What McDonald’s Taught me about Running a Lab
A couple of years ago, I read the book, The E-Myth Revisited and have felt that certain aspects of small business could be applied to a crystallography lab. The ideas in this book could be applied in a variety of settings, but this post will focus on a professor in academics.
The vision of McDonald’s and your lab maybe different. Well, maybe not, if that cure for malaria ever pans out, you too can add “Billions Served” and your office door.
What is the vision of your lab?
What do you want your lab to accomplish?
Think about it. Be succinct.
What do you need to do to achieve it?
All too often, the clear focus (the project that landed you the position) becomes muddled. In an effort to combat the “I need a paper/funding to get tenure,” you end up trying to do everything yourself. This feeling is justified in that you have the technical abilities to run every aspect of your lab and as the saying goes, “if you want it done right then do it yourself.”
The reason you have an academic position is largely due to your technical skills: purifying protein, running gels, data processing, publishing papers and presenting research.
However, now you have more responsibility than ever before and doing everything becomes overwhelming.
Maintain all your instruments, order all your supplies, purify all your protein, set up all those crystallization experiments, be on department committees, prepare for and teach classes, stay current on literature, review and write papers and of course write grants. You don’t scale. There are 24 hours in a day and if you want a life (ie. family, vacation, volunteer, hobby, etc.) you are going to need help from others.
Lucky, there are two groups to sell your vision too, graduate students and post docs.
So you teach them all the skills that you know and after a couple of years, the older students pass it on to the new students. If you can afford a post-doc then they too can answer questions that would otherwise come to you.
It works, but not well.
The technical skills will only take you so far, two additional components should be added: managing the system and a vision for the future.
The reason that it does not work well is it is like playing the telephone game. Instead a system should be put in place that helps to serve the vision of the lab. Research is largely about doing something novel, but many aspects are repeated over and over again, which led themselves to becoming a system.
For example, the operation of a HPLC can be largely systematized: what column should you use? what is the maximum pressure that the column can withstand? how do you clean the HPLC? what solutions are needed for each column? how to connect the column? what is the appropriate flow rate? what to do if air bubbles get on the column? who gets to use the column when? etc…
If a system were in place that addressed these questions then all of sudden, you have time to focus on your vision of the lab.
What is the role of each person in your lab/system? Here is one possibility:
New students (1-2 years of grad school)
Basic lab protocol (PPE, cleaning)
Able to understand manuals and protocols
Where everything is
How to make solutions
How to operate equipment (centrifuge, HPLC, set up crystallization trays, etc.)
Limited by how much work he or she can do
Older Students (3-12 years of grad school)
Schedule equipment usage (such as HPLC, autoclaving tips or incubators)
Learn interpretation of results
Assign tasks such as areas to be cleaned
Update technical manuals (very detailed, every aspect that you can think of including trouble shooting)
Learn new techniques, protocols, software and instrumentation
Assist in initial writing of papers and grants
Help review papers
Write papers, new technical and proof read manuals
Limited by how many people they are able to manage
Final editing of papers
Hire post docs – bring in graduate students
Committees and meetings
How do you develop a better system?
What is the vision of the future?
Where are the opportunities? (collaborations, funding)
Limited by how many people they are able to buy into their vision
This is just an example, if your vision includes you working in the lab because that is your passion then do it!
McDonald’s (Walmart, Starbucks, etc.) have developed a system that scales. I don’t believe that a crystallography lab can be run as hands off as McDonald’s, but I do believe there is room for improvement.
What do you think? How do you feel about the organization of your lab? Could it be improved?