that. I am reading the accounts of black women in academia at the moment (in two books – ‘Inside the Ivory Tower’ and ‘Presumed Incompetent’). Although dealing with a very particular intersection, much of the narrative speaks to a much wider range of diversity. Listening to that intersection therefore helps in raising the levels and understanding deeply embedded issues in laboratories, academic environments.

    On the CV I am in total agreement with you. There should instructions from HR departments to declare any career breaks and reasons why there may be gaps in the CV. I have on countless occasions tried to raise this during a shortlisting, but I have to confess that I probably have equally passed over a CV because it was not clear.

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