Saturday, October 11, 2014

What have I learned since being a PI?

Our lab started at Penn in January 2010, and the last several years been probably the most busy and action packed of my professional life. I still vividly remember the very beginning, when we had far more boxes than people. Actually, I guess that’s still the case. But lots of other stuff has changed, and the lab now feels like the bustling, fun place I had always hoped it would be. What I had not anticipated was how much I would change and learn, both as a scientist and as a person, since I started. Here are some musings and observations:

- I realized that as a group, scientists (meaning grad students, postdocs, PIs and all the other folks that make a lab go) are pretty lucky. They are by and large smart, talented, driven people who could succeed in many different walks of life. They happen to do academic science, but can probably do many other things successfully. It would be okay to do so. Also, staying in science is a privilege, not a right, one handed out with a lot more care than many people think.

- I stopped worrying as much about my career. Like, I need this paper to get this grant to get this job to get this… whatever. Partly, I’m just too tired and busy to do so. Partly, though, it’s also because I have realized just how lucky I am to do something I love, which I think is very rare in this world, especially for something as generally useless to the world at large as science. Not to say that I don’t want to get papers or grants or tenure or anything like that, nor is it something that I never think about, but just saying that the day to day makes me happy, for the most part.

- Life is long and can take scientists in many different directions. Academics have curious minds and will always be searching for new challenges, and doing what I'm doing now is just one of those challenges.

- I really want to try to do something important. I’ve now been in science just long enough now to have seen a few scientific fads come and go, and while I’m not much of a scholar of science history, I think that experience has helped me gain a somewhat better perspective on when we really learn something about the world. I also realize that I will probably fail to do something important, because it’s just really hard to do so. But I hope to have fun trying.

- Related to this last point: it’s hard to predict where your science will take you, whether it will lead to something important or not, either in your time or the next. But the quality of how you execute your science and the conclusions you draw is the one thing you can enforce. And in a way, it’s the only thing that matters.

- I learned to not dismiss crazy ideas, and allow flexibility to let them grow. Starting out, I thought that I was going to run this super tight ship, with every project subjected to rigorous risk/reward analysis. I still think that’s actually not a bad thing and that most people don’t do enough of that, but sometimes its good to just let things go. Some of the best things going in the lab come from projects that I didn’t think had much future at the time.

- It is hard to change fields. Once you’re going in a certain direction, it’s what everyone expects of you: your trainees, your colleagues, yourself. On top of this personal inertia, the system is also set up to prevent you from changing fields, because you rely on your social network for papers, grants, etc. Your only hope is to develop enough clout that people outside your field might give you the benefit of the doubt. Or to just be such a small fry that nobody really cares.

- The colleagues I admire most are the ones who don’t take things too seriously, especially themselves.

- I’ve learned a lot about how to do science over the last few years, and I’m a much better scientist for it. How do you frame a problem? What can you really claim based on this data? What are alternatives? Looking back at myself coming into this job, I feel like I was hopelessly naive in so many ways, and now at least somewhat less so. I owe this development almost entirely to the incredible people in my lab, who really helped push me to think harder about virtually everything, and to my excellent colleagues here at Penn.

- It’s cheesy, yes, but it’s very satisfying to make a difference in someone’s life. A view from the outside is that this is about reaching students in class. That doesn't work too good for me–I’m not a natural lecturer, and as such, I think my classroom teaching is just OK, despite a fair amount of effort. But I love working with people (graduate students, undergraduates, postdocs) in the lab, and for me, that’s how I feel like I make the most difference. I had one undergrad tell me that working in my lab was his single best experience at Penn. That was so awesome!

- Speaking of connecting with people, this blog has also been one of the most fun things I’ve done since becoming a PI.

- Got a lot to learn about leading a group, but I have learned one thing: personnel isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

- “Failing to reach a trainee” (i.e., someone flames out of the lab) happens to everyone. PI will be traumatized, trainee too. It sucks. And it has happened to virtually every PI I know. It’s just one of those things people tend not to talk about.

- Don’t give up on people. Or do? One school of thought preaches that people never change. Another school of thought is that there is some nugget of talent inside of everyone that is waiting to be nurtured. The truth is somewhere in between. I have now seen people who just can’t seem to figure it out no matter how much time gets put into them. I’ve seen others who seemed hopeless at first transform so utterly that it’s like talking with a different person by the end of their PhD. Personnel: completely maddening!

- For some aspects of running a group, there are clearly some right and wrong things you can do. But I feel like I've seen as many different paths to success as to failure. If you get conflicting advice, it probably means nobody really knows, so just trust your gut.

- Some people are out there to take advantage of you. Some people really want to help. Seek out the latter. Avoid the former. But you will encounter the former, so don’t let worrying or fuming about them take over your life because it will destroy you.

- Lots of stuff is broken. The temperature is off in your scope room. The bulb is out in the bathroom. The website for submitting grants was designed by masochists intent on making you cry up until the grant deadline. Some engineering undergraduates with good AP calc scores apparently don’t know what a derivative is. You can’t fix it all. Choose your battles.

Oh yeah, and one big thing I learned: setting up a lab is HARD WORK. One of the beautiful things about being young is thinking that you'll do it better yourself once you get the chance. Maybe. But I’ve developed a deep respect for anyone who has managed to set up a functioning, productive lab. Cheers.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Arjun! Your words always help me keep perspective and see the path a little down the road from where I am now.