Running a successful research laboratory is not an easy task, but it can be daunting as a clinician when clinical and administrative responsibilities also are integral parts of the job. This could explain the worrisome trend that saw a dramatic reduction in the workforce of “physician-scientists” during the last 30 years as evidenced by the declining number of M.D.-only physician-scientists who have applied for NIH funding even when they themselves were recipients of mentored grants (KO8). So how can anyone manage to do it?
First, it is critical to understand the responsibilities of running and working in a research laboratory: The pursuit of the truth and when faced with extraordinary results the absolute need to provide extraordinary proof. This must be repeated often in laboratory meetings and anyone working in the research lab, especially those who are short-timers in the lab or new to research, must be reminded constantly of the fact that without truth there is simply no research. Even if the results of an experiment or series of experiments contradict the hypothesis, and financial interests are at stake, the results are always sacrosanct and cannot be undermined. The leader of the laboratory must ensure this is the case for every single research project going on in the laboratory. This notion which seems obvious is actually not a given but it must be enforced.
Second, research is a “team sport” where collegiality and collaboration are paramount to the success of research projects. The notion that high level research can be done alone is obsolete. It is therefore extremely important to establish meaningful links with investigators from other fields of medicine in order to improve the quality of the research.
Third, creating a research team based on respect, empowerment and independent thinking is another key to a successful research laboratory. The environment in the laboratory can make or break the research. People working in the lab from students to post-docs must be supported and encouraged to take risks in their thinking and reasoning, where challenging the status-quo is supported not frown upon. In the same manner, skepticism should not be rejected as it can be extremely valuable and is indeed a critical component of a well-functioning research laboratory. Members of the laboratory should also be held accountable where absolutely no one should ever try to cover up a mistake as it could have dramatic consequences for the entire laboratory and its reputation. Rather, they should feel secure enough to be transparent. Trust and integrity are essential.
They must also understand the mission of the research, the sort of ultimate goal such as for example “curing liver cancer”. Clear communication among the team members in the laboratory will guarantee success. As already stated, research is a team sport which means that personal issues should be put aside in favor of the common good of the laboratory. This can be accomplished by holding laboratory meetings frequently, at least weekly, where the research data and results can be discussed and more importantly critiqued. Interactions between members of the laboratory must be respectful and cordial. This can be difficult given the pressure to produce results that lead to publications in scientific journals, possibly research grants and of course career advancement. Again, the notion of collectivity must predominate. The success of one lab member reflects on the entire research laboratory in a positive light so in essence everyone benefits from any success within the lab. It allows the laboratory to keep growing and attract “stars in the making”.
In the end, running a research laboratory is not easy and is demanding given the pressure everyone is under but if these attributes anchored in common sense such as trust, integrity, empowerment, audacity and inquisitiveness, respect, encouragement and support, are present and reinforced, then the chances of running a successful research laboratory will be dramatically improved.